Back story: Yes, yes, it’s a rule that designers MUST KNOW ALL ABOUT Helvetica, and thanks to Gary Hustwit’s 2007 film, even our moms and dentists know about it, too. The typeface is ubiquitous, lodged in the collective psyche to the point where it’s almost invisible (‘Crystal Goblet’ lovers, rejoice!). The original Helvetica was hand-drawn in 1957 at the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland as the brainchild of Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann. The font maintained its popularity over the next 20 years as type transitioned from metal to film and from film to photo-digital typesetting.
By 1982, Helvetica was redesigned and optimized for the PostScript world and christened Neue Helvetica. Though still in wide use, it’s nonetheless an outdated product of its time and technology. Like many other fonts adapted during the early days of desktop publishing, before an understanding of necessary adaptations for screen use, its letters are drawn and spaced for print, and lack some of the grace and finesse of previous Helvetica iterations. The one-size-fits-all, single-master solution of Neue Helvetica meant that its spacing was cramped and ill-suited for use in very small sizes. Charles Nix, Monotype’s type director, oversaw a team bringing this mid-century workhorse in line with the design demands of the 21st century, when type needs to function flawlessly across a range of sizes, environments, and applications.
Why’s it called Helvetica Now? Well, because it makes sense for the now—it’s Helvetica optimized for today’s users and uses. “Of course, now isn’t always and forever now, just as neue can’t be forever new, but it is different and better suited to how we design with type going forward,” says Nix.
What are its distinguishing characteristics? Helvetica Now provides a set of fresh alternates: a straight-legged “R”; a single-story “a”; a beardless “G”; and the straight-descender “y,” to name just a few, along with a new set of glyphs, such as a complete kit of arrows and numbers set in circles and squares. These are great for large wayfinding applications and super handy for constructing small information graphics. Helvetica Neue’s awkward @ sign was rethought, along with the pound sterling glyph. The typeface has three distinct optical sizes: a Display weight; a standard Text with robust strokes, simplified details, reduced contrast, and comfortable spacing for optimal legibility; and finally, a Micro weight crafted for 3- to 6-point usage and in low-resolution environments. Its simplified and exaggerated forms maintain the overall look and feel of Helvetica, while its purposefully loose spacing is an essential ingredient to hyper-legible micro-text. Micro features wider, more open forms and apertures, a larger x-height, larger accents, and a host of other small changes.
What should I use it for? When professional designers can’t imagine a use for Helvetica, it’s time to weep for the future. Kidding aside, Helvetica Now improves on the tradition of a clear, simple, neutral type that can be used for practically anything: every manner of high-res device, from laptop screens and e-ink, to 200-foot-tall digital prints or the tiny numerals on a watch face.
What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? “Helvetica is grotesque—it gets its skeleton from Moderns like Walbaum, Bodoni, and Didot,” Nix says. “I’m partial to pairing it with the updated version of Walbaum that Monotype released last year.” Formally, the simplicity of Helvetica pairs well with designs that are its opposite—like scripts and other elaborate display fonts.