After Three Decades of Obscurity, Helvetica’s Successor Reemerges

A positive film master for Neue Haas Unica (courtesy Monotype)
A positive film master for Haas Unica (courtesy Monotype)

When Haas Unica was introduced in 1980, it was intended as an illustrious successor to the highly popular sans-serif Helvetica. Before it could achieve any measure of Helvetica’s ubiquity, Haas Unica was left behind in the shift from phototypesetting to desktop publishing. Earlier this month, Neue Haas Unica was finally released by Monotype, making the long obscure typeface widely available for the first time.

A pencil drawing for film for Neue Haas Unica (courtesy Monotype)
A pencil drawing for film for Haas Unica (courtesy Monotype) (click to enlarge)

Designed by Monotype’s Toshi Omagari, the updated Haas Unica is based on drawings, transparencies, and film masters discovered in the former Linotype Company office in Germany by Type Director Dan Rhatigan in 2012. The typeface’s new version reimagines for digital use the work of original designers Team ’77.

“Team ’77 prepared a wonderful, detailed analysis of the original design for Unica, and how it compared to other typefaces, including Helvetica and Univers,” Rhatigan told Hyperallergic. “The end result was a beautiful new family tailored for the medium, but it didn’t quite have enough time to make its mark before the landscape changed.”

Designed as a metal typeface back in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger, Helvetica was widely used in the 1960s and ’70s. Based on late 19th-century German grotesques, at smaller sizes the typeface loses legibility. Helvetica has far from faded into obsolescence despite changes in technology — there’s a whole 2007 documentary about this — but it has gradually gone out of favor. For example, Twitter switched from Helvetica Neue to Gotham last year. Now Neue Haas Unica, despite its initial launch botched by its timing with new computing, may end up an ideal digital typeface.

Neue Haas Unica character set (courtesy Monotype)
Neue Haas Unica character set (courtesy Monotype)

Going back to 1977, the original Haas Unica designers — André Gürtler, Christian Mengelt, and Erich Gschwind, together known as Team ’77 — were commissioned by the Haas Type Foundry to create a Helvetica-like typeface for phototypesetting, which used film negatives to set type. Inspired by elements from Univers, another sans-serif, Team ’77 christened the typeface with a portmanteau of Helvetica and Univers to make “Unica.” As Gürtler put it, the new typeface was “sharper than Helvetica, warmer than Univers, cleaner than Akzidenz.”

Haas later merged with Linotype, and phototypesetting would be replaced by computers in just a few years. “Although a digital version of Unica was produced elsewhere, this too was eventually taken off the market,” Rhatigan explained. “So while Unica was never truly lost, it also never got the full exposure it deserved.”

Monotyope acquired Linotype in 2006, and eventually the relics of the typeface-turned-urban-legend were found. Those production drawings revealed the incredible care in the details of each letter, which had to be sharp for film and camera reproduction. “Toshi’s big challenge, though, was to figure out how to achieve the same crispness of detail and preserve the flavor of the original Unica in a new, digital version — especially one that could work well for the web and on all kinds of devices,” Rhatigan stated.

A comparison between the beginning of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself: 35" in Helvetica and Neue Haas Unica Thin (image by the author for Hyperallergic)
A comparison between the beginning of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself: 35” in Helvetica and Neue Haas Unica Thin (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

At a glance, it might not seem very different from Helvetica, but look closer and it’s a decidedly clearer typeface. The letters are better rounded and less like the heavy block shapes reminiscent of the mid-century letterpress style, the spacing between letters is more generous for easier screen reading, and it has a larger variety of fonts from heavy to thin, as well as language support for Greek and Cyrillic. Then there are other details that distinguish it from Helvetica, like the “K” linking its feet on the vertical line rather than on the stem, less height on the lower case “t,” and a reduction in the swooped curve on the 7. Maybe the typeface has lost some of the distinctive character of Helvetica, which still makes blaring headlines, but it’s more gentle on the eyes. As Rhatigan put it: “Overall, it’s a little quieter, a little more open — a little less famous, perhaps, but a lot more versatile.” Earlier this year, Christian Mengelt of Team ’77 made Unica77 for Lineto, replicating the original designs of Haas Unica, but Neue Haas Unica reconsiders the typeface for digital use while maintaing its 1950s pedigree.

Neue Haas Unica
A quote by Toshi Omagari about Neue Haas Unica, in Neue Haas Unica (courtesy Monotype)

Find Neue Haas Unica at Monotype, and try out Neue Haas Unica Thin for free.

h/t Wired

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