A Conversation with Mark Simonson
I sat down with Mark Simonson, the creator of Proxima Nova, for a chat about the font’s history and its usage in today’s digital media. Here is our conversation in full:
Tri Vo: How did Proxima Nova initially come together for you — Were you trying to solve a specific typographic problem? Were you experimenting?
Mark Simonson: It was a reworking of an earlier release of mine, Proxima Sans. When I did Proxima Sans in the early 90s, I only did three weights with italics. I had bigger plans for it, like more weights, condensed styles, and features like small caps and alternate characters, but at the time I just got too busy with other things in my life. The basic design of Proxima Nova is the same, but Proxima Sans was first. Proxima Nova is a more refined and developed version.
The idea for Proxima Sans came from several things: a lowercase concept I had been kicking around since the early 80s that had elements of Futura and News Gothic, and an uppercase design from around 1990 where I was imagining something like Copperplate Gothic as a sans serif. Another part of it was to create a sans serif that had a geometric feel, like Futura, but with modern proportions, like Helvetica.
I happened to be art director of a magazine in the early 90s when I was playing around with this idea. I had been using Gill Sans in the magazine and was wishing for something that didn’t look so English, but still plain and geometric. This font idea I was playing around with on the side seemed to fit the bill, so I developed it enough to use it for the magazine (and a few other projects) and eventually released it through FontHaus in 1994.
TV: Proxima Nova really took off a few years after Gotham was released. What do you think Proxima Nova does better than Gotham and vice versa?
MS: Proxima Sans never really caught on in the 90s, although it did start picking up a bit in the early 2000s, when Rolling Stone magazine started using it. This was around the same time Gotham, a similar design, was released to the general market and started catching on pretty quickly. Between that and Rolling Stone picking up Proxima Sans, I could see that there was a market for this kind of design after all, and proceeded to develop Proxima Nova, which I released in 2005.
From the start, Proxima Nova did better than Proxima Sans ever did, probably because it was so much more versatile, with so many more weights and styles, better language support, cross-platform support, and so on. Even so, it was never as popular as Gotham was back then.
But when Typekit launched in 2009, Proxima Nova became available for the web. Gotham would not be available for web use for another four years. Although there are definite differences between Proxima Nova and Gotham, they are similar enough that a lot of people saw Proxima Nova as a viable alternative on the web, and that’s when it really took off.
As to the differences, I think Gotham has more of a “retro” or vintage quality to it, especially the caps. It feels like something that’s been around forever. I think Proxima Nova has a more contemporary feel to it, and a certain “crispness” to it compared to Gotham because of the way the bowls join the stems in the lowercase. And there are the dots — mine are round, theirs are square. Honestly, I don’t know if round or square is objectively better. I like round. I have also heard from designers who say that Proxima Nova works better for text.
TV: Does Proxima Nova have any weakness that you’d like to improve in the future? Is there anything in particular that you think Proxima Nova is not suitable for?
MS: The Cyrillic characters need some work. I did them a while back for a customer, who seemed happy enough with them at the time. But I learned recently from a Russian type designer that they could be better, so I’ve been working on improving them for the next update. Every update has little improvements and fixes, things I notice that bug me, that I somehow didn’t notice before. In the past, once a typeface was released, it was done, never to change again, for better or worse. But modern fonts are software, so you do have the option to make changes and improvements if you choose to.
As for suitability, I like to think Proxima Nova could be used for anything, but in general it works best in situations where you want something kind of invisible that doesn’t call attention to itself. It doesn’t really convey much beyond the words you set in it. It’s not a “personality” typeface.
TV: A recent Digiday article said that while sans-serif fonts continue to grow with the rise of web and mobile, serif fonts are dying. What are your thoughts on that?
MS: It does seem to be true. I think the trend has to do with computer screens which, until fairly recently, have had fairly low resolution. Serif typefaces tend to have more detail than sans serif typefaces. I think that’s why sans serif faces became more popular. They hold up better on low-res screens. We have screens now that can handle the detail, but people prefer what they are used to, and everybody is used to sans serif faces now. But dying? Maybe. Maybe not.
TV: Why is Proxima Nova a font people can easily connect with?
MS: I don’t really know, but I like to think it has to do with the qualities I put into the font — the proportions, the spacing, the overall look and feel. I tried to make the shapes of the letters simple and clear. It doesn’t have a lot of fussy details or mannerisms. Maybe it has to do with the open, circular forms, which perhaps give it a “friendly” appearance, especially in the lowercase.
TV: Do you think that’s why Proxima Nova is so popular among the digital news/media market?
Again, I don’t know, but probably for similar reasons. Although I designed it originally with print in mind, its spacing and proportions have turned out to be well-suited to on-screen use.
TV: Many have even gone as far as calling Proxima Nova the new Helvetica. What do you say to that?
MS: I’m very flattered, but… As a type designer, you may dream of “creating the next Helvetica”, and I did imagine it as being something that could be used instead of Helvetica. At the same time you don’t really expect that to actually happen, no matter how good you think your typeface is. Helvetica, I think, owes a lot of its longevity to its simplicity and versatility, but it also has long history with designers and significance in western culture. I think Proxima Nova has simplicity and versatility going for it, but eclipsing Helvetica? That’s a tall order.
TV: How do you use modern tools to guide your design process?
MS: I try to keep up on the latest font development tools as much as I can and take advantage of them. There are a lot of tedious and technical aspects to making fonts, and anything that helps with that is welcome. I’m mostly self-taught and love to learn about new tools and techniques. Sometimes I think I spend more time doing that than actually making fonts, but it has served me well.
TV: Any future updates to Proxima Nova? More weights perhaps? Or are you working on any new typefaces that you’d like to share?
MS: There are always little updates coming, language extension, things like that. I’m working on adding more weights to the rounded version, Proxima Nova Soft. I’m also working on an extended version, Proxima Nova Wide. It takes time.