In this article for BookMachine, Charles Nix, a Creative Type Director at Monotype, gives insights into the origin and development of Helvetica Now: a new chapter in the story of perhaps the best-known typeface of all time.
Helvetica has been a regular presence in my life. As a little boy, it was a slug of metal type that my father set. In grade school, I met it again as my parents’ transfer lettering. While in college, I met it a third, fourth, and fifth time as photo-type, photo-digital type, and (Linotron) digital type. And when I started using a Mac in the 80s, I encountered it one more time in PostScript as Neue Helvetica—the form that is most familiar to designers.
After college, it faded from my professional orbit. For nearly three decades, I largely avoided using the world’s most famous typeface. Why? Well, creative curiosity. I needed to explore the larger typographic world. I also wasn’t particularly excited about the PostScript version. It was missing something—or I was missing something. Prior to that, I had been getting my type from a typesetter—a very good typesetter—my favorite typesetter. Marina Kyprianou had an amazing feel for type. She knew what 8-point Helvetica needed to sing (and in the 1980s, we set a lot of 8-point Helvetica—and 6-point and 10-point). When we set large Helvetica, we cut it apart letter by letter and spaced it with extreme care.
What does Helvetica need at 6-point and 8-point (and 4, 5, and 7)? It needs space. It needs lower contrast. It needs a larger x-height. It needs to convey the impression of Helvetica while coming to grips with the limitations of its small scale. And why were we cutting apart photo-type and respacing it for use in display? Because at larger sizes, the details are incredibly important—and balancing the space between the interior and exterior of the form becomes a sort of critical typographic art. Makeup for the stage is very different from makeup for a magazine cover.
That is why when my colleagues in the Monotype Studio and I set out to develop Helvetica Now, a new chapter for an iconic typeface, we knew it had to have “optical sizes”—size-specific designs. The complete design has three different sets of master drawings: Micro, Text, and Display. Helvetica Now Micro has all of those tweaks that make it work really well in tiny sizes and in challenging environments (low-resolution, low light, at a distance)—larger x-height, generous spacing, lower contrast, and a host of micro-modifications.
Helvetica Now Text—as the name suggests—is designed and spaced for use in text sizes (9-point to 14-point). Helvetica Now Display is designed and spaced for everything larger than 14-point—sinewy, seductive, and spaced with loving care.
Right now, the Helvetica Now optical sizes are three separate groupings, but eventually (very soon in “typographic time”) it will be available as a continuous spectrum from ultra-tiny to luxuriously large—thanks to the new OpenType variable font format.
Here—in this article—I’ve led with the thing I consider most important. But it’s probably not the most noticeable or important difference to most people. What will strike most people when seeing and using Helvetica Now is that there are a host of returning cast members. Throughout its evolution from metal to digital, Helvetica has taken on and jettisoned alternate versions of characters. The classic waterfall capital “R” at one point had an alternate straight-legged version. Helvetica Now includes that alternate. There was—and now is again—a single-story lowercase “a.” There’s a suite of rounded punctuation and jots. There’s a beardless capital “G,” a lowercase “u” without a trailing serif, a cruciform lowercase “t,” and a straight-descender lowercase “y.” Alone or in combination, these alternates have the potential to dramatically change the tone of the typeface, providing designers with dozens of new Helvetica expressions.[book_machine_02.pdf]
And we’ve added one new alternate—a hooked lowercase “l”—to address a long-standing complaint about the ambiguity of the “I” and “l” in Helvetica—especially at small sizes.
All of these alternates exist in the entire range of the font—from Micro to Display and from Hairline to Extra Black. And if you’re reading closely, you’ll see what I did there. I slipped in two new weights of Helvetica. Helvetica Now has an extended weight range and more rational distribution of those weights. And again, when Helvetica Now in the new variable font format arrives (again, very soon in typographic time), you’ll have a spectrum of weights in between those extremes.
And of course, there are a bunch of other really helpful things—like Helvetica arrows for information graphics and a broad range of currency symbols (including ones that didn’t exist when Neue Helvetica arrived over 35 years ago).
Taken together, these changes and additions create the Helvetica I’ve been missing for most of my career. This is a Helvetica my favorite typesetter would appreciate. I hope it’s one that you’ll appreciate and use too.
Charles Nix is a Creative Type Director at Monotype, where he helps designers and brands craft unique visual voices. His type designs are part of the Monotype library of fonts and include Ambiguity, Hope Sans, Walbaum, and of course, Helvetica Now.