“For people who appreciate Helvetica on a deep level, the why around Helvetica Now is a no-brainer,” says Charles Nix, type director of Monotype and lead designer on the new typeface Helvetica Now. “It was always a question of when.” Released today, the typeface updates the classic Helvetica, first developed in 1957, for today’s users. Long cemented as the “most famous and widely used typeface in all of typographic history”, it has now been over 35 years since Helvetica’s last redesign in 1982. In this time, concerns have been raised regarding its inability to perform well at technological heights.
Over the past few decades, its optical sizing, among other design practicalities, has been called into question by type buffs and graphic designers alike. If you’re wondering what the hell that means, or why anyone even cares, Charles’ insight and passion for typography is capable of convincing even the most cynical of critics. He truly believes the release of Helvetica Now is about “allowing a modern audience to see Helvetica for the first time”.
First designed in the 50s by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman, the typeface existed in a variety of forms including metal, film and protodigital, before it was completely redrawn for the digital era in the form of Neue Helvetica. In its first iteration, there was only one master typeface, meaning the designers chose only one size to digitise (12 point) and as a result, Neue Helvetica only really works for text around that size. When it comes to display or micro fonts, readability issues come into play as the typeface is enlarged and shrunken down. Helvetica Now has been designed to remedy these issues.
When it came down to micro-sized Neue Helvetica, counters closed up, bunching up a letter’s anatomy so an “e” appears more like an “o” at point size six or less. Speaking about this, Charles tells It’s Nice That: “I haven’t used Helvetica in any meaningful way since the 90s because of the problem it’s had at smaller point sizes.” Consequently, Helvetica Now sees apertures and counters opened up, an increased x-height and stroke weight alongside simplified forms, making the overall typeface more legible.
Though Neue Helvetica has been augmented over the past 35 years in an attempt to resolve some of these technical issues, a newly designed Helvetica Now proved to be the more tempting opportunity “to start from the ground up”. Over half of Monotype’s New York designers have worked on the famous typeface, respectfully redrawing it for the modern era. The new version consists of 48 fonts with three optical sizes: micro, text and display. Digitally redrawn for size-specific precision, the versatility of Helvetica Now means that this is “not the same Helvetica”. With multiple masters applicable for any point size imaginable, the character set (including punctuation and glyphs) has also been updated to fit current Monotype standards and, in turn, to make it more useful to everyone in general.
For Monotype, it was the kind of project that required sensitivity and the utmost care. Helvetica has grown into a design phenomenon in itself, not only belonging to the designers who created it. “It’s important to us historically and it’s important to the world,” as Charles puts it. Heck, there’s even an 80-minute film about the thing where over 20 design legends (basically a lot of middle-aged white men, and Paula Scher) discuss the brilliance of its effortless neutrality. Whether we like it or not, Helvetica is a part of our lives. “It belongs to the culture at large so any change that we made to it had to be very considered,” says Charles. “We spent a lot of time thinking about what it would actually be before we even started making it.”
To any readers who are still unconvinced and in favour of the “old” Helvetica, apparently that typeface that we’ve come to know (and maybe even love) is in fact “a pale reflection of its original self”, according to Charles. Essentially, this was the original impetus for kicking off discussions four years ago by Monotype’s project originators. “Every designer now has got used to Neue Helvetica and we’ve been groomed to think of it as the legacy of Helvetica,” he says. “But if you go back and look at the typeface three of four years before 1982, it was a very different typeface.”
The project started with a history lesson. Looking at original drawings, Charles and his team assessed how Helvetica used to be “much more subtle in terms of its spacing and forms” than is algorithmically produced by Neue Helvetica (or any other form of Helvetica) when sized up. As a personal plus for Charles, the project enabled him to examine his own private collection of Helvetica drawings, too. “I’m a collector of type specimens and I have some original stuff from Haas and Haas’ parent company that I’ve always admired for its use of classic Helvetica,” he says. “But what this project has allowed me to do – and this will crack you up, or maybe even horrify you – it’s allowed me to really study the space in between the letters in those specimens, to really stare at this space and discern the magic of Helvetica’s original spacing.”
Typography “sits on the plane that connects language with a physical screen or piece of paper”, not only significant for its role in communication, but also for its flexibility. “The form of the language is altering its meaning,” says Charles. “And so it is infinitely re-combinable and infinitely variable.” This variation, which has the power to tweak the meaning of a piece of communication with just a millimetre’s nudge, is why there are so many people like Charles doing what they do.
And it is to do with this alteration of meaning, or rather the lack of, that Helvetica has become so important to us. While Charles has pinpointed up to a dozen philosophies surrounding various uses of Helvetica’s, its primary asset remains its straightforward neutrality. “It’s the typeface that just means typeface,” he says. It was designed to carry no meaning of its own, simply conveying the meaning of the words that it spells out. “Its neutrality is its strength and it has become so synonymous with this objective that as modern designers, we’ve ceased to look at its details.” At the core of Helvetica, there is “simplicity, clarity and neutrality; a mantra repeated over and over in every detail of the typeface. No irony, no cynicism, simply the most useful typeface used to indicate nothing but the fact that it is international.”
Over the years, however, its neutrality has developed into a style in itself. Seen throughout 20th-century design, Helvetica has been used by the likes of Experimental Jetset, Michael Beirut and American Apparel to create a minimalistic sense of style, evoked through its simplicity of form. In these instances, “the idea of neutrality becomes a concept as opposed to a bi-product of Helvetica”, says Charles. “It’s almost like a meta aspect of its neutrality.”
In contrast to these highly designed examples of Helvetica that see well-trained design professionals demonstrating their type knowledge, at the other end of the spectrum lies those who use Helvetica for a completely different reason – namely, because it’s there. This “less self-conscious” usage is seen worldwide simply because it’s the typeface that’s on hand. “In this lack of choice, you see typographic expressions that are truly free and wild,” says Charles. From Massimo Vignelli and Corita Kent to mum’s sign on the fridge or your local restaurant’s vinyl in the window, these examples showcase a different intent to the typeface while still asserting its universality.
“People use it on the high and people use it on the low, and then there’s every other stripe in between that people use,” says Charles. Whether you know how to use it really well, or not at all, “Helvetica is totemic”. It has evolved into something that people look to “as a bastion or beacon of style”.
Yet is there not perhaps just a shadow of doubt surrounding Helvetica’s relevance today, amongst the hordes of sci-fi, alien-looking, Rudnick-inspired typefaces? Charles is quick to dismiss the thought. “I’m very careful in my own survey of type to separate display typography from text typography,” he says. “It’s not a value judgment – it’s more about understanding typefaces for the purposes they serve.”
Modern typefaces possess an incredible variety of form and expressiveness of personality, and they perform a different function to the solid reliability of Helvetica – the neutral typeface. While these kinds of display fonts “draw attention to themselves” with their elaborate anatomies, in turn they also modify and modulate the meaning of language through their form. “And Helvetica doesn’t do that,” maintains Charles. “Its sole purpose in living is not to do that. It delivers language as it is, and I think that that is its power. It’s come as close as any typeface can, and only more so as the years pass, to delivering meaning without style.”
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.