Helvetica / Hustwit
August 2006
Posters for Helvetica
Documentary by Gary Hustwit

Gary Hustwit first contacted us towards the end of 2005; he would be visiting Amsterdam, and wanted to drop by at our studio to talk with us about doing some design work for Plexifilm, the DVD-label Gary is running. He knew of us through a mutual friend, Mark Owens (of Life of the Mind).
Gary came by, and we had a very pleasant afternoon, sharing hardcore anecdotes (in the '80s, Gary used to work for SST, a seminal US hardcore punk record label). During that meeting, Gary mentioned that he wanted to make a documentary about Helvetica: "a rock documentary, but about a typeface", that's how he described it. We didn't really thought much of it; little did we know that a year later, Gary would actually pull it off.

Anyway, Gary is a great guy, we had some regular e-mail contact, until, towards the end of 2006, Gary asked us to design a poster for Helvetica, his upcoming movie, to be released in 2007.
Actually, he asked us to design two posters. First of all, a poster that would be letterpress-printed, and sold in a limited edition, as a fundraiser for the film. And secondly, a more general poster, that would be offset-printed in an unlimited edition, to be used as actual promotion for the film.
For the limited edition letterpress poster, we were thinking about creating a poster that would be more like a personal statement about Helvetica. We always have been very intrigued by an old text by Leon Trotsky, 'The ABC of Materialist Dialectics' (1939), especially the part in which Trotsky explains why two entities are never the same, using the letter A as an example:

"I will here attempt to sketch the substance of the problem in a very concise form. The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that 'A' is equal to 'A'. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality, 'A' is not equal to 'A'. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens – they are quite different from each other.
But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities; for instance, a pound of sugar. This objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar – a more delicate scale always discloses a difference.
Again, one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true – all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves."

Here, Trotsky is arguing that the letter A is never equal to another letter A. Not even to itself. Loosely interpreted, we thought that this would be a good metaphor for how we see Helvetica; as something that might look the same, but always means something different, depending on the context. It's a sort of response to critics who are afraid of Helvetica's 'uniformity', while in reality, Helvetica is never uniform; it's a typeface that has the ability to change constantly, to express great differences, and to really refer to the notion of permanent transformation.

We thought it would be interesting to turn the poster into a type specimen for Helvetica, turning the 'ABC' in the title of Trotsky's text into a full alphabet, and printing the text in different weights of Helvetica (Bold, Medium, Roman, Light).
The poster (size A2) was letterpressed (which in this case doesn't mean that the poster was printed using separate metal or wooden letters; it simply means that the whole design was turned into a giant rubber stamp, and this stamp was then used to print on the paper). Shown below the poster (which appeared in a limited edition of 100 numbered copies):
Now we see this poster again, we see our great mistake. While designing, some of the letters must have fallen off the page: as you can see, the alphabet in the right column misses the letters 'g' and 'r'. The strange thing is that, around that time, nobody noticed it. Not us three, not Gary, not the printer. It's such a stupid mistake, and we are fully responsible for it. It shows how blind you can be while designing.
It's not that the letters 'g' and 'r' wouldn't have fit on the poster; in fact, we could have easily make it all fit, by composing the whole right column like this:

of Mate
rialist Dia

But it's too late now. We apologize to the people who bought this poster (and it is sold-out, so 100 persons did actually order the poster). One consolation though: in stamp collecting, it often are the stamps containing little mistakes that become most valuable. We hope this goes for posters as well.

Anyway. Next to the limited edition letterpress print described above, Gary also asked us to design a more general movie poster.
For this poster, our idea was to take the subject of typography, a subject not many people think of as cinemagenic, and turn this subject in a classic film poster. We were quite inspired by posters of the '60s and '70s, which featured catchy slogans such as "In space, no one can hear you scream – Alien", "As American as apple pie – Warren Beatty in The Parallax View", "Judge, jury and executioner – Charles Bronson in Death Wish". We were especially interested in sentences that were introducing, on the poster, a character from the movie: "Doyle is band news, but a good cop – The French Connection", "This is Benjamin; he's a little worried about his future – The Graduate".
In other words, we wanted to come up with a poster that would revolve around such a classic movie catchphrase, but we also wanted it to refer specifically to typography. That's when we came up with "Meet the cast". The word 'cast' obviously refers to a group of actors, but also to typecasting, the production of metal (usually lead or tin) type.

Shown below the poster, 27'' x 38.75'' (a standard movie poster size), offset-printed:
So much for the posters. Our only other involvement with the movie concerns the fact that we actually appeared in it, which is quite an awkward experience.

First of all, we want to say that we think Gary did a really good job. What we especially like about the movie is the way it is built-up. It's a movie that follows a clear dialectical structure: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
In the beginning of the movie, Gary shows designers like Crouwel and Vignelli, the old-school late-modernist designers (thesis); then he shows people like David Carson and Paula Scher, people who clearly rejected this particular brand of modernism (antithesis). And then he shows designers like Build, Norm and ourselves, people who somehow try to sublimate these two conflicting positions into a third position (synthesis). In other words, the movie follows a logic that is very similar to our own way of thinking.

So we like the movie a lot, although we're not exactly sure about our own part in it. Somehow, we didn't manage to explain, in a few clear lines, our thoughts about Helvetica. This is completely our own fault. Our thoughts about Helvetica are apparently too complicated (read: muddled) to verbally express it in just a few simple sentences.
Also, as you understand, we talked with Gary for many hours, and he could only use a few minutes. So what we say in the movie is only a very small part of our complete argument.
Next to that, we were incredibly tired on the day of filming. And we were also really busy, that's why we decided that only one of us would answer all the questions, so that the other two could continue working. Maybe that wasn't such a good decision; in retrospect, it would have been better if all three of us would have answered Gary's questions.

What's also awkward is the fact that we're suddenly so visible. Before the movie, people didn't know which faces belonged to Experimental Jetset, and we liked it that way. We never gave magazines our portraits, or group photos. We really liked this anonymity. The movie sort of destroyed that. Suddenly people have seen our faces. We really don't like that; in fact, we find it almost disturbing. We look so bad in the movie: our faces too big, our hair too long. And then our accent, the way we pronounce English: it's really terrible.
But as designers, we understand that the most important thing is the movie as a whole, and in the light of that, all this personal vanity stuff is completely unimportant. What counts is the result. And the result, the movie as a whole, is very good indeed.
And within the movie as a whole, our little part is not even that noticeable; our awkwardness is completely neutralized by the rest of the movie. What bugs us much more are the fragments floating around on YouTube, showing our part completely isolated from the rest of the movie. When people say they saw us on YouTube, we freeze. We feel just really embarrassed.

Anyway, as we already wrote, the stuff we say in the movie doesn't actually represent what we think about Helvetica to the full extent. We are just terrible talkers. People interested in our views about Helvetica should check out the many interviews we archived elsewhere on this site (for example the interview that was published in 2003 in Emigre magazine, see Helveticanism). But for the sake of completeness, here are the things we say in the movie:

"For us, modernism does have a more subversive side. We think that the whole image of modernism as something that is primarily concerned with functionalism, utilitarianism, that's something that emerged much later, that's a sort of a late-modernist thing. We think the early-modernist movements, like Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism, all had their more subversive sides and their more, how do you call it, dialectical sides, so they went against something. [cut]
It's not that we are against the experimentation that people like David Carson and Emigré and Fuse, that Neville Brody did. We think what we do is a sort of an extension of that. [cut]
All that hunting to the next typeface every time, it took a lot of energy, and we can still remember that, as students, we were really disappointed, because you wanted to use a certain typeface and then you saw somebody else had used it, and then you couldn't use it because you wanted to be original. And [jokingly] with Helvetica this whole problem is non-existent because everybody's using it [laughing]. [cut]
A lot of people see the way a young generation of designers uses a typeface such as Helvetica as a more superficial way, as a sort of appropriation of a style. We would very much disagree with that. All three of us grew up in the '70s in the Netherlands which was dominated by the last moments of late Modernism. For example, the city Danny was born in and grew up in, Rotterdam, had a logotype designed by Wim Crouwel; the stamps were designed by Crouwel, the telephone book was designed by Crouwel, the atlas that we used in school was designed by Crouwel. So for us, it is almost like a natural mother tongue, it's something really natural. It's not that we... We mean, a lot of people think you sort of study it from books and then copy it or something, but we would really say that it's almost in our blood. [cut]
It's also funny because a lot of people connect Helvetica with the dangers of globalization and standardization. We're not afraid for that quality at all, because we just know that everybody can put a twist on it. We think you can put as much nationality in the kerning of a typeface as in the typeface itself, and we think the way people like Crouwel use Helvetica is typically Dutch. That's why we're never really impressed with the argument that Helvetica is a sort of global monster."

And that concludes this chapter about Helvetica, the documentary. A couple of weeks later, we did design an invitation for the Dutch premiere of the film (see Helvetica / Kriterion), and in the beginning of 2008, we designed a limited edition packaging of the Blu-ray version of the film (see Helvetica / Blu-ray).

Related links: www.helveticafilm.com / www.plexifilm.com

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