Monotype’s Tom Foley on an “emotional topic”: Helvetica

Who knew typography could be so entertaining? Tom breaks down the perils and perks of updating perhaps the world’s most famous piece of design for the modern world.

19 November 2021


There’s not much that keeps the Nicer Tuesdays audience on the edge of their seats like a talk about design metrics such as UPM sizes (we’re not joking). So when Monotype’s creative director Tom Foley took the stage at October’s event to discuss “an emotional topic” – ie Helvetica – the room was filled with anticipatory energy.

Tom began by taking us through a condensed history of the typeface which began its life in the Haas type foundry in Switzerland. Designed by Eduard Hoffmann and Max Miedinger, the pair set out to create something “more simple, more neutral and more clear than anything before it” and “arguably anything since,” added Tom. The typeface they created was titled Die Neue Haas Grotesk and it was a metal type, designed to be set by hand, letter by letter. Helvetica as we know it sprung onto the scene when the typeface was reworked for mechanical typesetting and it “was a hit, as we know,” Tom joked. Neue Helvetica was born in the 1980s with the advent of postscript and digital publishing. That means it took 26 years for Haas Grotesk to evolve into Neue Helvetica and we went on to use that for 38 years, a time period Tom calls “a digital eternity;” just think about how technology has evolved in the past 38 years. It’s for that reason that in 2015 Monotype set about bringing Helvetica into the modern age, evolving its single master design. Four years and a huge amount of work later, the foundry released Helvetica Now, an update to the classic which includes a display, text and micro design with optimised optical sizes. The team also reintroduced alternate forms for a handful of characters and an extended weight range. Not satisfied with that achievement, however, the foundry immediately began the next phase of the project: Helvetica Now Variable.

It was this process that Tom focussed on for the rest of his time behind the podium. Funny, engaging and fascinating, he broke down what a variable typeface is, why we should bother to invest time in them and the challenges associated with creating one in a way that resonated with the type nerds and novices alike. So whether you’re interested to hear a few tips and tricks that you can take into your own typographic practice, or you’re simply interested in expanding your creative knowledge, we recommend watching Tom’s talk in its entirety above.

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Further Info

Nicer Tuesdays is our monthly event of creative talks. You can find out more here.

About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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