scorecardresearch

Loved and loathed, iconic Helvetica font enters a new era

A large green "TYPE" sign is prominent in the offices of Monotype, the biggest maker and owner of fonts in the world.
A large green "TYPE" sign is prominent in the offices of Monotype, the biggest maker and owner of fonts in the world.(Jim Davis /Globe Staff)

It’s the typeface that greets you on your tax forms. It announces MBTA station stops. Its sans-serif letters glow in the night outside Target and CVS.

In the world of typography, Helvetica is as common as vanilla ice cream. The 62-year-old font is celebrated and loathed for its ubiquity. Now, it’s getting a face lift for the digital age.

The reboot — by Monotype, a Woburn-based firm that owns Helvetica and thousands of other fonts — has set off a new round of debate over a typeface that has not only divided font fanatics but also transcended the field of design.

Advertisement



Indeed, not many fonts are controversial enough to show up on Twitter’s trending topics. So when Mitch Goldstein saw the word “Helvetica” among the social network’s hottest discussions, he joked that it must be there for the same macabre reason that sees celebrity names suddenly pop up.

“Saw Helvetica trending and I thought maybe it died?” the Rochester Institute of Technology design professor tweeted last week.

“One could only hope,” retorted a fellow designer.

“Long live Helvetica,” another artist declared, pledging to get a tattoo in the typeface.

Goldstein said in an interview that the font engenders strong emotions because it is “so massively used across every aspect of contemporary culture.’’

“Some people really hate that,” he said. “Some people think it represents a kind of dead generic nothingness of typography, and some people think it’s a really brilliantly designed, incredibly versatile, really well-done typeface.”

Monotype is calling the new version Helvetica Now. Many of the changes are intended to make it more legible and suited to digital uses, including on tiny screens where Helvetica would have otherwise been difficult to read.

Helvetica Now retains its predecessor’s fundamental personality. The signature teardrop loop of the lowercase “a” is still there, as are the clean, abrupt horizontal terminals on the ampersand.

Advertisement



But there are some new flourishes. The “@” symbol, which is working much harder these days than it was when the font was last revisited in 1983, has been completely redone. There’s an alternate uppercase “R” with a straightened leg.

“Helvetica is getting a treatment that is bringing it into this century in a way that makes it more useful for people,” said Charles Nix, the company’s type director.

With Helvetica Now, the company hopes to demonstrate that it can keep fonts that were designed in the golden age of printing relevant for the digital era. The changes could benefit Monotype’s bottom line, too. The company is selling packages of its new “Helvetica Now” fonts for $299.

Monotype, a publicly traded company with market capitalization of about $846 million, has a global workforce of about 700. It controls the rights to the world’s largest collection of fonts, ranging from old word-processor standards such as Times New Roman to breakout stars such as ITC Benguiat , which creeped us out on the covers of Stephen King’s novels and in the title sequence of the show “Stranger Things.” Monotype acquired Helvetica when it bought competitor Linotype in 2006.

Though Monotype executives were modest and reflective in an interview at their office this week, the marketing materials for Helvetica Now reflect a level of hype usually reserved for the release of a major motion picture.

“This is not a revival. This is not a restoration,” Monotype preened on its website. “This is a statement.”

Advertisement



The casual passerby actually might not notice the changes much, but Helvetica Now is the product of about four years of work and planning. Nix said he personally spent many hours drawing and redrawing the pound sterling symbol (£), to make sure it still looked sharp at tiny sizes.

“If there were other people on the team who didn’t care about type as much as I did, I might have gotten rapped on the knuckles at some point,” he said.

After the company unveiled Helvetica Now on April 9, Nix knew better than to check the response on social media. He gets the feelings about fonts. As the son of a printer and a designer who grew up with a press in his basement, he’s felt pulled by both pro- and anti-Helvetica camps.

“If Helvetica’s going to exist, it’s going to be the best . . . version of itself,” he said. “A lot of people who don’t like the typeface, they still understand that it’s a tidal wave. It’s a deep gravitational pull that they can’t extricate themselves from or extricate the design world from.”

Fonts always arouse passion among designers — don’t get them started about Comic Sans — but Helvetica’s pervasiveness has set it apart. The font was the subject of a documentary film. New York’s Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition in its honor.

Advertisement



It is also the target of a profane website called helveticasux.com. And even Stephen Colbert has insulted it on Twitter: “Hey helvetica — you look disgusting. have some dignity and put on some serifs.”

Martha Rettig, who oversees the masters of design program at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, said Helvetica Now “looks like it was designed really well and really intentionally, and that means I think we’re going to see it exploding across digital interfaces.”

“We could have a whole new hatred of Helvetica for overuse now,” Rettig added.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.