Happy Birthday Helvetica

By Beacon Staff

While cleaning out some boxes a while back, I happened to come across some papers I wrote (by hand) in high school. I guess they were rough drafts considering they were not in my regular slightly larger type with 2.3-spaced paragraphs – papers were always supposed to be double spaced but if you manually typed in the 2.3, the difference was hardly noticeable but always gave me an extra half page without the effort.

My curiosity in finding these relics of a bygone era was not in the subject of my paper: it was my handwriting.

Why had I chosen to write page after page in all capitals? I had no real recollection of doing it, yet here I found essay after essay written in all capital letters. It must have taken an eternity.

Something else I found of interest was one full page in a notebook covered with my signature. I guess I was trying to reinvent myself, or maybe I was trying to create myself, and find an identity in the different ways I could curl, flip or block my name.

I would guess that any of us revisiting our formative years in writing would find that handwriting and signatures in some ways defined us. Thinking back, I tried to take on attributes of my friend’s writing that I found attractive. I even had one philosophy final returned to me (a Blue Book in my beginning ethics at UM) with large red, almost unreadable, scribbles that read, “Did you know you’re ‘Fs’ look too much like ‘Ps’.” I thought, not only do my Fs not look like Ps, they are classy, sophisticated, and adult.
The professor should have been honored to receive the glory of my penmanship.

I also remember my father’s handwriting. If it was a note in my lunch, a birthday card or signing my detention slips, his penmanship was always brilliant. He used a kind of block print with flourishes of spontaneous cursive. It is a beautiful looking writing that seems to resemble his personality eloquently. My mother’s is similar but she usually writes on a strait edge so that the bottom of each letter, word and sentence is perfectly linear. It’s wonderful.

As fun as all of this is, there are few of us that can claim that we have actually invented a font, though. And in this reflection on my own writing history, I discovered this week that it is the 50th anniversary of Helvetica. Helvetica was invented by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland and is celebrated in a new documentary, “Helvetica.”

The documentary itself looks at the cultural uses – in advertising, design, psychology and communication – of one of the most used fonts.

I find it an interesting notion that someone actually invents typeface. I know there are designers today, who I picture sitting in rooms at little desks in neat little rows pouring themselves over white sheets of paper with only the noise of their pens tinking against their ink wells – a notion I know is ludicrous – who are creating new forms of type.

It’s so intriguing that designers actually create new ways of expressing an emotion or meaning in the physical appearance of letters.

Now Helvetica is not a sexy font. There are no flourishes, no squiggles, no Wing Dings – it’s straight forward, honest, classic and just.

I like to think of Mr. Miedinger sitting in his English class, tuning out the lecture and blanketing a piece of notebook paper with different versions of his signature. Signing his name as a physical representation of himself.

Happy Birthday Helvetica, “and many more.”

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