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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Just the Right Type

Helvetica, the world’s most frequently chosen sans serif font, owes much of its success to Mike Parker, the American who took it places.

Updated: March 16, 2014 3:27:03 pm

When font god Mike Parker died last Sunday, fans speculated about the appropriate look for his gravestone. His name is identified with the Helvetica font, which was instrumental in the modernisation of design during the Cold War. From the 1960s to the ’90s, it was the most frequently chosen sans serif font, a foil to the ubiquitous serif Times New Roman. Even today, the Helvetica family provides the callout fonts of choice for print media and is found everywhere, from newspaper headlines to underwear labels. It is hot with logo designers for its solid but tidy look, suggesting brand strength and reliability — Lufthansa, Microsoft, Toyota, Jeep and 3M persist in memory because of the weight lent to their logos by Helvetica.

But epitaphs is one of the very few things that the font family is not good for. Flowing serifs, copperplate, Gothic and faux Roman fonts go better with the idea of the hereafter in the Western imagination. The assertive modernism of Helvetica would sit oddly with American funerary art. But as it turned out, Parker had chosen the Eastern way and did not need a headstone. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered over his estate.

That was quite appropriate, actually, since Parker’s association with the font in the public imagination is somewhat imaginary. He was not the father of Helvetica, which was designed in Switzerland (as the name suggests) in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffman and originally named Neue Haas Grotesk.

But it was a typeface for hand-set presses, where the compositor made up the text laboriously letter by letter, choosing them from two boxes of type — the upper and lower cases, which now mean large and small characters. That was too slow for media, which had turned to the Linotype machine almost half a century earlier. It composed much faster, line by line rather than letter by letter, from molten lead. But Grotesk was not available for Linotype.

Parker’s genius lay in recognising that Helvetica’s time had come, because the manner in which media was consumed had changed. The days of closely printed masses of text was over. A busy, impatient age was upon the world, which needed headlines, callouts, blurbs and captions to draw attention to the text. For that, it needed Helvetica, a fork of Grotesk released for Linotype in 1960. It was one of the enablers of the second great wave of printing technology after the Gutenberg revolution.

In the span of Parker’s professional life, composing technology moved from hot metal via photo-typesetting to the digital fonts that we use today — the third wave, which features fonts like Verdana, which were designed for the computer screen rather than the printed page. Earlier, presses frequently ran on a handful of fonts and computer owners did not care what fonts their machines contained. But about two decades ago, when desktop publishing kicked off and the Web discovered design and became beautiful, computers began to be sold armed with hundreds of pre-loaded fonts.

These fonts had to look the same on paper and on the screen, and had to be consistent across hardware architectures and operating systems. This called for a degree of discipline which the font industry had not enjoyed earlier, because it was not an industry at all. Its artistic or artisanal temper now had to give way to the industrial-strength standardisation of the machine age, and Parker was one of the key people who made it happen by coordinating font development across the Linotype ecosystem. The philosophy was extended to Bitstream, the first digital-only font repository, which he co-founded. By the time all of us needed multiple fonts across multiple devices and media, standardisation had made it achievable.

Fonts colour communications. A cheerful serif lightens the tone of a message, a bold sans serif makes road signs harder to disobey. Languages were mute on the internet until they had standardised fonts. In Asia, Chinese took the lead in developing its own fonts. In India, Tamil showed the way with the Anjal font, which connected the diaspora from Toronto to Trincomalee. In our region, internet penetration is determined not so much by whether high-speed bandwidth is available but whether Asian language fonts for phones are available.

No one would fly Lufthansa if its logo was in Comic Sans rather than Helvetica. No one could gaze upon a Helvetica epitaph without feeling creepy. And Helvetica is so closely identified with Mike Parker that no one thought of Palatino, a superb serif font that he had promoted. Excellent for books, good for headstones. But please, not for the Toyota logo. That would be too creepy. n

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