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Face Off: The PBS Documentary Helvetica

What do American Airlines, the New York subway system, ARCO, your tax forms and the TV show The Office have in common? The smoothly authoritative, calming yet assertive Helvetica typeface, a mid–20th century revolution in efficient, declarative lettering that has become so ubiquitous, it prompts one interviewee in the engaging documentary Helvetica — airing Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens — to declare, “It seems like air. It seems like gravity.” But for more radical-minded designers who, starting in the ‘70s, looked at the stripped-down sans-serif creation of Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman in 1957 as a symbol of corporate-speak and all things unartistic, Helvetica was a text deadener — “like going to the McDonald’s instead of thinking about food,” as typophile Eric Spiekerman declares snidely to filmmaker Gary Hustwit’s camera. Another anti-Helvetica designer, Paula Scher, calls herself “morally opposed” to the font, likening it to the people responsible for sponsoring war. As you can imagine, Helvetica is a movie not just about a typeface — in that respect it avoids getting too wonky about design terminology — but about ways of seeing the world, which is something we’re all more attuned to in our media-slathered era. And though you may never have taken two seconds to ponder what we believe about objects, people and our surroundings because of the type used to communicate them, Helvetica will. Just don’t ask me what “horizontal slicing of terminals” means.