I am making a public appeal to the producers of Helvetica, the acclaimed documentary of which I wrote the best review, to live up to the standards of the film itself and not blow it when it comes to captioning and description.

Helvetica director Gary Hustwit assured me to my face, and later in E-mail, that we would discuss making the movie accessible properly. I am, after all, the expert. My interest in accessibility started with captioning, which also started my interest in typography; the two coevolved. (My typewriter camouflaged my age when, in my mid-teens, I wrote the Caption Center at WGBH and asked them why their w was taller than the other letters and why their quotation mark was merely two dots.)

I’m going to give Hustwit concrete – and free – advice, in public, and I’m also going to blow a few objections out of the water.

Snobbish and twee

If you think a documentary about a typeface shouldn’t be made accessible, explain to me why. You think deaf people aren’t interested in fonts? Theirs is a world that is all about writing. They’ve been putting up with shitty typography all their lives (often all-caps – everywhere from TTY displays to crappy captioning). Now they’ve all got pagers or CrackBerrys or iPhones or at least instant messaging. Even a big-D deaf person with a sign language as first language is immersed in the written word. And of course they bloody well know what Helvetica is. It’s right there on their computers.

This isn’t just about deaf people even if all you’ve ever heard about is captioning. There’s also the objection, offered somewhat in jest, that Helvetica really isn’t the kind of movie blind people would be interested in. (They really mean “should” or “have a right to.”) There is also the innocent question of how the hell we’d audio-describe it, with things whipping by so fast.

First things first: Low-vision people can read print, and they too know what Helvetica is, at least after you show it to them and give them the name. (At a camp for blind kids where I taught, the kids who insisted on setting fonts and colours were totally blind!) But fundamentally, it really isn’t up to you to decide in advance what kinds of films blind people should have access to. “We really think you’d be happier not watching this movie” is the height of snobbery.

It’s also dangerously twee. Helvetica showed that Helvetica can be used for nearly anything. It can withstand fervent denunciation and passionate defence. But your attitude implies that our delicate little jewel of a film really isn’t robust enough for anyone not blessed with your rarefied visual sensibility.

Put a wig on before you judge. Make this thing accessible and blind and low-vision people will actually understand the whole concept of Helvetica. The fact they cannot see it, or can’t see it well, is the reason to make it accessible. Audio-described museum tours are commonplace, and I would point out the ease with which many recognizable works of art were described in the madcap, hundred-mile-an-hour caper Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

And if you still don’t think this should be an accessible production, you must also believe that no one involved in typography and graphic design has any kind of hearing or visual impairment – nor does anyone else in the room while they’re watching the movie.

Let’s do this properly

The attitude thus far is that the entire process of accessibility can be contracted out to absolutely anyone, preferably the lowest bidder, and will all happen tickety-boo without adult supervision.


Captioners are, by and large, terrible. The last ten years have witnessed a race to the bottom in which high-end captioners like Captions, Inc. lost most of their contracts and even stalwarts like WGBH closed down entire offices or, as NCI did, fired their unionized staff.

Subtitlers are the most ideological people you’ve ever met. (Did you know that nobody can read more than 150 words a minute, preferably 130, and that all subtitles must be centred, and that subtitles may never be more than two lines long, one of which must be wider than the other? Did you also know they have no research backing up any of that bullshit? I should know; I maintain the bibliography.)

There’s only one truly competent audio describer, and that is WGBH. Still. And I can prove it, but you’d have to come over to my place so I can run you some tapes.

If you care enough to do the very least and you send your movie out to some gum-chewing community-college graduate at a postproduction house that charges a hundred bucks to slap a few titles together, the result will be shite. Helvetica is a beautifully realized film about a typeface that, pace Matthew Carter, cannot obviously be improved. Why we should even risk something other than the highest quality?

What’s gonna happen without adult supervision?

  • Assholes will use Arial Narrow.
  • You won’t get Line 21 captioning, which will make it difficult or impossible to sell to television networks. (And I want this movie to run at 9:00 on a Sunday night on CBC Television.) Yeah, you need both, and yeah, you can have both on an NTSC DVD.
  • Rampant misspellings. Suddenly the designers of Hellavatica will be Max Meatyger and Edward Hoffman. The origin of the font will be accidents.
  • Because you didn’t take enough care in specifying what you want, assholes will give you failed and pointless same-language subtitles and not captions (two lines only, bottom-centred, no non-speech information or speaker IDs, excessive editing, music ignored).

And other things will go wrong, like half-arsed caption divisions and an incorrect blinkrate. If they don’t know what that is (and they won’t), they shouldn’t be in this business.

What should really be happening: A checklist


  • No invariant bottom-centre positioning. All captions, irrespective of format (Line 21 or subpictures or other), must be individually positioned.
  • No scrollup.
  • Line 21 and subpictures required.
  • Take extravagant care with proper nouns. Look up every single one of them and provide documentation. Yes, that includes “Helvetica.”
  • Music, including instrumental music during interstitial segments, must be captioned. Staffnotes by themselves are not permitted. You must intelligently and succinctly describe the music.


  • English subtitles can be optionally and additionally provided as well as English captions. Captions and subtitles are two different things. A disc with English and German subtitles, as Helvetica is billed, will have four tracks of text (Line 21 English closed captions, subpicture English closed captions, subpicture English subtitles, subpicture German subtitles).
  • There is no requirement that one line be wider than another.
  • Don’t overedit. Near-verbatim transcription is absolutely necessary. There is no upper limit to reading speed, and that limit absolutely is not 130 or 150 wpm.
  • Yellow is preferable, especially considering the acres of whitespace illustrated in the film.

Captioning and subtitling

  • No limitation to only two lines.
  • I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but do not cover up onscreen type. Don’t do it at all with Chyrons identifying speakers, and be judicious with actual graphic-design pieces.
  • For subpictures:
    • No use of Helvetica, Arial, Univers, Swiss 721, or any grotesk typeface, which do not read well in subpictures. (What are you going to use instead? Well, we’re working on that, but try something like Officina. Yes, you have to buy a licence.)
    • Use real quotation marks and apostrophes, never neutral quotation marks or apostrophes. Get the characters right in locutions like the ’90s.
    • Use real italics only. Do not use a fake italic or a sloped roman. (This rules out Captions, Inc.’s in-house typeface.)
  • For Line 21: Blinkrate of 2, not 0, 4, or 1. Mixed-case only. Speaker IDs may be in upper case (except for mandatory lower-case characters, as the c in McDonald).
  • No spaces inside brackets or parentheses or before question marks or exclamation marks (or after inverted question marks or exclamation marks in Spanish).
  • Captioners and subtitlers must credit themselves by company name at the end of the picture early during closing credits.

How not to respond

All this will cost. Quality does.

Now would be a really bad time to adamantly barrel ahead with existing plans because you don’t like my tone or being told to spend an extra half a penny. They were never “plans” in the first place, but more importantly, you made a beautiful film. Let’s keep it that way.

I can and will review a captioned submaster (VHS or DVD); I guarantee I’ll find mistakes. I can do the same for a description script. Again, free of charge. Or I can just buy the disc when it comes out and publish a hundred screenshots of everything that went wrong for no good reason.

And we’re ‘on the Facebook’

Helvetica DVD: Sans serif, yes. Sans accessibility, no.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.08.14 13:05. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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