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heaven and helvetivaIt is hard to believe today, but there was a time when Helvetica was a rare and costly resource. In my early graphic design studies, I was impressed by the work of Swiss and German typographers and one thing that seemed to characterise them was a cool and distinctive sans-serif typeface – some of them seemed to use nothing else.

This was the late 60’s, and Helvetica had only been available for around 10 years. It had been designed by Max Miedinger in 1957, but  did not even get the name ‘Helvetica’ until 1960 – a decision by type founders Stemple, to help market it internationally.

I hunted through type books, comparing individual characters. It was not the ubiquitous Univers. Folio was close, but not close enough. Finally I identified the font, but that was only the start.

These were the days before computers and desk-top publishing. To use a font, it had to be set by a typesetter, in metal. Then it was either used to print from directly, or ‘repro’ setting was produced to cut and paste (literally with scalpel and Cow Gum) to create camera-ready artwork. Needles to say, our college type room did not have it. In fact very few trade typesetters had copies of the font as it was an expensive purchase, especially as it would be necessary to buy a whole range of sizes. For students, there were two solutions: either trace the font from type-books and hand letter it for your mock-ups, or use Letraset, pressure-sensitive, rub-down lettering.

Out in the commercial world it was much tougher. Clients and typesetters both had little time for such typographic niceties and their response to the designer was often, ‘Use Univers – it’s close enough’.

Help was on the way however. In the 60s we started to see the first phototypesetting machines. There were basically two types: one for headline typesetting used a strip of film with a complete set of characters, and individual characters were exposed onto paper through a big enlarger. There were a number of advantages, including the opportunity to use an infinite range of sizes from one negative. Characters could also be spaced or ‘kerned’ manually allowing for the extreme close spacing or even overlapping of characters beloved of designers at the time. The second was a machine designed for bulk body copy setting. This usually held complete fonts on glass discs or matrices. The simplest included the Diatype, which exposed a sigle charagcter at a time using a trigger, the more sophisticated Diatronic had a full keyboard.

By the time phototypesetting was widely established, whole ranges of exotic fonts were available to disgners and typoraphers almost without limitation.