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What The Rebirth Of Helvetica Means For Typographers (And The Rest Of Us)

June 2019Words by Mr Ben Olsen

Helvetica Now. Image courtesy of Monotype

“There is no typeface like Helvetica,” says Mr Charles Nix, a man who – having spent the past five years redesigning the iconic 62-year-old font family – is in a good position to judge. As type director at American foundry Monotype, Mr Nix oversaw the recent launch of Helvetica Now, a comprehensive overhaul of a divisive typeface that has inspired documentaries, major exhibitions and no small number of books since being introduced to the world in 1957.

“It’s fraught trying to make a better version of something people are so in love with or hate vehemently,” says Mr Nix. “No other revival has carried the weight that this one did – no matter what we did, we were going to be heavily scrutinised.” First designed by Swiss foundry Haas as an alternative to Akzidenz-Grotesk – the ubiquitous typeface of the time – Helvetica’s stripped-back sans-serif form swiftly became the epitome of neutrality and shaped the logos of a generation of big-hitting brands from American Airlines to The North Face while becoming the default choice for clarity-seeking clients including metro networks, tech giants and government bodies.

So why the redesign? The last time Helvetica was altered was 1983, but, according to Mr Nix, this “workmanlike iteration” saw many subtleties lost in translation. Helvetica Now is an attempt to restore the original nuance of the design, while also addressing very modern challenges. “Back then, it was printed pages and products that dominated, but designers increasingly need to consider how text is viewed on screens of various sizes,” says Mr Nix. “If I’m speaking to you as a brand today, that’s via your laptop, your phone, your watch, subway ads or 300-ft tall billboards in Times Square. There are so many touchpoints and that needs a more robust family of typefaces.”