There are two kinds of people in this world: people who care intensely about fonts, and the rest of us. Presumably this goes all the way back to China in the first millennium CE, but picked up noticeably as the printing press revolutionized life and communication throughout Europe in the 15th century.
“Fucking Gutenberg,” people would say. “That guy never shuts up about movable type. Can you believe how geeked he gets about punctuation? No wonder he was exiled from Germany.”
But the face of type was thought to be permanently changed for the better in 1957, with the introduction of Helvetica to the font market. It was the invention of Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffman and soon became the san-serif hallmark of clean, readable style and mid-century modern simplicity, going on to carry the message of thousands of corporate brands, including American Airlines, the MTA of New York City, and American Apparel. In 1988, it received a subtle facelift and was reintroduced as Helvetica Neue. In 2007, it was the subject of a feature-length documentary and a 50-year retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which purchased a complete set of the original lead type for the collection in honor of the occasion.
But now, just a decade later, Helvetica has become outré. The licensing rights are currently owned by Monotype, the world’s largest type company. Director Charles Nix noticed major brands jumping ship on Helvetica, including Google, Apple, and IBM—with all the tech companies developing in-house versions that appeared visually similar, but eschewed some of Helvetica’s longstanding design quirks, like irregular kerning, compression at small sizes, and odd punctuation.
“We jokingly refer to it as Helvetica Stockholm Syndrome,” says Nix, quoted in an article in Wired magazine, speaking on the corporation’s decision to update and relaunch this one-venerated font-for-the-ages, released this week as Helvetica Now. Nix is the narrator of a promo video highlighting the ubiquity of Helvetica, which he characterizes as “like water,” and “the gold-standard” of fonts.
“The reveal of Helvetica Now comes 30 years since the introduction of Helvetica Neue,” says a press release from Monotype. “Today, brands need type that will cope with every manner of high-res device, laptop screens, e-ink, as well as 200-foot-tall digital prints; That’s what Helvetica Now solves, consisting of three distinct optical sizes — Micro, Text and Display. Combining all the best aspects of its history, Helvetica Now is bringing back the grace and finesse of vintage Helvetica that Helvetica Neue had to sacrifice in order to work with early personal computers and desktop printers.”
According to Monotype, every letter, number, punctuation mark, and symbol in the family — nearly 40,000 in all — has been redrawn, analyzed, and tested for improved legibility and performance. One might argue that, as truth becomes subjective, democracy erodes and the environment slides into extinction-level instability, that the intricacies of kerning are not the biggest problems in need of solving at the moment—but try telling that to graphic designers!
Luckily, Monotype already has plans for a 2050 reboot of the typeface to continue to meet changing needs: Helvetica Apocalypse Now!
“Fucking Xav73,” the few remaining people of the wasteland will mutter. “He went out to leave cryptic survivor graffiti on a crumbling highway overpass two hours ago. He’s either died of radiation exposure or he’s messing with the kerning again.”
Helvetica Now can be licensed through MyFonts.com at an introductory promotion of 50 percent off through May 24, 2019. Helvetica Now Display Black will be available as a free download from MyFonts.com through July 8, 2019. In order to remain journalistically neutral, this article was written in Calibri.