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Case Number 21739: Small Claims Court

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PBS // 2009 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // July 9th, 2011

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All Rise...

This documentary was made for viewers like Judge Mike Rubino.

The Charge

"The critics loved Moby Dick, the typesetters didn't."

The Case

Things change. Time progresses. Technology advances. Most aspects of our lives have to adapt to these things sooner or later, and the world of graphic design is no different. If anything, it's one of the few examples of a field that underwent a rapid shift in thinking in only a decade or so (depending on who you talk to). Inventions like the Macintosh computer, offset lithography, and vector graphics spelled doom in big, bold Comic Sans for old school tools like handcrafted, wood typefaces.

Typeface, a one-hour PBS documentary by Justine Nagan, explores a dying art form once responsible for America's most unique advertisements. The documentary situates itself at the wood type Mecca, the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Hamilton being the largest wood type manufacturer for quite some time, it now houses a massive museum collection in danger of extinction.

The documentary is less about the printing process (although it does cover some of that), and more about the rise and fall and current revival of wooden type and manual printing methods. Once all the rage in the 19th Century, Hamilton soon found itself outpaced by new printing methods and shifting industry trends. The museum, run by a staff of one (maybe a few others if you count the retirees), enjoys something like 20 visitors a month. Most of them are folks like me: graphic designers interested in the ways things were, prior to Adobe and Bezier pen tools.

For a designer, the story of Hamilton, the museum, and the folks that work there, is fascinating. Their day-to-day operations, the professors that visit there, and the print shops that still employ those techniques are all here to geek-out over. Typeface isn't, however, as accessible or as well put-together as something like Helvetica. The personal interest stuff is an afterthought, and I never felt a real connection to any of the "characters"—short of maybe the curator who doesn't like to make prints. There isn't very much of a story arc; Hamilton is in trouble, but its story of possible bankruptcy doesn't have a sense of urgency or doom. Instead, the documentary trudges forward, making things like the historical society board meetings merely a footnote in the warehouse's fate. There's not really a bigger picture here, and unlike feature-length design documentaries, this PBS film is a niche product.

Typeface isn't helped much by its technical shortcomings. The video has plenty of digital haze and grain. I understand it's public television, but something filmed in 2009 could have looked better than this. The stereo sound is adequate, at least, and there doesn't appear to be any problems with the DVD transfer itself. The disc contains a good bit of deleted scenes, covering a lot of the historical aspects of wood type (in other words, the stuff this dorky designer was looking for in the first place).

Graphic designers and students of art and printing would do well to check Typeface out. It's brief and, at the very least, is a good stepping stone to learning more about vintage typography. General audiences, however, should stick with more mainstream fair like Gary Hustwit's Helvetica and Objectified.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 79

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes


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