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Gary Hustwit

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English (second edition, revised 2005), the word “Grotesque” comes from the mid 16th century French word “crotesque”. This is confirmed by Le Robert Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française, by Alain Rey et al. The word derives from the Italian adjective grottesca, related to grotto, or cave. It was first used to designate a certain type of art found in ancient Roman basements that apparently hurt some sensibilities. The Oxford Dictionary gives the following two meanings to the word: first, “comically or repulsively ugly or distorted“. Second, “incongruous or inappropriate to a shocking degree”.

Nothing very positive.

Around 1835, an English type founder named William Thorowgood christened “grotesque” the first sans-serif typeface ever, called “7-line Pica Grotesque”. For those who might not know what “sans-serif” means, open LibreOffice Write or Microsoft Word and compare Arial and Times New Roman on the same document: the former is sans-serif, while the latter is serif. The word “serif” refers to the little squiggles (yes, that is the scientific word) that appear at the end of the letters, and which are not visible in, well, “sans” serif typefaces (“sans” meaning “without” in French). Ah, well, just compare both and you will see what I mean.

(See how I was able to use your pre-existing knowledge of modern, visual computing environments to my advantage? Explaining such a concept in 1957 would have been considerably harder. We live in admirable times, mostly thanks to the combined efforts of Microsoft and Apple in the early 1990s, who begat TrueType, thus making everyone an expert in typography during the past 35 years.)

Giving the “grotesque” moniker (or, sounding even stronger, the German equivalent “Grotesk”) to a whole family of typefaces clearly transpires the sentiment of the era towards these “lesser” forms. At the end of the 19th century, however, they started to become ubiquitous, and the Berthold Type Foundry of Berlin came up with one of the most popular ones of its age: “Akzidenz Grotesk”. (So, not only it was grotesque, it was also accidental. Talk about bad karma.)

In 1957, the Haas Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland decided that Akzidenz Grotesk deserved an upgrade, and they decided to name it “Neue Haas Grotesk”. But you know, Haas belonged to a German company named Stempel, which itself belonged to an American company named Linotype. The marketing team of Linotype was dismayed by the name (I am being polite here), and decided to rename it to, well, “Helvetica”, since it was created in Switzerland.

Imagine pulling down the “Font” menu in Microsoft Word and being greeted with “Neue Haas Grotesk”. Ugh. I would immediately choose Comic Sans instead.

(At the risk of alienating my Swiss readership, I find that in general the Swiss have many qualities, but naming things is not one of them. Think about what Phil Karlton said about computer science, but applied to pretty much every field of life.)

So all of this diatribe is just to tell you the story of how the typeface “Helvetica” came to be. And the movie of this month’s Vidéothèque, “Helvetica” by Gary Hustwit, tells precisely this story but in much more glorious detail (and without alienating any part of his viewership in the process).

This 80 minute documentary is surprisingly interesting, given that, well, it is a documentary about a typeface after all. It turns out that Helvetica (the typeface) is everywhere, and what this film does to you is to show it to you, so you can realize the sheer number of times you have looked at it without seeing it. Case in point: do you know what the logos of MetLife, BMW, Greyhound, Sears, Jeep, Toyota, Kawasaki, Target, Tupperware, Nestlé, Verizon, Parmalat, Lufthansa, JCPenney, Staples, AGFA, National, Panasonic, American Apparel, USPS, and the NASA Space Shuttle have in common? Exactly.

I will not spoil any more of the movie for you, but there are three quotes that will definitely appeal to the Swiss readership of this magazine (yes, precisely the one I just lost a few paragraphs ago).

Wim Crouwel at minute 11:33:

You can’t do better design with a computer, but you can speed up your work enormously.

Erik Spiekermann, who despises Helvetica (“it hasn’t got any rhythm!”) but who completely understands the country where it comes from, at minute 37:37:

The whole Swiss ideology, the guy who designed it, tried to make all the letters look the same. Hello? You know, that’s called an army, that’s not people.

(By the way, check out this history of typography by Erik Spiekermann, you will thank me later.)

Lars Müller, author of “Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface”, at minute 43:05:

The image of Helvetica as the corporate typeface made it so-called the typeface of capitalism, which I would actually reject, and say it’s the typeface of socialism, because it is available all over and it’s inviting dilettantes and amateurs and everybody to do typography, to create their own type design, and I think that’s a good thing.

After the release of this documentary in 2007, Gary Hustwit finished his “designer’s trilogy” of films with “Objectified” (2009), and “Urbanized” (2011). He later published a few more acclaimed documentaries, including “Rams” in 2018. This is not, I am afraid, a documentary about random access memory, but about Dieter Rams, the legendary designer of Braun in the 1960s and 1970s, author of “Ten Principles of Good Design” that, in the opinion of the author of these lines, should be applied to software design as well.

But there is more: another documentary from Gary Hustwit is opening as this article hits your browser window: “Eno”, a movie about English musician Brian Eno, built with generative AI… and literally changing every time you watch it. (One wonders how much it must cost in GPU dollars to achieve such a feat?) Definitely on my watch list.

Watch this month’s Vidéothèque movie, “Helvetica”, by Gary Hustwit, on Vimeo VOD and other platforms. I promise it is not a grotesque film, at all.

Cover snapshot chosen by the author.

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