Last week I watched a pretty fascinating documentary called Helvetica. I know what you’re thinking…”he watched a movie about a font?” Yes, I watched a movie about a font. But underneath the surface of the subject, this documentary, which was released in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of Helvetica’s debut, revealed a lot about the nature of graphic design and, to a lesser extent, advertising in the late 20th century through the dawn of the new millennium.

Whether you realize it or not, Helvetica is everywhere. Designed in 1957 in Switzerland (hence the name…Helvetica is the Latin word for Switzerland.), Helvetica was designed to be a “neutral” typeface for everybody. The idea was that Helvetica would be free of any particular national identity or style and that the universality of it would be clean and simple.

The American Airlines logo was designed in 1967 by Massimo Vignelli. It is the only major airline logo that has remained the same since that time.

The development of Helvetica as a font came about during (and as part of) the modernist movement in architecture and design. The designers of Helvetica saw it as the ultimate in clean, modern style. As the 1960s dawned, the trendsetters and iconoclasts in design and advertising began to employ Helvetica all over the place. Logos, letterheads, signage, print ads…you name it, and chances are Helvetica was somewhere in it. Major corporations and organizations like American Airlines, Coca-Cola, and the New York City Transit Authority chose to create logos, ads, and signage in Helvetica for its modernism and readability.

Massimo Vignelli and the late Bob Noorda designed the New York City Transit Authority in 1966, choosing Helvetica for its readability.

Fast forward to the end of the 1960s and the dawn of the 1970s. A new crop of young designers have taken hold of the graphic design world, and they see Helvetica as a sign of an antiquated, corrupt generation. Feeling burned by the Vietnam War and blistering changes in politics throughout the world, this new generation of designers view Helvetica as the official font of the people in power. (One designer in the documentary says that she purposely didn’t use Helvetica during that time because she felt like it represented the politicians she held responsible for Vietnam; she went on to take a predictable cheap shot saying that she equates it in 2007 with the Iraq War.)

QuikTrip’s logo is another one that employs Helvetica.

In the 1980s, the postmodern movement in both architecture and graphic design dawned, and many designers shied away from a font seen as plain. Today, Helvetica has its passionate admirers and vehement detractors. Some designers, especially in Europe, will work with no other font, while others refuse to use it at all. Helvetica is a default font in Apple programs like Pages (and you’ll see it on your iPod if it’s new enough); the sickly Arial font on PC is the closest approximation.

Personally, I come down somewhere in the middle. I can see why people like the clean, modern look of Helvetica, but at the same time, there are plenty of cool fonts to choose from, and none of them are as ubiquitous as Helvetica.

Helvetica the movie was fascinating because it revealed just how the attitude and politics of graphic design has changed as much as the style of design. As crazy as it sounds, one font did spark a revolution in design, not to mention the reactions and ripples that have followed in the past 50-plus years. And again, as crazy as it sounds, Helvetica was a documentary worth watching, especially for anyone who is as intrigued by graphic design as I am.

Target uses Helvetica in its logo as well as in much of its advertising.