The 11 Best Documentaries on Typography (ranked)

I see typography documentaries sprinkled into articles on Top Design Documentaries. But I haven’t found any good lists of docs PURELY on typography/typefaces/fonts et all.

So I put this together. Enjoy!

1) Jonathan Hoefler: Typeface Design (Abstract: The Art of Design

Mastery. Typography. Evolution.

“Abstract’s” episode on Jonathan Hoefler – it’s “Helvetica meets Modernism”. Hoefler, renowned typeface designer, unveils his art.

This doc (Season 2, Episode 6) reveals the thought behind each letterform.

Directed by Morgan Neville (of “20 Feet from Stardom”), the episode dives into the nuance of type.

Hoefler’s work? Everywhere. The New York Times, Apple, even Obama’s campaign. His obsession: perfection down to the tiniest curve. The episode reveals the sheer impact of type on our daily lives.

The highlight? Discovering how font choices can stir emotions, evoke trust, or ignite nostalgia.

Watch Abstract: The Art of Design | Jonathan Hoefleron Netflix (S2 E6) at https://www.netflix.com/watch/80237098

2) Paul Scher: Graphic Design (Abstract: The Art of Design)

“Abstract” unveils Paula Scher – think “Jackson Pollock meets Graphic Design”. In Season 1, Episode 6, we navigate the vibrant maze of Scher’s iconic designs. Directed (again) by the talented Morgan Neville this doc lets you in on Scher’s artistry.

She’s a titan in typography and has been at Pentagram since 1991.

You’ve seen her work: Citibank, Tiffany, Coca-Cola, even Shake Shack. Her designs? Everywhere. From the Museum of Modern Art to Microsoft. Her iconic designs – like The Public Theater’s identity – mix pop culture and fine art.

We’re led through her process, her rebellion against design norms, and her embrace of the accidental.

Awards? Plenty… including the AIGA Medal and the first woman to win the Type Directors Club Medal. Exhibitions? Worldwide.

Watch Abstract: The Art of Design | Paula Scher on Netflix (S1 E6) at https://www.netflix.com/watch/80093802 or for free on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCfBYE97rFk (same link as the video above).

3) Linotype: The Film

Gears. Letters. Revolution.

“Linotype: The Film” is a journey, reminiscent of “The Imitation Game” colliding with the world of print.

This doc unravels the tale of the Linotype machine – often dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Directed by Doug Wilson, we delve deep into a bygone era of typesetting.

The Linotype? A marvel. It transformed newspapers and, thus, communication itself. From its intricate mechanics to its cultural impact, Wilson charts its rise and fall.

Footage showcases old-world craftsmen, their fingers dancing on the machine’s keys. It’s mesmerizing, nostalgic.

Watch Linotype: The Film for free on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDM-EbDCiQg

4) Helvetica

Clean. Bold. Ubiquitous.

“Helvetica” — This doc dives deep into a typeface that’s everywhere, yet often unnoticed. Directed by Gary Hustwit, it’s an exploration of a global typography phenomenon. (it’s by far the #1 font used).

Helvetica’s minimalist allure is undeniable.

Brands that use Helvetica:

  • American Airlines: Until 2013, their logo prominently featured Helvetica.
  • Toyota: Used for its branding and promotional materials.
  • Jeep: Incorporates the font in its logo and branding.
  • Microsoft: Employs Helvetica in various marketing materials and user interfaces.
  • BMW: Uses Helvetica for its promotional content.
  • 3M: Recognizable in its logo.
  • The North Face: Applies Helvetica to its logo and branding.
  • Panasonic: Features Helvetica in its logo.
  • Sears: The Helvetica typeface is used in its logo and branding.
  • Nestlé: Uses Helvetica for some of its branding.


Other examples of Helvetica’s presence:

  • Public Transport Systems: Many, like New York’s MTA system, utilize Helvetica for signage.
  • Government Communications: Helvetica is often used for official government forms and communication due to its clarity.
  • Software & Apps: Software like Microsoft Word and design apps often include Helvetica as a default font.
  • Print Media: Many newspapers and magazines use Helvetica due to its neutral and clean appearance.

The film presents design legends discussing and debating Helvetica’s influence. Love it or hate it, its mark on modern design is irrefutable.

Key scenes highlight its 1957 inception and its resurgence in digital age branding.

Watch Helvetica for free (with library card or student ID) on Kanopy at https://www.kanopy.com/en/product/helvetica-2 or rent it on Amazon and Apple (see options here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/helvetica).

5) Pressing On: The Letterpress Film

“Pressing On: The Letterpress Film” is akin to diving into a treasured old book where “Cinema Paradiso” marries print history.

Directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, it’s not just about machinery, but the souls passionately entwined with it.

We meet figures like Dave Peat, a collector preserving the history, and Jim Daggs, imparting the craft to a new generation. Their stories intertwine with the behemoth presses, such as the Vandercook and Heidelberg.

Key moments: Watching the painstaking process of setting type, line by line, and the thrill of the first print. There’s an almost “meditative” reverence to it.

Amidst today’s digital age, the doc poignantly poses a question – what are we losing in our pursuit of efficiency?

Watch Pressing On: The Letterpress Film for free on Kanopy (with a library card or student ID) at https://www.kanopy.com/en/product/pressing or (with ads) at Freevee, Peacock, Roku Channel, Tubi, VUDU, PlutoTV. You can also rent it on Amazon and Apple TV. Check here for the options: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/pressing-on-the-letterpress-film

6) Sign Painters

“Sign Painters” feels like “Whiplash” meeting the vibrant lanes of urban artistry. Directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, this doc dives into the often-overlooked art of sign painting, an industry overshadowed by digital printing.

While this doc is centered on Sign Painting, typography plays a key role.

The craftsmen? True artists. From detailed lettering to intricate designs, their work brings color to every street corner.

The artists? Typeface visionaries. Their hand-painted fonts, from bold block letters to whimsical scripts, narrate urban tales.

We meet passionate painters, young and old, from the legendary Mike Meyer to the driven Colleen Harrington, each with a tale to tell.

A standout moment? The painstakingly slow birth of each letter, emphasizing the nuances that digital fonts often overlook. In a world dominated by digital design, this film revives the importance of hand-lettering and its irreplaceable charm.

Highlights include the meticulous process of hand-lettering, the challenges of modern technology, and the revival of this age-old craft in the contemporary world.

Watch Sign Painters on Peacock (with ads) or rent it on Apple TV, Amazon or Vudu (details are here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/sign-painters

7) Typeface

Grain. Chisel. Echoes.

In 2009’s “Typeface,” the lens zeroes in on the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum – a bastion of print’s bygone era.

Directed by Justine Nagan, it’s not just about wooden fonts but the souls intertwined with them.

The museum, set in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, houses a vast collection. Over 1.5 million pieces of wood type, some dating back to the 19th century, await discovery.

The doc captures artisans at work, where each chisel stroke breathes life into type. Bill Moran, the museum’s artistic director, and Jim Moran, the printer/archivist, become central figures, bridging the past with the present.

There’s a particularly poignant scene where older craftsmen share tales, their fingers tracing fonts they’ve carved decades ago.

The contrast is striking when younger designers, fueled by this legacy, merge digital techniques with traditional printing.

Watch Typeface on OVID (requires subscription) at https://www.ovid.tv/videos/typeface. It looks like like 37+ minutes of the 59 min. doc is available for free on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zZcUG3hSaw

8) Upside Down, Left To Right: A Letterpress Film

Tactile. Tradition. Transition.

“Upside Down, Left to Right: A Letterpress Film” by Danny Cooke offers an intimate look into the enduring art of letterpress printing. Set within the University of Plymouth’s print workshop, the atmosphere hums with history, echoing every press and turn of the machines.

Paul Collier, our guide, delves deep into the heart of this craft. His hands, stained with ink, arrange type with precision, showcasing years of mastery. We witness the fine balance between applying just the right pressure and the amount of ink to achieve that perfect print.

The juxtaposition is evident as students navigate this age-old technique. Their learning curve, captured in real-time, underscores the intricacies and demands of the craft.

Watch Upside Down for free on YouTube by clicking the video above or click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6RqWe1bFpM

9) 83M80 — Letterpress in the Digital Era

83M80 — Letterpress in the Digital Era from Gonzalo Hergueta on Vimeo.

“83M80 — Letterpress in the Digital Era” profiles a graphic designer, letterpress guru, graphic designer and graffiti artist.

The pièce de résistance? The film’s unique typeface. Inspired by the classic “Bembo”, it’s brought to life by veteran letterpress artist, Earl Kallemeyn. The filmmakers brilliantly blend the past and future, even showcasing this synergy in a contemporary exhibition.

Watch it for free on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/130495262

10) Bass on Titles

This documentary unfurls the canvas of Saul Bass, the mastermind who redefined film title sequences.

Saul’s genius? Making typography a storyteller. Films like “Psycho” and “North by Northwest” bear his unmistakable mark, where letters don’t just spell—they move, they emote.

His brilliance? Saul Bass took typography beyond mere text.

In “Anatomy of a Murder,” the disjointed, scattered type encapsulates the film’s theme of disarray and moral ambiguity.

In “Vertigo,” the spiraling typeface visually ensnares viewers, echoing the film’s dizzying narrative.

And with “Psycho,” stark, linear typography coupled with abrupt transitions set the unsettling tone even before the story unfolds.

The documentary delves deep, unveiling how Bass masterfully manipulated font styles, sizes, and placements, ensuring that even before a film’s first scene, a mood was set, a story hinted at, all through the magic of typography.

Watch Bass on Titles for free on YouTube by clicking the video above or clicking here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLvXAokZUJ4

11) Il fiume ha sempre ragione (The river is always right)

“Il fiume ha sempre ragione” (“the River is always irght”) meanders through Fabriano, Italy’s revered paper-making heartland.

Directed by Silvio Soldini, this film is a visual sonnet, deeply rooted in the tactile world of paper and the artisans devoted to its craft.

The town of Fabriano, with a legacy spanning centuries, becomes a silent protagonist.

We’re given a front-row seat to its ancient mills, the raw materials like cotton rags and pure water from surrounding hills, and the meticulous process that transforms them into pristine sheets.

One captivating scene reveals the “vatman’s” dance – a rhythmic hand maneuvering of the mold and deckle, lifting the paper pulp from water, capturing the very essence of the craft.

Luigi Mecella, a master in this art, offers profound insights, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between the river, its rhythm, and the paper birthed from it.

Another highlight? Explorations into watermarking, a signature of Fabriano paper/

I can’t find anywhere to stream “Il fiume ha sempre ragione”. Please ping me if you know of a link.

Thanks for reading!

-Rob Kelly