Art critic Jerry Saltz said of a recent exhibition that the artist had “done what an artist ought to: open the floor beneath my feet, and take me places I didn’t know were there.”
That’s how I feel about Neue Haas Grotesk. Christian Schwartz has gone deep into a typeface we all think we know – fucking Helvetica! – and come back with something beautiful and fresh. It is a flat-out wonderful work of type design. Why? It successfully bridges all the tensions that great typefaces are made of: conceptual yet concrete, rigorous yet loose, respectful yet daring, fashionable yet practical.
To those who would scoff and say, “Why do we need more Helvetica?” Grant me two points. First, we’ve been looking at digital Helvetica for so long that we’ve forgotten it embodies decades of compromises. Christian has restored the layers of subtlety and balance that have gone missing. (As someone who’s worked with cold-metal Helvetica, I can vouch for the fact that it’s never looked better.) Second, love it or hate it, Helvetica will be part of our visual culture for the foreseeable future. So if I have to look at Helvetica another 50 years, I’d rather look at the best version of it.
And that brings me to my sole criticism of the face – its ungainly name, which I’m regrettably certain will limit its visibility and hence its uptake. “Neue Haas Grotesk” makes it sound like a second cousin of Akzidenz Grotesk that’s just stumbled in from the hinterlands. But no, it is the rightful heir to the Helvetica throne. It should carry the Helvetica name. The old king is dead; long live the new king.