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Helvetica: A typeface that says so much about who we are -- and who we want to be

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2008 - "Helvetica." The typeface! Coming soon to a theater near you ...

OK, so this documentary about a typeface offers no death-defying car chases, sloppy kisses or incredible special effects. (It is, after all, a sans serif.) But to his credit, filmmaker Gary Hustwit has produced a fascinating study of something that speaks to people daily, all over the globe: the Helvetica typeface.

And once you see this film, which is being screened Dec. 4 at the Missouri History Museum, you will begin noticing how much Helvetica is used in your world: in advertisements, commercial logos and even No Smoking signs.

The documentary details the history of the ubiquitous typeface created by Swiss designer Max Miedinger in 1957. Also included are interviews with top graphic designers worldwide, promising a special appeal to artists and designers. The film broadens its audience by focusing on Helvetica, answering the question, "What has Helvetica told you today?"

"It's on everything. Everybody has a love-hate relationship with Helvetica because it's so easy to use and versatile,'' said Eric Woods, founder of the Firecracker Press, an innovative St. Louis design studio that produces contemporary designs on antique letterpresses. Woods will participate in a panel discussion by local graphic designers after the free screening, part of the Community Cinema Series, co-sponsored by KETC-Channel 9 and the Missouri History Museum.

Before the screening, Woods will demonstrate printing on an 1890 Baltimore letterpress, the oldest in his shop. And to really get into the spirit of things, he has special-ordered Helvetica type produced by Germany's old Stemple Foundry.

Now, that's pretty cool -- even in Helvetica.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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