I had never loved Helvetica

I had never loved Helvetica. Despite of being an omnipresent typeface, I really noticed and used her first in the form of the bland system font on a Mac Classic for my very first piece of typesetting as a design student. Although I can’t blame my unrefined typography solely on the crude font, I avoided her ever since. Besides that, it was the early 1990’s when humanist sans-serifs were the type to use and Meta had taken over as “the Helvetica of the nineties” (quote not by Robin Kinross as often stated). A time when it was the order of the day to “hate” Helvetica. Some colleagues never got over this.

I practiced a policy of peaceful indifference and our paths never crossed again. Until in 2007 when I was asked to research the history and development of Helvetica for a book and exhibition project on the occasion of the typeface’s 50th birthday. It was a timid approximation at first, but the more I learned about the genesis of the family, the background, the people and techniques involved, and above all saw the original drawings, proofs and corrections, there was a certain fondness growing inside of me. Meanwhile I find myself coming to Helvetica’s defense every once in a while, because she wasn’t meant to be as bland and unrefined as most of us digital natives got to know her. In fact, Neue Haas-Grotesk, as the foundry type version of Helvetica was called upon release in 1957, is a rather beautiful and soulful design.

Although being credited mostly to Max Miedinger alone, the development of the original Neue Haas-Grotesk in the mid 1950s owes just as much to Eduard Hoffmann, then president of the Haas typefoundry in Münchenstein near Basel. By the mid 1950s he recognized a decrease in sales and appreciation for the sans-serif typefaces in their program: Französische Grotesk and Normal Grotesk. Both designs, originally from 1890 and 1909 respectively, looked rather dated in the eyes of the leading Swiss typographers who preferred the more rigorous Akzidenz-Grotesk by Berthold instead. Hoffmann had planned to issue a new sans-serif since 1950 but hesitated facing the expenses. Now with the conspicuous rise of the “Swiss Typography” and the “International Style” the time had come.

Hoffmann commissioned graphic designer Max Miedinger, a former salesmen at Haas, to develop the new sans-serif which should be based on Haas’s reworking of Normal-Grotesk from 1954. Through his dialogue with customers, Miedinger had a good insight into the market’s demands and what makes a successful typeface. Work began in early fall of 1956 with the medium weight (Stempel’s official translation of Halbfett was Medium whereas other places may refer to it as the bold style). The new design was aimed to be presented at the Graphic 57 trade expo in June the following year. From very early on – even before the actual development began – Hoffmann consulted with prominent Swiss graphic designers and the weighty advertising departments of Basel’s chemical companies Geigy and Ciba. It was clear to him that the success of a new grotesk would largely depend on winning over the influential designers, because that meant the large printing offices would most certainly purchase the new typeface.

Over the following months a sedulous exchange of correspondence, drawings, and proofs between Miedinger and Hoffmann took place. Hoffmann elaborately documented the whole development process in a notebook. The new design was continually compared to samples of the competitor Akzidenz-Grotesk as well as Haas’s “old” grotesks. Its most unique new features were the consistently horizontal terminals, the large x-height, and the extremely narrow sidebearings. Never before were designers able to set type this tight. These features result in the typical dense, vigorous color of Neue Haas-Grotesk. The two men didn’t always agree. Many details were discussed over weeks and modifications would continue until late autumn. Miedinger in particular was not satisfied with the capital R and considered forms with a more diagonal leg than the vertical “Schelter R” tail that we now recognize as “typical Helvetica”. Also, the characteristic “a” with its drop-shaped bowl got its final form only after the inaugural presentation at the trade show.

The response to the new typeface was positive throughout and Neue Haas-Grotesk became an immediate success. Miedinger promptly took up work on additional weights. However, the competitors didn’t sleep either. Also in 1957, Adrian Frutiger’s Univers was issued by Deberny & Peignot and the German Bauer foundry published their Folio, both for hand-composition. For machine composition, the Monotype system was prevalent in Switzerland and with it Monotype Grotesque.

Meanwhile the rivalry among the different Swiss design schools and influential protagonists of the Swiss Typography in Basel and Zürich was is full swing and grew into a rivalry of the new typefaces Neue Haas-Grotesk and Univers. Competing for the favour of the influential designers, Haas countered Emil Ruder’s bias for Univers in Basel by commissioning leading Zürich designers like Josef Müller-Brockmann for work. The success of Neue Haas-Grotesk has to be thanked to effective marketing from day one. Articles, ads and supplements were placed in all relevant magazines, and extensive specimens designed by Hans Neuburg and Josef Müller-Brockmann. Most notably Haas issued a costly binder called “Satzklebebuch” with dummy texts in all styles and sizes, making it very convenient for typographers to lay-out pages. But Hoffmann knew that for truly challenging the competition, it was important to make Neue Haas-Grotesk available for machine composition.

In June 1959 Hoffmann took up negotiations with D. Stempel AG in Frankfurt, Germany, who held 51% of Haas’s shares. Besides producing foundry type, Stempel also manufactured the matrices for Linotype composing machines. The Germans were skeptical. Only five years earlier, in 1954, had they adapted Haas’s Normal-Grotesk for the Linotype which did not sell very well. Also the taste for sans-serif typefaces was considerably different across the border in Germany at that time. With a list of 62 potentially interested Swiss printers, Hoffmann was able to win Stempel over. The name “Neue Haas-Grotesk” however was deemed not suitable for an international market. Heinz Eul, sales manager at Stempel, suggested “Helvetia”, Latin for “Switzerland” but Hoffmann was not convinced, especially since a sewing machines manufacturer and an insurance company already carried that name. Instead he suggested “Helvetica” — the Swiss.

In the beginning only the Linotype version, issued in 1960, was called Helvetica. The type for hand composition was continued to be sold under its old name for several years (later at Stempel as “Helvetica A”). This made sense because the design had to be altered significantly to meet the requirements of the Linotype system. The Linotype machine casts one line of type at a time from a row of individual matrices which are assembled automatically by typing the text on a keyboard. One matrix holds two forms of the same character, usually either regular and italic, or regular and bold. As such, both forms on a matrix have to be exactly the same width. This “duplexing” inevitably leads to compromises: italics often appear to be too wide, bold styles on the other hand too narrow. Kerns – parts of a letter that extend onto the following sort – were not possible, which resulted in the typical narrow f’s in Linotype fonts.

In the case of Neue Haas-Grotesk the size of each glyph on the body had to be slightly reduced to accommodate uppercase accents. The italic was completely redrawn by Stempel, as Haas’s version was regarded “not good enough”. The Medium was made slightly bolder, and the spacing of all styles was adjusted, making the Regular “lighter in flow” and the Medium more dense. It was not a premiss that the two typefaces had to be fully compatible since they were usually not used together at the same size. Hoffmann had no qualms about the changes as long as the overall design and proportions were maintained.

The immediate success of Neue Haas-Grotesk and Helvetica put pressure on both Haas and Stempel to issue additional weights and styles as quickly as possible. Styles of older typefaces were hastily tweaked and renamed “Helvetica” to meet the demand for a larger family, leading to many inconsistencies in design and proportions between the various fonts. The bold expanded style of Normal-Grotesk for instance was cast more tightly and adopted as “Helvetica Bold Expanded”. Similarly, Commercial-Grotesk — a sans derived from an Egyptian called Superba by cutting off the serifs — was respaced and adopted as Helvetica Medium Condensed, Bold Condensed and Compact (two years later, in 1966, revised by Matthew Carter and Hans Jürg Hunziker as Helvetica Compressed). Only the italic weights were fully original drawings. This stands in great contrast to Univers, which was planned as a systematic family right from the outset.

From the late 1960s on, further development of Helvetica was entirely taken over by Stempel in Frankfurt. They reworked Haas’s ad-hoc-additions of condensed and expanded styles, and added a Light and Light Italic. Hoffmann was right. The availability for the Linotype and the international distribution contributed enormously to Helvetica’s success, especially in the United States where the Linotype was the prevalent composing machine. Albeit not very systematic at first, the family grew into a large, versatile series of various widths. It was available in sizes as small as 5 pt, cast from extra hard alloy, up to the striking, large Poster styles — my personal favourite — in wood, aluminum or plastic. There were also several alternate characters available, most notably a capital ‘R’ with diagonal leg. Upon customer request Stempel provided a third form of ‘R’, in the so called “Futura-form”, an ‘A’ with round top (uh!), a single story ‘a’ or a ‘y’ with a straight descender.

Because of its wide spread, Helvetica was always among the first typefaces transferred into a new technology. However, almost all changes came with sacrifices to the original design, for instance the switch from metal to photo-typesetting in the late 1960s. For metal type, separate matrices were created to cast each size of a typeface. This allowed the design to be adjusted for the different sizes, optimizing spacing, proportions, and weight as needed. Photo-typesetting on the other hand enabled the infinite scaling of just one master design. To preserve at least some of the adjustments traditionally made for different sizes, foundries provided up to four sets of masters to be used for different size ranges. Another problem was the undesirable rounding of sharp edges in the photographic process. To work against this, the letter forms were drawn with exaggeratedly pointed corners and notches. Also, the width and spacing of all characters had to be reworked. While Linotype hot-metal machines justify the lines by means of mechanically expanding wedges — the “space bands” — phototype systems, as well as the Monotype machine, have to calculate the line-length and wordspaces from the width of the characters. Because computing unlimited spacing variations was not possible back then, the width of all characters had to follow a rather coarse 18-unit system (later 54 units). This again implied that all styles had to be redrawn.

When Helvetica was adapted as one of the first typefaces for digital typesetting — initially as bitmap fonts in the 1970s, later as outline fonts included in the first version of PostScript — many of the design limitations from analog systems were carried over to the digital realm. The version of Helvetica that comes with Macintosh’s operating systems today still retains the 18-unit width system from the phototype era. Many of the curves lack finesse and the italic was created by automatically slanting the roman. The adjustments for different size ranges were given up for a one-size-fits-all master drawing and spacing. In 1982 Linotype set out to revise and systematize the hodgepodge of fonts Helvetica had become over the years. Adopting the numeric naming system from the former competitor Univers, styles and weights were coordinated and complemented. The height of all capitals and lowercases were aligned throughout the family. Yet the wish for regularization and cohesiveness led to new compromises: condensed and expanded styles required squarer forms in the normal widths, again sacrificing some of the personality of the rounder original.

In 2004 designer Christian Schwartz was commissioned by a British newspaper to digitize Neue Haas-Grotesk. He calls it a “restoration”. With “as much fidelity to the original shapes and spacing as possible”, he carefully redrew the typeface to match Miedinger’s original forms. The series is comprised of two families: a display version retaining the characteristically tight spacing of the original’s larger sizes, and a text version which is slightly sturdier and more loosely spaced for smaller sizes. Furthermore, he incorporated the alternative glyphs for “a”, the straight-legged R and the original ç, as well as additional numerals and other amenities, but the essence of Neue Haas-Grotesk was preserved throughout.

Alfred Hoffmann, son of Eduard Hoffmann and former CEO of the Haas foundry, witnessed the development of Neue Haas-Grotesk and Helvetica for over 50 years. Upon seeing proofs of Schwartz’s new Neue Haas-Grotesk he was delighted: “There can be no greater present for the founding fathers. Almost better than the original”, he said.

I agree.


A selection of related images in my Flickr stream.



Life wasn’t easy in phototype days

While I more or less have a notion of how metal type and measurement works, I’m at a loss reading through specimen and instructions from film-setting days. Yes, I know there have been A, B, C and sometimes D masters to cover different ranges of size (instead of having only one scaled to all sizes), but this sounds complicated:

Specimen for Helvetica Compressed by Mergenthaler Linotype


Monotype Newsletter 92 on the occasion of Helvetica being licensed for Monotype’s hot-metal and photo composition machines, 1972


Font-Shopping Continues

In case someone actually still wants to buy fonts this year I better hurry up with my report. Alright, what more did I buy?


Okay Type:
They (Jackson and his cat) have some really super fonts in the making, but only Alright Sans is ready for licensing yet. I had kept track of this interesting amalgam of a sans for quite some time already as it gets mentioned almost every day on typophile. Not purely humanist in style and proportions it combines open forms with the regularities of a classic grotesque and daring slanted a’s and g’s as alts in the italic. Makes me think of good ol’ Syntax and the Ideal Italic again.
Due to my (meanwhile) mission to get as many different families as possible, I just boughts five single weights at MyFonts because one can only get the whole family on Okay Type’s website. (Why?)

Now while I was there I did what probably everybody does at MyFonts from time to time—getting a couple of free fonts. Not many of them are suitable for professional design work, but in my opinion the typefaces by Jos Buivenga are. I got some complementary styles to the free version of Calluna, a versatile text face (and since Christmas joined by a sans to become a super-family) plus the flamboyant conceptional experiment that is Geotica—a high-contrast Didone only built up of geometric elements. The different fills, swashes and ornaments make it an exciting display venture.


The Asset:
All those typefaces hopefully complement the ones I got earlier this year:

Eames Century Gothic* Modern: I just had to order immediately, it simply is the impersonation of Erik van Blokland. One can dive deep into the individual shapes for days, the display styles make instant logos (beware, not allowed in basic license), the ornaments and numeral fonts are a playful plus. So enjoyable.

Hard to avoid the typefoundry Bold Monday this year, especially Nitty, which is surprisingly comfortable to type text in and Panno by Pieter van Rosmalen. I started out with the friendly priced sampler and got the full family of Paul van der Laan’s humanist sans Flex later.

Half way through my shopping spree Commercial Type, or rather Christian Schwartz announced the release of Neue Haas Grotesk to be near. Halleluja! Ever since working on the Helvetica Forever project I wished for that to happen. (We actually wanted to type-set the book in this newly digitized version back in 2007, but somehow either it wasn’t ready by that time or they didn’t manage to sort out the legal issues, so we ended up with Neue Helvetica.) I have no idea whether I’d ever use neue Neue Haas Grotesk, it’s just so tempting to get and be it only to show the world how Helvetica was meant to look like. But—maybe later.

Because all of a sudden the tide was turning: the notice of some unexpected debits abrupty shrunk my font-budget by almost 50% (now ~1500 €). But there was still so much left in my FontShop, A2 and MyFonts Carts :/
So these, among others, are typefaces I unfortunately had to skip (I should make a shortlist of nearly-bought fonts at some point):

Freight Micro, Text and Display I’m in love with this extensive super family by Joshua Darden/Garage Fonts for quite some time now. Especially the Micro (Italic) styles have great display qualities, too, although originally designed for extra small text.

Hercules, a quirky Modern/Scotch by František Štorm and also his
Farao, a playful take on the Clarendon genre. I like most of his typefaces although you realise some similarities after a while (the a’s e.g. are typical), but that is the case with other great type designers, too, like Gerard Unger or Fred Smeijers (his g’s and ß’s).

Lavigne got postponed as well, a dulcet text face by Ramiro Espinoza with great ampersand and complementing display styles for even more lavish demeanor.

Relato by Eduardo Manso attracted me with its distinct cursive. The rather low-contrast makes it a designated book face suitable for long-distance reading.

Iowan Old Style by John Downer, a calm, no-fuss text typeface, quite atypical for him actually.

Grot 10 from newly formed foundry A2. I especially like the true italics, which are still rather unusual for an “old-style” grotesque. There have been a lot of these kind of revivals popping up lately, like Plan by Typotheque, Fakt from Ourtype, Embarcadero by Mark van Bronkhorst or the recently expanded Founders Grotesque from Klim, to mention a few. Type expert Stephen Coles even names 2010 the year of the Helvetica replacements.

On that note, let me put you off until the third and final installment with some more shopping-occurrences, my final receipt and conclusion.

noch mal Helvetica

Funny, while browsing some reviews of Helvetica forever I found this one on Designboom, which is featuring almost only my tiny little article on typesetting methods. Five pictures of one spread*, a boring side note in a thrilling story. Must have made an impression.
No pic of the historic essay, none of the comparisons, only one of the Hoffmann-booklet …

Buried deep down on this blog you can find some posts from the time I was working on the book. And maybe one day I will write about the making of and the contributers involved.

*Originally I had one page per technique but it got halved and halved further during the process. Understandable. Could be a book on it’s own.

In Defense of Helvetica

I just read a fitting comparison of type and food in connection with Helvetica.

To me Helvetica feels to typography a bit like Japanese white rice feels to traditional Japanese cuisine. That is, on its own it may seem pretty bland to most people. […] Yet, as a balanced complement to all other elements in a washoku meal, rice is truly a delicious and harmonious amplifier of the entire culinary experience. Helvetica is a bit like this in that the typeface is a great complement to other design elements on a page or poster or slide, etc. Helvetica is a great amplifier of clarity without drawing attention to its own form. (source)

The writer may have had the different elements of a layout in mind, but the metaphor fits the task of combining typefaces with Helvetica just as adequately (I don’t know about the last point though) (and his others).

What keeps puzzling me: why do I feel like I have to defend Helvetica since that Helvetica Forever project? Paying attention to mentions like this, continuously giving advice on how to use it. I didn’t even liked H before. Now, as soon as you know so much about a topic, you can’t really hate it anymore …

frisch von der Buchmesse

Da steht es – Helvetica forever – unser zeitlos gediegenes Nachschlagewerk bei Lars Müller Publishers im Regal. Ab November auch in anderen.

Und wo wir gerade bei Helvetica sind. Ich habe im wunderbaren Bornheim in der Nähe der Schönen Müllerin genächtigt. Am ersten Morgen dachte ich noch, ich hätte einen Äppler-Knick in der Optik, aber den hatte wohl vor mir schon einer.

Neue Helvetica Entdeckung!

Moment … das ist ein echt toller Fund in meinem Haufen:

Ich bin inzwischen bei der Neuen Helvetica angekommen und griff etwas skeptisch zu diesem, naja, sagen wir mal – Kind seiner Zeit (1983) …

innen wird es noch arger …

beim Impressum angelangt musste ich aber trotz schlimmer Heiserkeit und Rippenschmerzen laut prusten.

benjamin hickethier at Wednesday, 29. August 2007, 20:48
hey indra ich finde das sieht grosse klasse aus! und gerade – für 1983… ich meine, stell dir vor wie erik s. damals aussah ;-)

übrigens fand ich deinen kommentar im fntblg super, zur HKW-debatte
und der veriss-routine

ausserdem bin ich auch inzwischen stolzer inhaber eines RGB-kodierten knies
dank einer sandkuhle und meinem fahrrad mit seinen schnellen starken bremsen
dafür, wie mein bein anschließend (nach der ›voll-‹bremsung) mit dem fahrrad verschlungen war, habe ich aber glück gehabt, dass ich mir nicht ein neues bein besorgen musste.
bist du wieder genesen und ordentlich echtfarben-moduliert?

liebe grüße nach… moment mal, da habe ich gerade den überblick verloren,
muss wohl mal im lebens- äh reiseplan schauen

kupfers, Wednesday, 29. August 2007, 21:26
Mensch Benjamin, ich schreibe das hier doch nicht, damit Du das nachbaust! Großes Mitleid!
Leider muss ich Dir sagen, dass die Naturbeinfarbe erst nach ungefähr zwei Wochen langsam wieder rauswächst. Kommt auf die Grundlagenausdauer Deines Bindegewebes an. Bei mir wurden die schlimmsten Rippenschmerzen aber nahtlos von einer RGB-Erkältung abgelöst. Nase außen R, innen G …

Und bezüglich oben hast Du vollkommen recht: lieber einmal mehr Eriks Lebenswerk loben als uns in die Antistimmung einschlägiger blogs einzureihen.
Solch schräge, sich überlagernde Layouts waren da noch nicht lange möglich (und Erik hatte wahrscheinlich noch Haare).

Helvetica forever

Als ich eben aus der Küche kam, war ich schon ein bisschen erschreckt: es sieht aus, als würde ich in Schriftmustern versinken (stimmt auch).
Wie es aussieht, bin ich fast die ganze Woche in D und werde Formen vergleichen.