Every single glyph of Helvetica has been redrawn and redesigned for this expansive new edition – which preserves the typeface's Swiss mantra of clarity, simplicity and neutrality, while updating it for the demands of contemporary design and branding.
Helvetica is perhaps the best-known typeface of all time. It's been the subject of more than one book, a documentary, and reams of press debating its finer points. Industries and businesses of all kinds have embraced it, and it's appeared in every environment imaginable thanks to its malleable nature – which means it can be molded to almost any message.
Helvetica Now embodies the same powerful neutrality, but with an expanded set of fonts that are better equipped to deal with the challenges contemporary designers face. The family is divided into three distinct sizes – micro, text and display – which means it can work across a wider range of print and digital environments.
Each one has been carefully tailored to the demands of its size. The larger Display versions are drawn to show off the subtlety of Helvetica and spaced with headlines in mind, while the Text sizes focus on legibility, using robust strokes and comfortably loose spacing.
The Micro sizes address an issue Helvetica has long faced – that of being micro type challenged. In the past, the typeface struggled to be legible at tiny sizes because of its compactness and closed apertures. Helvetica Now's Micro designs are simplified and exaggerated to maintain the impression of Helvetica in tiny type, and their spacing is loose, providing remarkable legibility at microscopic sizes and in low-res environments.
There's also an extensive set of alternates, which allow designers the opportunity to experiment with and adapt Helvetica's tone of voice. This includes a hooked version of the lowercase l (addressing a common complaint that the capital I and lowercase l are indistinguishable) as well as a rounded G, and a straight-legged R, a single story a and a lowercase u without a trailing serif.
In the past, designers had to nudge, trim and contort the design to create stylish display-type lockups with Helvetica. Helvetica Now Display was designed and spaced with those modifications in mind—saving effort and providing more consistent (and more stylish) results.
Type Director Charles Nix, who led the Helvetica Now project alongside Monotype's Hendrik Weber, says one of the main challenges the design team faced was preserving the typeface's 'trinity' of simplicity, clarity and neutrality. It was this mantra they kept in mind while returning to original cuts of Helvetica, to understand where earlier versions had succeeded or failed, and what path Helvetica Now needed to take. This was a chance to address some of the difficulties posed by Neue Helvetica, which was drawn and spaced for use in text type and lacks some of the grace and finesse of previous iterations.
As well as re-imbuing the design with some things that had been lost over the years – namely its optical sizing – Nix says he believes Helvetica Now allows it to escape the gravity of its past, by adding new alternate forms and embracing ones that had been previously designed and jettisoned. And while there are those that would question Helvetica's ubiquity, Nix believes this is part of what gives the typeface such potential.
“It's vanilla, it's paper, it's a fundamental container for thought,” he explains. “It's everywhere. It's in every menu you've ever had on the computer, in every arts and crafts store, in rubdown lettering. Wherever you look, there is Helvetica. People don't even think of it as anything except type. It becomes the equivalent of type.”
“On the other end of the spectrum, there are people for whom Helvetica is the gold standard,” he adds. “There are major corporations who see it as the ultimate expression of typography. To use it is to claim that you are the ultimate expression of whatever your brand aspires to be. Its blankness is its power.”
Helvetica Now is a new chapter in the canon. It equips the design with all the tools it needs to continue to develop and progress, but without compromising on its extensive heritage.
“Designers might think they know everything here is to know about it, but Helvetica can still surprise,” says Nix.