Typeface Review

Neue Haas Grotesk

Reviewed by Matthew Butterick on January 25, 2012

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.

Matthew Butterick is a typographer, writer, and lawyer in Los Ange­les. He is the creator of Butterick’s Practical Typography. His most recent typefaces are Equity and Concourse.


  1. Erik Spiekermann says:

    That, Matthew, is why Helvetica was so successful: nobody except a few Swiss & German designers would have ever dared order their typesetting in “Neue Haas Grotesk” until Heinz Eul from D. Stempel came along and suggested the name that stuck: Helvetica, after the country of its origin.

  2. Indra Kupferschmid says:

    Wait a second Erik – Eul suggested “Helvetia”, Latin for Switzerland, but Haas’ Eduard Hoffmann did not regard it ideal to name a typeface after a country, especially since a sewing machine manufacturer and insurance company already carried this name. He instead suggested “Helvetica” – The Swiss.

    Incidentally I got an image of Eul’s letter to prove this from you, Erik, a couple of years ago. I roughly translated it and Paul Shaw posted both on his website.

  3. Erik Spiekermann says:

    I know, I know. Just didn’t want to go into such detail. Eul never got credit for the name at all, so he gave me that letter years ago to at least get his contribution out there.

  4. Matthew Butterick says:

    Stranger still, Linotype didn’t even fully commit to “Neue Haas Grotesk” this time: if you install the actual fonts, they show up as “Haas Grot.”

    “Helvetica” is the most famous font name in the world. If you were entitled to use it — and Linotype is — why wouldn’t you?

    It’s as if George Lucas made a sequel to his earlier movies but then called it “Intergalactic Conflicts.”

  5. Si says:

    Stranger still, Linotype didn’t even fully commit to “Neue Haas Grotesk” this time: if you install the actual fonts, they show up as “Haas Grot.”

    Long font names cause problems for some apps. But conspiracy theories are fun. ;-)

  6. Chris Pommer says:

    Not to spin off-topic too far, but we would have been much better off if Lucas HAD called the sequels “Intergalactic Conflicts”.

  7. johsahaahr says:

    They probably went with “Die Neue Haas …” because “Die Sogar Neuer Helvetica” sounded a bit sensational! And then again we have the problem with the long names.

    But regarding the font itself: I like it. Nice to see some (minimal off course) quirkiness like the height differences between ‘e’ and ‘s’.
    But (and that’s actually in the same line of thougt) I have to say, that I think the ‘t’ seems a bit to mechanical and rigid. The same goes for Neue Helvetica, but, to a lesser extent, to Helvetica. All those straight lines and 90 degree angles. It’s too symmetrical.

    The ‘a’s are good. Not so “gimmicky” as in the normal Helvetica’s. (And gimmicky is meant as a bad word, when we talk Helvetica.)

    I’m not totally convinced by the ‘R’. But maybe I’m just too used to that curly leg. The straight leg, just seems a bit ‘vernacular’…

    But all in all: I’m excited to try to spot and enjoy this new breed out in the wild!

    (Sorry about my limited vocabulary. I’m Danish and I’m quite new to all this exciting font-stuff.)

  8. Indra Kupferschmid says:

    Nick Sherman and I made a minisite about Neue Haas Grotesk with some more infos on the history and specimens showing the differences and features.

  9. Dave says:

    It’s as if George Lucas made a sequel to his earlier movies but then called it “Intergalactic Conflicts.”

    No, it would be as if George Lucas made a sequel to his earlier movies but then called it “Blue Harvest”, had “Blue Harvest” not been a fake working title… because, if I remember correctly “Neue Haas Grotesk” is what Helvetica was called originally.

  10. Brilliant font, sadly it’s very expensive to buy a license… (especially rough for designers just starting their own company)

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