WE LOVE to celebrate anniversaries. Two years ago, it was the centenary of the theory of relativity, and Albert Einstein was the honoree. Last year it was Samuel Beckett's 100th birthday, and performances of "Waiting for Godot" abounded. In 2007, it's the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road" -- and the 50th anniversary of a typeface called Helvetica.
Amazing! A type of type, an alphabet of a certain style used for printing, is being celebrated for turning half a 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 media.
Going back to Gutenberg, if typefaces survived, they were mere adolescents at the age of 50. Classic faces still in use today, such as Caslon (English), and Bodoni (Italian), date to the 18th century, and Garamond (French) to the 16th century. Why should upstart Helvetica rate so many cakes and candles?
When Kerouac wrote "On the Road," he used a typewriter (and a roll of teletype paper, so that in his frenzy of inspiration he would not have to stop to put in and take out sheets of paper). Typewriters have raised metal letters on arms that strike through an inked ribbon to leave the characters printed on paper. Kerouac's typewriter used a simplified face, letterforms with lines of uniform thickness, and each letter had a uniform width, so that the narrow "i" took up the same space as the wide "M". The letters had serifs, 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."
In 1957, when Helvetica was introduced, the public took no notice. The type was based on an earlier design. Max Miedinger, a freelance designer who had been an employee of the Haas Type Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland, was commissioned to redesign a typeface called Haas Grotesk. It was already a stripped-down sans-serif font. (You might think of sans-serif typefaces as skeletons of letterforms, without flesh or clothing.)
Miedinger's redesign was first named Neue Haas Grotesk, not Helvetica. That name was attached in 1960, when the companies Stempel and Linotype of Frankfurt, Germany, took over the design and wanted a moniker that would have international appeal. Helvetica refers to Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland.
Swiss graphic design was then in its ascendancy -- spare, asymmetrical, based on grid systems, the style was rooted in Modernism, verging on Minimalism. Helvetica is the type most identified with the spread of Swiss style. You see it everywhere: on subway signs in New York, in logos for BMW and American Airlines. Apple installed it on its first computers in 1984; a knockoff called Arial was adopted by Microsoft.
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, mechanistic effect of types like Helvetica. But most of the words we read are set in type with serifs, 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 and swellings at the ends of strokes that are vestigial serifs, as Zapf's Optima. Even bones tend to have knobs at their ends.)
Type critic Andrew Crewdson has written that Helvetica is "intrinsically unremarkable. Helvetica appeared at the right time, was marketed effectively, became fashionable, was widely copied and adapted by various typesetting equipment manufacturers and, because of the ubiquity it acquired, fell into the role of the Western world's default sans-serif. Some typeface had to occupy this place, but there were no good reasons why it should have been Helvetica."
Another sans-serif type, also produced in 1957, is a better candidate: Univers, designed by Adrian Frutiger. It is is elegant by comparison.
Because most of us now use computers, we have become our own printers and publishers, and we have grown typographically literate. We are likely to be aware of Helvetica and Times New Roman, as names of types with very different characteristics. The Museum of Modern Art claims Helvetica to be "the official typeface of the 20th century," but I'd say it was Times, developed for the London newspaper in 1931.
Regardless, the hullabaloo about Helvetica is occasion to celebrate. The populace is considerably more cultivated about type than it was 50 years ago, and that is a good sign.