Trusty, ubiquitous Helvetica font gets a facelift fit for the digital age
By MEGAN ROWE | The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. | Published: April 18, 2019
SPOKANE, Wash, (Tribune News Service) — “The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog” is known for using every letter of the alphabet. Typeface creators use such sentences to display the qualities of their fonts. This type of sentence – known as a panagram – has a new spin on one of the most recognizable fonts: Helvetica.
Monotype, one of the largest font companies in the world, owns Helvetica licensing, a font that originated in 1957. After 35 years, Charles Nix, Monotype director, decided the font was due for another upgrade. A video on the company’s website promotes the remaking of Helvetica, known as Helvetica Now.
The font is so popular that a local design agency, Helveticka, decided to rename its company using a play on the font’s name. CK Anderson, Helveticka creative director, said when his former partner retired, he saw it as an opportunity to change the name. That’s when he realized he could incorporate his initials – CKA – and still have the same phonetics as Helvetica.
“That association was a positive for a design firm because of the characteristics of Helvetica,” Anderson said. “It’s versatile, readable, pragmatic and a smart typeface, because it can be used in so many different ways.”
Helveticka’s clients range from Avista to the Davenport Hotel to the Steam Plant, and even though the firm uses Helvetica, it’s not necessarily incorporated into its projects. As for Helvetica Now? Anderson said though they haven’t purchased the font as of yet, his firm is “all in.”
“Without losing the central characteristics of the font, they improved on it,” Anderson said. “I think the changes with Helvetica Now are going to make it more classic and more timeless. It’s improving on a classic, which is not easy to do.”
Greg Stiles, Spokane Falls Community College graphic design instructor, said in an email that updating a font like Helvetica would be a daunting task.
“Updating and redesigning approximately 40,000 characters is huge undertaking,” Stiles said. “It’s a bit of a thankless job, but for Monotype Imaging Holdings Inc., it can also be very lucrative.”
Monotype’s promotional video said Helvetica Now is better suited for the internet age due to its ability to take on drastically different formats, from gigantic billboards to smartphone apps.
“Helvetica Now, in my opinion, is just a natural evolution of type design,” Stiles said. “It is an attempt to solve digital and visual problems for the Apple Watch or larger applications such as outdoor digital billboards.”
But not everyone is convinced.
“My gut reaction and I’m sure everybody is going to say this is ‘Why?’ ” said Chris Bovey, Vintage Spokane Prints owner. “What is the reason that we need to fix something that’s not broken?”
Bovey said the desire to update the font for a digital world has good intentions, but he feels that something essential was lost in the update. For him, Helvetica brings to mind signage from government buildings and national parks from the 1970s and 1980s.
“If it was me, I wouldn’t tweak that, I wouldn’t mess around with the look,” Bovey said. “I understand with wanting to fix spacing issues … . I’m sure there’s a lot of purists out there that are totally against touching it.”
Bovey said he needs to conceptualize the fonts for any of his work before he can do anything else, and would estimate that around 50% of his design has to do with the typeface he chooses.
Russ Davis, Gray Dog Press owner, said Helvetica’s best application is in signage and book covers. Gray Dog Press works in printing and book design for publishers and self-publishers.
Helvetica works best in these formats because it is a sans serif font, Davis said.
“A good example (of a serif font) is Times New Roman,” Davis said. “Times New Roman has the little embellishments and curlicues at the end of a given letter. Your eye will have a tendency to key in on certain aspects of those embellishments to be able to be able to discern an ‘A,’ to be able to discern one capital over another.”
On the other hand, a sans serif font, like Helvetica, is stripped down. A good example, Davis said, is a lowercase ‘i’ in a sans-serif font.
“It’s just going to be basically a bat and a ball,” Davis said.
In Davis’ experience, once you crack the spine on a book, the best reader experience will be one where the font isn’t even noticed.
“It all has to come together in such a way as to where the reader doesn’t think twice about it, the reader just reads and gets what they can out of the text,” Davis said.
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