On Helvetica, by Andrew Hoyem, for the Los Angeles Times
How we love to celebrate anniversaries! Two years ago it was Albert Einstein, for the centenary of the Theory of Relativity. Last year it was Samuel Beckett’s hundredth birthday, and performances of Waiting for Godot abounded. In 2007 it is fifty years since the publication of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and it is fifty years since the introduction of a typeface called Helvetica. Amazing! A type of type, an alphabet of a certain style used for printing, is being celebrated for turning a half-century old with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a documentary film by Gary Hustwit, and lots of attention in the press.
When Jack Kerouac typed out his manuscript of On the Road, he wrote with a typewriter, using a roll of teletype paper, so that in his frenzy of inspiration he would not have to stop. The text of the “Scroll Version”, which differs from the novel as issued, will be published in this anniversary year.
Typewriters use raised steel letters on arms, much like lead type, that strike through an inked ribbon to leave the character printed on paper. Kerouac’s typewriter used a simplified face, letters with strokes of uniform thickness and uniform width, so that the narrow “i” took up the same space as the wide “M”. The letters had serifs, the horizontal strokes at the ends of letters that aid in character recognition and, incidentally, make the clumsy spacing of typewriter type somewhat less objectionable.
Fifty years ago, readers could tell the difference between a typewritten letter or manuscript and the type printed in books, magazines, and newspapers, because the letterforms in printing had strokes that varied from thin to thick and the individual letters varied in width from “i” to “M”. But beyond that, very few people would have noticed any differences among the printing types they read.
In 1957, when Helvetica was introduced, the general public took no notice. The type was not an original design. Max Miedinger (1910-1980), a freelance designer who had been an employee of the Haas Type Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland, was commissioned by its director Edouard Hoffman to redesign an earlier typeface called Haas Grotesk. It is a sans-serif font, that is, a type without expanding terminations to the strokes that establish the basic form of letters. You might think of sans-serif types as skeletons of letterforms, without flesh or clothing.
A German type named Akzidenz Grotesk was enjoying success in the 1950s, so Haas decided to develop a competitor. Miedinger redesigned a type that itself was a redesign, based on Scheltersche Grotesk from another typefoundry, Schelter & Giesecke in Leipzig. The “new” type was named Neue Haas Grotesk, not Helvetica. That name was attached in 1960 when Stempel and Linotype of Frankfurt had taken over the type and wanted a moniker that would have international appeal. Helvetica refers to Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland.
What works for road signs doesn’t necessarily work for On the Road or any extended reading. Billboards, headlines, advertisements, short statements, on paper or the glowing screen, can benefit from the stripped-down geometric effects of sans-serif types like Helvetica. But most of the words we read are set in type with serifs, long known to be far more pleasant to look at and quick to comprehend. Those few sans-serif types that are relatively readable in text, such as Gill Sans, have a shapeliness shared with classic faces, or swellings at the ends of strokes that are vestigial serifs, as in Zapf’s Optima. Even bones tend to have knobs at their ends.
Regardless, the hullabaloo about Helvetica is occasion to celebrate. The populace is considerably more cultivated about type than it was fifty years ago, and that is a good sign.
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