Helvetica Now: a new chapter for an iconic typeface

BLOG Website Header 1200 x 675 px 5

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.

book machine 03
Image credit: Monotype
Helvetica Now comparisons
Image credit: Monotype

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]

book machine 02
Image credit: Monotype

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.

book machine 06
Image credit: Monotype

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).

book machine 04
Image credit: Monotype
book machine 05
Image credit: Monotype

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 AmbiguityHope SansWalbaum, and of course, Helvetica Now.

Related Articles


  1. Stunning article and great work by Charles and the whole team. I was sad to see the R lose some character but was happy to see alternates! I like the inkwells in the lowercase t in Helvetical Now Micro.

Comments are closed.

Sign up to our Newsletter


* indicates required

BookMachine Ltd. will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing. Please let us know all the ways you would like to hear from us:

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at hello@bookmachine.org. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices.