Helvetica is probably the most used font in the recent times, making it a symbol of clean-modern-minimalistic design. But do we know anything about its origins (besides of being a swiss font)? Well, Helvetica wouldn't have seen the light of day if it weren't for its precursor Neue Haas Grotesk. But before that a bit of context: in Germany in the 19th century a new family of typefaces was born: it was called Grotesk. This style of type made a huge change in the typography world, as it first introduced a sans serif font, firstly an all capital letters sans serif in 1816 and later on a lower case version in 1832.
Needless to say, the style quickly became very popular and fonts that are still in full force today are heirs of this initial state (such as Univers, Helvetica, Gill Sans, Verdana, among others). By the mid 1950's the swiss typefoundry Haas noticed that the grotesque style wasn't selling as much and decided to ask designer Max Miedinger, to design a new Haas Grotesk. The most distinctive features of the new typeface were consistently horizontal stroke terminals, large x-height, and extremely tight spacing. These features together resulted in the typeface’s characteristically dense and vigorous texture. It became a huge hit and an icon of swiss design that quickly spread all over the graphic world.
Due to its popularity, Neue Haas was one of the first typefaces to be digitalized but with several changes from its initial form and that's how the Helvetica we know today came to be. In 2004 Christian Schwartz was commissioned to digitilize Neue Haas Grotesk for a resurface and its main role reclaim. But what are the main differences between the two digitalized versions? Let's take a look to a couple of them:
Unlike Helvetica, Neue Haas Grotesk was originally designed for hand-set letterpress type, its design was adjusted for each point size, optimizing the spacing, proportions, weight, and other details for the best results. The digitalized version dismissed all this features in favour of a one-fits-all measure.
The Helvetica digitalized versions we have today were generated mechanically by skewing regular upright forms 12°. Neue Haas Grotesk’s obliques seeks for visual harmony and therefore have been properly corrected to have smoother curves and even stroke weights.
For more details of this digital re-birth of Neue Haas Grotesk check out this website that features all the changes that have been made to perfect this beautiful typeface.