Fluorescent Highlights

An abridged version of this essay appeared on Disegno magazine’s website in 2011. Photograph by Max Creasy from the series Constructed Forms (2011).

One can tell an analogue human activity has become second nature when designers try to simulate it in the digital world. Such is the case that the recent invention of touch-screen digital display devices has been accompanied by an increasing number of software applications which give the reader the ability to highlight text with bands of fluorescent colour. We may take this facility for granted but it is not one which has been around for very long, a fact which itself is underscored by the fortieth anniversary this year of the tremendously popular Stabilo-Boss Highlighter. Attention-grabbing yet prone to fade and resistant to reproduction, the luminous hues these markers place at our fingertips have themselves a colourful but brief history. They have also had a more varied range of uses and associations than the brash palette necessitated by their chemical make-up.

Fluorescence is a form of luminescence which occurs when light is emitted by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. To bask in its glow is to be in the presence of a seemingly other-worldly light, one that appears to defy the hierarchy of the rest of the visual field and in which there are no nuances of light and shade. First noted as a natural phenomenon in a kind of wood during the sixteenth century, but also emitted by various animals and minerals, fluorescence was only named as such in 1852. Manmade pigments, however, did not appear until the early 1930s when a man from Ohio by the name of Bob Switzer began mixing fluorescent minerals with wood varnish in his bathtub and as a result invented Day-Glo paints. Early uses were for magic tricks but the United States Army soon took notice. Too many GIs were dying in friendly fire so the army commissioned Switzer to combine his dazzling concoctions with fabric. The result was the first high visibility protective clothing which has since become de rigeur among those who clean, tend, build, protect and cycle through our cities. If fluorescent colours can ensure one’s safety, however, their high-visibility should not be confused with standing out in a crowd. The anonymity as well as the connotations of public service afforded by these ubiquitous uniforms mean that criminals of more recent times have taken to wearing them simply to avoid detection. In 2006, for instance, the largest cash robbery in British history began when the manager of a cash management depot in Kent was duped by a man in high-visibility clothing. Joined by his accomplices the wearer of fluorescent garb then proceeded to abduct the family of the manager, tie up fourteen staff members and make off with £53,116,760.

The availability of fluorescent printing inks during the early 1950s made them all the rage in advertising and graphic design. While technologically innovative, they were not received without reservation. Proponents vaunted their perceptual qualities claiming at least two hours added visibility at dawn and dusk. Detractors lamented the vulgar colours were just that and that they were no more than a cheap stunt to be had only at the expense of good design.

At around this time the ink’s ultraviolet glow and promise of imminent decay invited correlations with anxieties about nuclear catastrophe. Such associations of fluorescence with radioactive activity were soon overshadowed by the emergence of counter-culture movements in the 1960s. Bold and brash these brilliant colours perfectly suited the purposes of youth rebellion. The sensory boost they offered provided a means of expression for drug-induced mind-altered states. Fluorescent hues were quickly attached to the art nouveau inspired ornamentalism of psychedelia, the nihilistic, anti-aesthetic of punk, and to the more recent technological pulse of electronic music.

Fluorescent-coloured writing fluids could not have come into existence without the invention of the modern felt-tip pen. This occurred in 1962. A year later the Avery Corporation created the first “hi-liter” by introducing translucent ink into the cartridge in pastel shades. The first fluorescent pigment in luminous yellow followed a few years later. Then in 1971 Schwan-Stabilo launched a new pen for the workplace.

The brilliance of the ink aside, it is the shape of the Stabilo-Boss Highlighter which has made it so enduring. This famously came about in a moment of the designer’s frustration. Dissatisfied with his former attempts, he brought his hand firmly down upon a cylindrical cone clay prototype and the instantly-recognisable squat lozenge with the signature black lid was born.

It is tempting to see the grip required to clasp the Stabilo-Boss Highlighter as ergonomically conducive to the sidewards swipe of its slanted calligraphic nib. Whether or not this is true, its stout proportions are so markedly different from the slender form of a pen or pencil, it seems to have established its own archetype. Since its creation in 1971, the shape of everything from toasters, to cars and computers has evolved with both manufacturing processes and the spirit of the zeitgeist. Apart from a small redesign in 2008 which attached a slight bulbousness to its form and the development of smudge-proof ink, the Stabilo-Boss has remained the same on desks for forty years.

From the moment of their first manufacture, fluorescent pigments have been harnessed to everything from protection to provocation. The connection of these lurid colours to both counter-culture rebellion and more studious activities involving a highlighter may seem unrelated. It is important to remember, however, that the highlighter pen is above all a tool for the act of reading. And it was in the second half of the twentieth century that theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes, famously proclaimed “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” Challenges to authority were expressed in the academy with the empowerment of the reader and the acknowledgment of reading as a productive force. How apt then that the Stabilo-Boss has helped us mark our experience of the text in trails of luminous splendour.

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