Helvetica Now (source)

“Helvetica Now” is better than “Helvetica Never”

Mehmet Gözetlik
Apr 21 · 7 min read

Second-guess for Helvetica

My TEDx talk was starting with a clip from Helvetica documentary. In this clip, Matthew Carter, one of the most famous font designer who has spent years designing fonts such as Verdana and Georgia, says: I’m glad no one asked me to second-guess Helvetica because I wouldn’t know what to do.

In fact, I had been questioning “Helvetica” three years prior to the release of the Helvetica documentary. One day I asked a direct question to a colleague after work: What if the things we know were wrong? He said: How? What if, Comic Sans is much more beautiful and Helvetica is not in fact? His reaction was obvious. He said; Dear Gözetlik, my friend, you must be out of your mind. However many creative ideas came from questions like this.

My TEDx Talk: We don’t see things as they Are, we see them as we are.

The next Max Miedinger

I’m not a person who hates Helvetica. Actually, I used it many times throughout my design career. Moreover, I went the extra mile with my ideas I had for Helvetica. I decided to shape my master thesis around fresh ideas I have had for Helvetica at the time. My project showcased the potential refinement where I applied to Helvetica with my editings and ideas in 2004.

You see regular Helvetica in red, and green ones show my draft proposal (in 2004).

I thought like I was about to create the next default font of our era and that I would be the next Max Miedinger— sure enough, I didn’t turn out to be the next Max. While tackling my “Helvetica” challenge, I kept receiving friendly warnings from academicians: “You will face a lot of obstacles in your way, and many authorities will criticize you. Your thesis will be misunderstood”. I have been forced to give up my youth dreams and I had to shift the course of my track. Thinking back to my reflection on Helvetica, it was a plain desire for something new. I pioneered the idea that our era needed new production rather than pointing out Helvetica’s errors.

The pound sign (£) in Helvetica Neue, Helvetica Now

“Our era desperately needed new production rather than pointing out Helvetica’s errors.”

The pound sign (£) in San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago, Monotype released Helvetica Now with an official announcement: Helvetica® Now is a new chapter in the story of perhaps the best-known typeface of all time. Available in three optical sizes — Micro, Text, and Display — every character in Helvetica Now has been redrawn and refit; with a variety of useful alternates added. It has everything we love about Helvetica and everything we need for typography today. This is not a revival. This is not a restoration.

My logotype design for Autoban Istanbul (source)

Helvetica Update in real-life

On the eve of 10th anniversary in 2013, Autoban, internationally renowned, Istanbul-based multidisciplinary design studio, wanted to create a new identity for next decade. Autoban İstanbul has a strong brand mark, with the Helvetica based logotype. They were using an actual highway symbol as a brand visual.

I said that Helvetica was designed to be used in small amounts text in headlines and advertisements when hot metal typesetting was being used. Helvetica was designed specifically not to give an impression or have any inherent meaning. It’s very adaptable to use for different design projects. But basically, it is a grotesque sans-serif for the body copies and
it has some optical deformation for a better reading experience in small size.

Please look at the circular details of the lowercase ‘b’ and ‘a.’

very adaptable to use for different design projects. But basically, it is a grotesque sans-serif for the body copies and
it has some optical deformation for a better reading experience in small size.

Please look at the circular details of the lowercase ‘b’ and ‘a.’

Like the other body text fonts, Helvetica works in the small and medium sizes. So, when you use it in a big size, it could be a disaster with its imperfection. Finally, I designed the custom-made logotype, between Helvetica (All-time classic typeface) and DIN ( the German Autobahn’s typeface) If you wish you can see the whole project at the project page.

Custommade Autoban Istanbul logotype (middle), between Helvetica (Top) and DIN (below) (source)

Why It came NOW? (not before)

There are some different Helvetica releases like Neue Haas Grotesk (1957), Helvetica (1957), Helvetica Condensed (1963), Helvetica Compressed (1966), Swiss 721 (1982), Helvetica Neue (1983), Helvetica Neue Extended (1990), Neue Helvetica eText (2011), etc. So Helvetica continuously updated by many type designers.

San Francisco by Apple (source)

When Apple abandoned the world’s most beloved typeface Helvetica (to their in-house font San Francisco), we were starting to notice, today’s multi-size display platforms need a bold update rather than Helvetica Neue.

Helvetica Now (source)

They were using Helvetica as the default system font for all platforms including Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV. Previously the majority of the OS X (now named macOS) environment retained the comparatively more legible Lucida Grande typeface, not Helvetica. Lucida Grande was designed for on-screen use specifically.

SF comprised of two main subfamilies: SF is used in iOS, MacOS and Apple TV, and ‘SF Compact’ is just for the Apple Watch. (source)

On November 18, 2014, Apple released San Francisco, a neo-grotesque sans-serif typeface made by Apple Inc. because it was another screen limitation for their typography.

The size difference will be more significant than you think when you look screen pixel dimension

When you look at Apple devices, they look very similar to each other with their retina displays. But when you look at them again in the same resolution, The size difference will be more significant than you think. And we are using many devices with very complicated screen optimization. So we need a specific solution for that.

San Francisco is Apple’s answer, for this problem. It is the first smart typeface of our time. As you see below, it is carefully designed to be easy to read in any text size and on any device. It is a “digital native” font for the digital age. If you wish to learn more about San Francisco, you can read “The Secret of the Apple’s New San Francisco Fonts” article by Akinori Machino. You can download San Francisco family from Apple.com.

I think, after San Francisco, Monotype designer wants to update/upgrade our old friend Helvetica like my master thesis proposal in 2004.

Is “Helvetica Now” enough for today needs?

The answer is a little tricky: yes and no. Why? There are 18 SF Pro Display, 12 SF Pro Text, 9 SF Condensed Display, 6 SF Condensed Text, 9 SF Compact Display, 12 SF Compact Text, 9 SF Compact Rounded, 12 SF Mono (Total 87 variations). On the other hand, There are 20 Helvetica Now Display, 12 Helvetica Now Micro, 16 Helvetica Now Text (Total 48 variations)

Helvetica Now inconsistent terminal/finial form, e and c

Simply, Apple offers more font options with the support of their software power. One of the great features of San Francisco is the way it optimizes the typeface dynamically. The system will automatically switch the Display/Text fonts according to the text sizes specifically, 20pt is the boundary.

Vertical spacing table for SF Family. (source)

If you are a developer, you don’t have to think about it. The system will do all all the work for you and will actually leave you no other option than the automatically selected one! if you are a designer, who use Photoshop, Sketch, and other software tools. Sadly you have to do some additional work and take care of this yourself. But there are many guidelines created by Apple and other developers.

Helvetica Now alternate characters for R, i, l, a, y, G, t (source)

If you use Helvetica Now you have to switch the Display/Text fonts according to the text sizes manually (for developers and also designers). Also, you have to choose some alternate characters manually such as a, G, R, etc., if you are a typography obsessed person who wants better legibility.

20pt is the boundary to switch the Display/Text SF font (source)

Apple produces many contents including typography guidelines, developer conference sessions, presentations, etc. For example, In this 30 minute video Type Designer Antonio Cavedoni is introducing SF Family. San Francisco is also continuously expanded and updated by Apple, based on their R&D processes and our needs. There are only a few contents for Helvetica Now and all of them look like PR material.

Helvetica Now by Monotype

Conclusion: Is it enough for our complex habitat?

Without a doubt, Helvetica is the most heavily used font by professionals. It was created in 1957, when there were no digital devices, and no doubt it will be used in the future as a great classic sans-serif typeface.

Helvetica Now is a great step forward in Helvetica’s sixty-year history. However, this move is yet a baby step to catch up with San Francisco’s solution to complicated screen size and resolution variations. Apple’s font innovation does not only cover our typeface but transforms how we use letterforms. The latter being exclusive to Apple so far. This is because, complex problems often require complex solutions.

And additional note for SF lovers: Apple licences for this SF family prohibit any other usage except mocking up Apple applications. So you can’t use this font for websites, prints etc.

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Antrepo

Where innovation comes from

Thanks to Goksenin Yildirim

Mehmet Gözetlik

Written by

A multidisciplinary designer, Creative Director, typography instructor, brand consultant

Antrepo

Antrepo

Where innovation comes from

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