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Iconic typefaces are at risk of disappearing. That’s right, the likes of Avenir, Adobe Garamond, ITC Avant Garde Gothic, Gotham and Helvetica are at risk of going the way of Jordache jeans and Polaroid cameras.

One of the main issues facing classic typefaces is that they have to contend with a crowd of lookalikes. Scores of new “Gothams” and “Helveticas” are being made available to designers. While some are copies or clones with name changes, many are interpretations of a typographic style or genre. Type designers can only draw so many geometric sans serif typefaces without coming up with something that looks a lot like Gotham or Avenir. Check out any of the major font providers’ websites, and you’ll find handfuls of typefaces that have the same proportions and demeanor as the brand-name fonts.

This means that unless the classic typefaces are kept relevant for graphic and interactive designers, they will be passed over for newer designs. Apple replaced Neue Helvetica in 2015 with San Francisco, a bespoke typeface better up to the task of remaining readable on tiny screens. And IKEA, because of its vast international reach, is very concerned about localization. Which is why it dropped its custom version of Futura in 2009 for Verdana, a typeface with a much larger international character set. Only to switch again, in 2019, to Noto, a typeface with an even wider range of language support. If they are to remain viable, the classics need to be continually updated and promoted by their owners, included as part of design educators’ curricula and improved to meet evolving communication needs.

A little help from friends
How is this being addressed—and should it be? Maybe it’s OK for the likes of Gotham and Avenir to be at the top of the typographic hit parade today, only to be replaced by newer designs in the future. Maybe designers who sanctify the classics need to suck it up and deal with change. To help me work through this issue, I reached out to four experts on all things typographic.

First, I contacted Gail Anderson, an educator and typographic design juggernaut who is also the chair of the BFA Design and BFA Advertising departments at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She, and her business partner Joe Newton, regularly creates typography of breathtaking creativity and craft. Next was an email to Dr. Nadine Chahine, an award-winning designer of Arabic typefaces. She worked with Adrian Frutiger and Hermann Zapf in developing Arabic fonts of some of their most famous designs, and was actively involved in developing and marketing Monotype’s typefaces for many years. Then I called Patrick Griffin, who, together with Rebecca Alaccari, cofounded Canada Type. They have released more than 300 commercial typefaces, among them Orpheus, Memoriam and the very popular Gibson. Canada Type has also drawn an impressive assortment of custom designs for corporate clients. Finally, I spoke to Mark Simonson, who began designing type in the 1990s and has given us typefaces that include Felt Tip Roman, Mostra Nuova, Coquette, Bookmania and, oh yeah, Proxima Nova—a design that is clearly a modern classic, and one that is often replicated.

Left: Can you spot the real Avenir? (Answer: middle)
Right: Which is the real Proxima Nova? (Answer: bottom)

Attack of the clones
When asked if similar designs and outright clones threaten the value of typefaces like Avenir, Gotham and Proxima Nova, Simonson’s reply was both pragmatic and philosophical. “I don’t think copies and clones have a large effect on the success or failure of classic designs,” he says. “Established typefaces tend to occupy a niche in the typographic landscape that is hard for a newcomer to overcome. If you want that kind of font, the established one is going to be the first that comes to mind and will be the most likely choice.”

And, in regards to classic typefaces losing their brand value and becoming generic, Simonson says, “I don’t believe creative works should be protected indefinitely. Especially given that a fundamental concept of type design is repurposing and remixing ideas from the past in new ways.”

Anderson, however, thinks the classics should remain a vital component of a designer’s toolbox. “The new classics, like Gotham and Bodoni Egyptian, are absolutely part of the arsenal of type I encourage students to explore. And, of course, you can’t go wrong with Futura and Adobe Garamond or the other old-school classics. They’re not generic—they’re timeless!”

Griffin shares Anderson’s view of the value of classic designs. “I think that until broadband became the norm, the typefaces that stood the test of time were mostly the ones that were relayed through design and typographic education. They were faces that proved popular for lengthy periods of time, and then later considered a kind of cultural landmark. The most important classics were continually reinforced through education. Faces like Garamond, Bodoni, Baskerville, Caslon, Didot, Gill, Futura, Venus and so on spawned entire genres.” But Griffin also sees a problem.

“Design education is currently having a hell of a time just trying to catch up with the software tools,” he says. “Design software has become jammed with new things that need to be taught—to the point where design education becomes little more than teaching the new tools’ ever-evolving instruction manuals. Typography is the first thing that gets culled to make way for the new stuff.”

Technology and what’s currently in fashion have always been catalysts for change in typeface design. Akzidenz-Grotesk was a go-to design since the late nineteenth century, before it was replaced by similar designs better suited to current type imaging technologies. Times New Roman, once the most used serif typeface, is dying a natural death because no one seems to care about it anymore. Typeface longevity can be prolonged, but only if owners are willing to invest smartly.

Maintaining value
Today, many type providers try to maintain their typefaces’ value by revisiting them. Much like “new and improved Tide,” these updated versions reinforce the original designs. The improvements are generally the addition of more weights and proportions to the original family and enlarged character sets that extend language capabilities. Sometimes characters are redesigned to meet current design standards. ITC Avant Garde Gothic, for example, would benefit from a reworking of its overly tight letter spacing, which was popular in the 1970s.

“Proxima Nova has more than double the characters now than it did when I released it in 2005,” says Simonson. “The initial release only supported Western, Latin-based languages. The latest version supports most Latin-based languages, plus Cyrillic and Greek. I’ve also made other improvements and fixes over the years. I don’t see any reason not to. Fonts are just software, and improvements add to the value.”

Gibson, one of Canada Type’s most successful typefaces, has also been updated from time to time. “We’ve done a few custom weights of Gibson on a bespoke basis over the years,” says Griffin. “Since there was plenty of customer demand for more weights, we revisited the family and expanded it using the custom designs.”

“There are many reasons why major revival projects are so common these days,” says Dr. Chahine. “They are a bit like Hollywood movie sequels: there is a large and bankable audience who loves the original and will see the sequel no matter what. Updated typefaces are also very easy to market. Many times, there is something left in the story to tell.”

To give designers greater flexibility and choice in their use of Helvetica Now, Monotype added a host of alternate characters (left), including a single-story a; a beardless G; a straight-legged R; a hooked l; a straight-descender y; a u without a trailing serif; and rounded accents and punctuation. Monotype designed additional typographic tools to address modern design trends (right), including a set of Helvetica arrows, and squared and circled numbers.

More than weights and characters
In some cases, however, the owners of classic typefaces have chosen to create an essentially new product. Helvetica is a perfect example. Neue Helvetica is an updated version of the original Helvetica family. It was designed in 1983 as an expanded and improved phototype version of the original 1957 machine-set typeface. New weights were added to the family, individual glyphs were redesigned and character spacing was improved to leave behind the draconian design requirements of machine-set type. Both versions, Helvetica and Neue Helvetica, were eventually converted to digital fonts. In April 2019, Helvetica Now was added to the mix. According to Helvetica Now’s marketing material, “Every single glyph of Helvetica has been redrawn and redesigned for this expansive new edition.” Is this a good thing?

Simonson believes that remaking Helvetica into Helvetica Now was a smart decision. “I think it makes sense both in terms of marketing and in addressing deficiencies of the existing version of Helvetica, especially for smaller sizes,” he says.

Griffin, however, has a somewhat different view. “There are still some long-standing Helvetica believers out there, so Monotype was smart to update the family before the faithful were lured away by the numerous competitors dropping from everywhere,” he says. “And it was definitely a necessary move because Helvetica was Monotype’s biggest asset for decades, and seeing it displaced by other sans serif faces—they had to do something. I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to Helvetica, however, so I disagree with changes like the expansion of the bowls in several letters and the added collection of alternate characters in the new version.”

Although Helvetica Now boasts many improvements—for instance, the Micro designs, drawn specifically to be used at small sizes, and the circled figures and arrow elements, which previously had to be borrowed from other typefaces or created separately—the changes made to create this new version also currently pose a problem for multinational branding projects that require extensive language support. Helvetica Now is not compatible with the many non-Latin versions of Neue Helvetica. For example, according to Dr. Chahine, “Neue Helvetica Arabic would be compatible, to a certain extent, with the Text versions of Helvetica Now, but the weights would need some tweaking.”

Anderson, however, has nothing but kind words for all three versions of the iconic sans. “Helvetica is basically beautiful, and I wouldn’t throw Neue Helvetica out of bed,” she says. “I also have my eye on Helvetica Now.”

Why you should care
So, what do these updates to classic typefaces mean for graphic and interactive designers?

The good news is that for the most part, they make the newer versions of the typefaces better typographic tools than their predecessors. The updated designs are usually drawn with great care by highly trained and extremely competent designers. In addition, they are almost always edited and vetted by a team of typographic experts. They are also released to full-monty technical specs. They’ll perform equally well in hard copy and a wide variety of digital environments. Bottom line: the designs are handsome—and industrial strength.

But there are caveats to using updated typefaces. If your client is using the original typeface and you use a new and improved design, there is a likelihood that it will not match the weights, spacing or even the structural details of the original. If you want consistency and backward compatibility, you’ll need to stick with fonts of the original typeface. In addition, some new and improved type families may not have as many weights and proportions, nor benefit from international language support as extensive as that built over the years for the original designs.

Then there’s the issue of which version of the classic typeface to use. There are scores of Garamond designs to choose from and probably more Bodonis than you can count. And the duplicity issue isn’t limited to typefaces with feet. Looking for Franklin Gothic? There are at least a dozen versions available. Even Frutiger offers three choices to designers: Frutiger, Frutiger Next and Neue Frutiger.

While new and improved typefaces are almost always better typographic tools, they come at a price. Choose wisely. ca

Allan Haley is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation. 

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