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Typesetting and technology

Today the BBC's website has an article that caught my eye, “Helvetica at 50.” No, Helvetica's not a movie star or a rock band -- it's a type font and one of the most popular type faces currently used for logos and ad copy.

The typeface, inspired by the 1896 font Akzidenz Grotesk, was designed by Max Miedinger in 1957 in conjunction with Eduard Hoffmann for the Haas Type Foundry, in Muenchenstein, Switzerland.

The reason I was interested is part of the history of typesetting. When I started out in book publishing, hot metal type was used with Linotype machines, and a mixture of molten metals, including lead, was poured into forms with the type laid out. The typesetters were skilled and highly paid union craftsmen. I remember asking sometimes for them to shave some of the metal from a single letter that was too wide and would ruin a line in my elegant book.

We used Helvetica, a clean and modern font, quite often for headlines and ad copy. It was considered avant garde rather than commonplace at that time. As a sans serif typeface — it doesn't have extender strokes at the top and bottom of letters — it wasn't considered a very readable type for books and other publications. Among digital fonts, Arial is considered to be a close relative of Helvetica.

For readability, serif fonts are still considered better, as they have the extenders on each letter that lead readers' eyes quickly from one letter to the next. In the digital arena, Times New Roman is one of the most popular serif fonts.

The technology of typesetting and publishing has undergone a revolutionary change in under 40 years. For a short description of developments, see here. From highly skilled typesetters to everyone his own publisher. I fought some of the changes myself -- photo and digital typesetting in its early days was atrocious -- kerning was bad, spacing was off, and many type fonts were ugly. After all, one wasn't dealing with typographical artists any longer. I must admit that the art has been catching up with the technology, but I still think Helvetica is more elegant than Arial.