It’s only been since fairly recently that you could convince the casual movie-viewer that they should watch, and may thoroughly enjoy, a film about typography. Gary Hustwit proved that the minutiae of type could have mass appeal in his 2007 documentary Helvetica. And in 2012, the production company Dress Code made their mark with an online short starring Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones—a crisply shot, jauntily scored film in which the pair talk about the type foundry they used to run together, the height of the lower case ‘t,’ square characters, weights, width, capitals, and italics.
By the time Font Men was selected to screen at South by South West in 2014, Dress Code’s Dan Covert and Andre Andreev had begun to make a name for themselves as filmmakers who could translate the mechanics of graphic design into a cinematic story. “[Font Men] has a certain precision,” says Andreev. “Everything is cut to a point; the story is very tight. There’s an economy to the film in the same way there is an economy to the way letterforms are designed.”
Since the company launched over a decade ago, Dress Code has made more than 50 short films about graphic design, profiling everyone from David Carson to Susan Kare to Milton Glaser (many of them commissioned by AIGA). Covert and Andreev are both graphic designers by training, which may account for their success in telling stories of the craft in a way that’s both obsessive and appealing beyond industry walls. The pair’s attention to detail makes their films especially fun to watch for those as into design as they are: each film’s style and format is informed by the film’s subject and their singular aesthetic.
Covert and Andreev met at California College of the Arts in the early 2000s, where they were both getting a bachelors in graphic design. “At the time there was a lot interesting web design going on, and a major part of the web language and technology was Flash,” says Andreev. Flash’s rudimentary animation tools paved the way for early days of motion graphics, which led the designers to an interest in filmmaking. “Graphic design, and in particular book design, had already introduced us to sequential art,” Andreev says. It was an easy segue into video work and animation from there.
After graduating, Covert moved to New York, followed by Andreev, and both landed positions at MTV, working in print and motion graphics respectively. It was the mid-2000s, but MTV still had some cultural capital, and a workplace atmosphere that encouraged experimentation without too much budgetary restraint. “It was fantastic, but we also knew it was seductive,” says Andreev. He and Covert set a two-year cap to working there to avoid getting sucked into staying. In the interim, they saved money, built a portfolio of video work, got incorporated, and looked around for offices. In 2007, they opened up shop.
The bulk of Dress Code’s graphic design work comes from AIGA, which became one of its earliest clients with videos for John Maeda, Steve Frykholm, and Jennifer Morla for the 2010 AIGA Medal ceremony. Since then, the production company has expanded into animation and short documentaries on other subjects, though design remains a bedrock of their work. An expanded version of David Carson’s Medalist video remains one of its most popular films, and this year, Dress Code’s short about Milton Glaser went to the Tribeca Film Festival.
Though Carson shares a job title with Hoefler and Frere-Jones of Font Men, their approaches couldn’t be more different. The former, an irreverent, postmodernist designer and former art director for Ray Gun, is best known for splicing up type to the point of illegibility—forget precision. Dress Code’s Carson film, likewise, is a bit more meandering than its other films. It’s not chronological, or even linear; there are underwater shots and sweeping aerial views of Carson surfing. “It’s a collage of a film that represents his work, which is messy and weird and haphazard, but very much him,” says Andreev.
One of Dress Code’s recent films on Glaser, on the other hand, is a veritable love letter to New York City. The designer for New York magazine, the “I <3 NY” logo, the identity for Brooklyn Brewery, and so many others, provides a running narration of his work and his life, all of which takes place in the city Glaser calls “paradise.” Jazz music, slow shots of classic New York scenes, rich, saturated visuals all embody the nostalgia coloring Glaser’s words.
“To me this film is rooted in romance for the city but also for design,” says Andreev. “[Milton’s] defined the pinnacle of design and also a certain lifestyle. He’s romance personified as a designer; the role of the designer in its most classic form.”