Why Helvetica Now is a big deal

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You may have heard Helvetica has been updated for the first time in 35 years. In the world of typography, that counts as a very well kerned and perfectly typeset Really Big Deal.

But even outside of design studios, where we actively pay attention to things like font updates, the changes to Helvetica are going to have an impact.

Why? Because Helvetica has been ubiquitous since its creation in 1957.

Its high x-height and tight letter spacing give it clarity, which combined with its neutrality, makes it the top choice for, well, almost everything. Signs, forms and iPhones. You name it, Helvetica has been used for it.

In fact, years ago we created a tongue-in-cheek agency name generator which allowed you to pick any font… as long as it was Helvetica. How’s that for ubiquitous? 

As a font it’s had its peaks and troughs. David Carson, the design darling of the 90s and early 2000s, is infamous for loathing the font and called creatives who choose it lazy. In fact, Carson opted to use the font Franklin Gothic for the official – but ultimately unused – Helvetica documentary poster, released in 2007.

Whereas the Swiss-inspired designers of Experimental Jetset use the font (almost) exclusively in their work. This proves its versatility, but in recent years it has become tired, somewhat dated and due a facelift.

Helvetica Now is the first update to the font titan in 35 years. It’s designed to address one of Helvetica’s drawbacks: onscreen legibility. While Helvetica is famed for its clarity, it actually struggles with legibility on screen and in small print sizes due to its narrow apertures.

Helvetica Now attempts to refresh the font for the digital age in a project that saw typeface agency Monotype redraw every character. That’s nearly 40,000 in total. The three optical sizes, Micro, Text and Display each have different roles designed to increase the scope of the font.

I’ll be interested to see if the redesign becomes as ubiquitous as its forebearer.

(I'm very much aware that this isn't typeset in Helvetica!)


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