Eduard Hoffmann’s notebook documents the birth and early development of Neue Haas Grotesk and Helvetica. On this page from May 7th, 1957, he noted: “All characters: should be OK now”.

Eduard Hoffmann’s notebook

The Birth of a Giant

Neue Haas Grotesk’s original development in the 1950s is a story of collaboration and creative marketing.

By the mid-1950s, the Haas typefoundry in Switzerland recognized a decrease in sales of their sans serif (“grotesk”) typefaces. Their classic designs were less favored than competitors like Berthold’s Akzidenz-Grotesk, which was especially popular in the emerging “International Style” of graphic design. President of the company, Eduard Hoffmann, saw an opportunity and commissioned former Haas salesman and designer, Max Miedinger, to design a new Haas Grotesk.

Akzidenz-Grotesk by Berthold, though dating back to styles from 1898, was the most appreciated sans serif in the mid-1950s, favored by many leading Swiss designers.

Akzidenz Grotesk

Französische Grotesk was one of Haas’ existing sans serif typefaces, based on Schelter & Giesecke’s Breite halbfette Grotesk from 1890. Its popularity was decreasing in the mid-1950s.

French Grotesk

Normal-Grotesk, Haas’ other sans serif, was a 1943 reworking of a generic typeface from around 1910. By the mid-1950s, its narrow and boxy design became less popular with contemporary Swiss designers.

Normal Grotesk

Work on Neue Haas Grotesk began early in the fall of 1956. Over the following months Miedinger and Hoffmann diligently exchanged drawings, proofs, and comparisons with the old grotesks. 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.

Neue Haas Grotesk
Neue Haas Grotesk specimen book designed by Josef Müller-Brockmann

The original success of Neue Haas Grotesk was aided by well-executed marketing efforts. Leading typographers were commissioned to design promotional materials, like this “Satzklebebuch” by Josef Müller-Brockmann from 1960.

Following its debut at the “Graphic 57” trade show in June 1957, Neue Haas Grotesk was an immediate success. Adopted by many graphic designers it became a hallmark of contemporary Swiss graphic design.

To truly compete with other sans serifs in the global type market, Hoffmann knew it was important to make Neue Haas Grotesk available for machine composition. In June 1959 he made a deal with D. Stempel AG in Germany to manufacture Neue Haas Grotesk for the popular Linotype machine, making the typeface more practical to use for an even larger customer base.

The name “Neue Haas Grotesk” was deemed less than ideal for an international Linotype market though. Heinz Eul, sales manager at Stempel, suggested “Helvetia”, which is Latin for “Switzerland”, but Hoffmann was not convinced, especially since a sewing machine manufacturer and insurance company already carried the name. He instead suggested “Helvetica” – “the Swiss”.

In the beginning, only the Linotype version of the typeface was referred to as Helvetica. The hand-set type continued to be sold as Neue Haas Grotesk for several years, with some catalogs even using both names side by side. This made sense because the design had to be significantly altered for the limitations of the Linotype machine.

Helvetica / Neue Haas Grotesk brochure, 1963. Designed by Hans Neuburg and Nelly Rudin.

Helvetica / Neue Haas Grotesk specimen brochure cover

Deviations over time

After its original release, Neue Haas Grotesk was subjected to many design compromises.

Hasty family expansions

The immediate success of Neue Haas Grotesk and Helvetica put pressure on Haas and Stempel to issue additional weights and styles as quickly as possible. Older typefaces were hastily tweaked and renamed to meet the demand for a larger family, leading to many inconsistencies in design and proportions between the various fonts.

Duplexed Linotype matrix

Linotype matrices are usually “duplexed”, carrying two variations of the same character, both with the same exact width.

Compromises for the Linotype machine

The Linotype machine casts one line of type at a time from a row of individual molds, or “matrices”. One matrix can be used to cast two forms of the same character: usually either regular and italic, or regular and bold. As such, both forms have to be exactly the same width. This “duplexing” inevitably leads to compromises: italics often appear to be too wide, bold styles too narrow.

Helvetica was created for the Linotype by refitting all styles of Neue Haas Grotesk, making the regular weight looser and the medium weight more dense. The italic (technically an oblique) was completely redrawn by Stempel, and the medium weight was made slightly bolder. Also, the size of each glyph had to be slightly reduced to accommodate uppercase accents.

From metal to film

For metal type, separate matrices were created to cast each size of a typeface. This allowed the design to be adjusted for each size, optimizing spacing, proportions, and weight as needed. Photo-typesetting, on the other hand, enabled the infinite scaling of just one master design. To preserve at least some of the adjustments traditionally made for different sizes, foundries provided up to four sets of masters to be used for different ranges of size.

Early Linotype photo-setting systems worked with a restrictive 18-unit system for the character widths (later 54 units). This again implied that all styles had to be redrawn and respaced.

This straight-legged R – a drawing for phototype production in the Linotype archives – was one of several alternate forms originally available for Neue Haas Grotesk and Helvetica.

Straight-legged Helvetica R master drawing

The digital era and Neue Helvetica

Because of its vast popularity, Helvetica was among the first typefaces to be adapted for digital typesetting. Unfortunately, many of the design limitations from analog systems were carried over to the digital realm. For example, the version of Helvetica that comes with every Macintosh computer today, digitized in the early days of PostScript, still retains the coarse 18-unit width system from the phototype era. Many of its curves lack finesse and its oblique was created by automatically slanting the roman.

Lowercase “a” from the original Neue Haas Grotesk and Neue Helvetica

In comparison with the original smooth curves of Neue Haas Grotesk (left), Neue Helvetica is more boxy (right).

In 1982 Linotype set out to revise and systematize the hodgepodge of fonts Helvetica had become over years. Adopting a numeric naming system from the former competitor typeface, Univers, styles and weights were coordinated and complemented. The height of capitals and lower case were aligned throughout the family. Yet the wish for regularization led to new compromises: condensed and expanded styles required squarer forms, which had to be adopted for the normal width, again sacrificing some of the personality of the rounder original.

Neue Haas Grotesk
Display 66 Medium Italic
54 points
54 points linespacing

“I’ve come to think that Helvetica was never intended to be the cold, perfect, rational typeface it’s portrayed to be. There is a subtle warmth in the shapes that was lost over the years.” —Christian Schwartz

A Proper Revival

After half a century of compromises, Neue Haas Grotesk has finally gotten the digitization it deserves.

In 2004 Christian Schwartz was commissioned to digitize Neue Haas Grotesk. The project, which he refers to as a restoration, was completed in 2010. With “as much fidelity to the original shapes and spacing as possible”, he carefully redrew the typeface to match Miedinger’s original forms.

Schwartz divided the family into two groups – display styles, which retained the characteristically tight spacing of the original’s larger sizes, and text styles, slightly sturdier and spaced more loosely for smaller sizes. Additionally, he incorporated alternative glyphs, like the straight-legged R which had been available in pre-digital formats. Other amenities like an Ultra Thin weight, drawn by Berton Hasebe, and additional numeral sets were added, but the essence of Neue Haas Grotesk was preserved throughout.

For more details on the digital restoration, see the Features section.

Neue Haas Grotesk family

A worthy tribute, Hoffmann-approved

As the son of Eduard Hoffmann and former CEO of the Haas foundry, Alfred Hoffmann witnessed and helped fashion the development of Neue Haas Grotesk and Helvetica for over 50 years. In his postface for Helvetica Forever, he avowed a fondness for the typeface’s original design:

“The first Neue Haas Grotesk typeface proofs, carefully set by hand and printed on fine art paper are, in my opinion, true works of art. I can feel the original, the master’s hand, I can sense the gray value owing to the unusually tight casting, I can discover unique qualities such as the wide numerals and the deliberately narrow word spacing – the experience is almost pure bliss.”

On the digital restoration of Neue Haas Grotesk, Hoffmann continues: “There can be no better memorial present for its two deceased founding fathers, Eduard Hoffmann and Max A. Miedinger.” Ornament

Alfred Hoffmann reviewing specimens of the digital Neue Haas Grotesk in Basel, Switzerland, September 2011.

Afred Hoffmann

Article by Indra Kupferschmid. For a more detailed account on the development of the original Neue Haas Grotesk, see Helvetica Forever, published by Lars Müller Publishers.