Imagine if, due to some fluke in the development of projection technology, The Empire Strikes Back had only been shown in a couple of movie theaters. Imagine it fading into obscurity and existing for decades as nothing more than a cult film, a historical footnote, an object of fascination among serious movie buffs.
That’s the story of Haas Unica.
If you have eyeballs, you’ve almost certainly seen Helvetica. It’s one of the most widely used typefaces ever created, so popular that it generated a documentary examining its popularity. It’s almost equally certain that you have not seen Haas Unica, the typeface designed to be Helvetica’s sequel of sorts. Introduced in 1980, it was lost to history almost instantly upon its arrival.
Now, after languishing in obscurity for decades, Unica been rescued and remastered. Thanks to an effort by Monotype designer Toshi Omagari, the legendary typeface is finally available as Neue Haas Unica, an 18-font family tuned-up for the digital age. Drawn to be legible at small sizes, it could be a perfect Helvetica-substitute for user interfaces and other on-screen text elements. For designers, though, the new Unica is an exciting visitor from the past. As Pentagram partner J. Abbott Miller puts it, “There is a Rip van Winkle quality of a font having woken up after 30 years of sleep.”
A Stillborn Typeface
Helvetica was developed in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger. Designed as an update of the so-called “grotesque” typefaces developed in Germany in the late 19th Century, it was explosively popular, and by the mid-1970s, it had utterly transformed how the written word appeared throughout modern life. It was the de facto typeface for corporations of the day, employed by Knoll, BMW, American Airlines and hundreds of other companies. It brought a clear, modern look to magazine ads, subway signs, letterheads, and Presidential campaigns. As designer Michael Beirut once remarked, at the height of its popularity, Helvetica simply seemed elemental, like air, or gravity.
For people who scrutinize letters for a living, however, Helvetica’s ubiquity in the 1960s and 1970s offered a great many opportunities to notice its quirks. Designed for short blasts of texts like headlines and advertisements, Helvetica didn’t always look great at small sizes or when used for lengthy blocks of text. And because it had been designed for the hot metal typesetting techniques prevalent in the 1950s, it hadn’t translated perfectly to the phototypesetting process that became popular in the 1970s.
So, in 1974, Haas, the centuries-old Swiss type foundry that had introduced Helvetica in 1957, commissioned a Swiss design team called Team’77 to come up with a follow-up to the world’s most popular typeface. The group—André Gürtler, Erich Gschwind and Christian Mengelt—set out to create something native to phototypesetting that combined the best elements of Helvetica and Univers, another hugely popular sans-serif typeface of the day with a slightly more formal design. Team’77 was rigorous in its analysis of the parent typefaces and meticulous in creating their offshoot. It took them three years to complete the job.
By the time they finished Unica, however, Haas was going out of business. Further, the typographic world was on the verge of being rocked by another new technology: desktop publishing. The advent of personal computers, particularly the Macintosh, would make it possible to experiment with type in tremendous new ways. Phototypesetting, for which Unica had been designed, was quickly losing relevance. As a result, Unica got lost in the shuffle. “People didn’t get to see a lot of it,” says Monotype type director Dan Rhatigan. “It was almost a stillbirth.”
In the years that followed, Unica slipped into obscurity, accumulating a sort of mythology along the way. It had been digitized in the 1980s by another company—that also promptly folded. “Because it was released by companies who went out of business, there was kind of murkiness for a while about whether or not people could do anything with Unica, which I think added to its legend,” Rhatigan says.
In late 2012, Rhatigan was visiting Monotype’s outpost in Germany, which had previously been the office of storied typesetting outfit Mergenthaler Linotype Company. He was rooting around in storage, looking for old material, when he happened upon a box of tracing paper and transparent sheets. The transparent pages each had a single letter, crisp and clean and ten inches tall: The photographic film masters for Unica.
Rhatigan had been dimly aware of the typeface from postings on typography forums, and for a designer who wears his love of typography on his sleeves quite literally, in the form of tattoos of cherished letters, finding the fabled typeface was a thrill. “It was so exciting,” he says. “We tried to find out, does this really mean that we are free to do with this what we want?” A short investigation revealed: Yes, Monotype owned both the name and the rights.
Rhatigan showed the materials to Monotype designer Toshi Omagari, who quickly took up its resurrection as a side project. Omagari redrew the letters from scratch, following the intention of original design but fine-tuning the letters and spacing for modern, digital work. Omagari drew a number of different weights and languages. When he and Rhatigan would mention the project, people would invariably get excited.
“The cult aspect became more and more obvious as we talked to people about working on it,” Rhatigan says. “People knew about Unica. But since it wasn’t widely available, a lot of people did not have a chance to work with it and see if it was as good as the legend that had grown up around it. It really was this sort of lost treasure.”
Closer to the Crystal Goblet
To your eyes and mine, the differences between Unica and Helvetica will be nearly imperceptible. The cross-stroke on the capital Q has been nudged slightly upward. The lower-case t has been shaved slightly at the top. To designers like Omagari and Rhatigan, however, the differences are perfectly obvious. Even looking at the film masters, Rhatigan says, he could see “all the detail, all the intention that was in there.”
Team’77 detailed that intention in an elaborate document from 1980, published in tandem with Unica’s release. The group started by rigorously measuring letters from Helvetica, both in its original metal form and in a second version made for phototypesetting. They then proposed dozens of adjustments. Where Helvetica’s capital letters were blocky and tended towards a uniform width, Team’77 restored Unica’s capitals to more natural proportions. The designers balanced the thickness of strokes throughout the alphabet and tweaked spacing. As a result, the group concluded, Unica had “tighter rhythm in upper case composition” and “improve[d] readability…especially for continuous text.”
This second consideration is what draws Rhatigan to the font. Helvetica was designed for use in headlines and advertisements, but when people started using it indiscriminately for larger chunks of smaller-set text, it lost some of its magic. “Helvetica looks so great when it’s handled skillfully and used for these big bold graphic treatments, but as an everyday information typeface, it falls a little flat,” Rhatigan says. Univers “is crisp and clean and it’s great, but it is a little cold,” he adds. “It’s functional but a little bit severe, let’s say.”
Unica hits a sweet spot between the two, Rhatigan says: Not quite as quirky as Helvetica, not quite as dispassionate as Univers. “Unica is beautiful, crisp, and modern and rationalized, but it has that humanity in it,” he says. In a famous essay from 1955, Beatrice Warde argued that good type should be like a crystal goblet, “calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.” Unica nudges Helvetica closer to that mark. Designers’ reactions to the new drawing, collected by Monotype, include descriptions like “beautiful,” “classic,” and “The Holy Grail.”
Rhatigan thinks Unica’s strengths are especially suited to user interfaces, where readability is paramount. When Apple moved to a skinny version of Helvetica for the iPhone’s default font, it reignited debates among type-heads about Helvetica’s legibility. As designer Khoi Vinh wrote at the time, Helvetica’s letters were “optimized for those cases where there’s ample room for the eye to truly travel along their supple curves…To use them as both Google and Apple do, in text settings, in small sizes, in paragraphs, makes reading more visually cramped and more difficult than it should be.”
Might Neue Haas Unica be a better go-to option for the era of screens? “That is certainly the hope,” Rhatigan says.
Hrant Papazian, the designer-founder of The Microfoundry, in Los Angeles, is another long-time Unica zealot. “I guess the main reason I can cling to is that it’s not ‘naive,'” he wrote years ago in a posting to the website Typophile. He made the case for Unica with an evocative, if somewhat odd, analogy. To Papazian’s eyes, older grotesque typefaces—those early sans-serif alphabets from the 19th Century—are like “backwards villagers.” New grotesques, like Helvetica and Univers, are like “urbanites pretending to be villagers,” he wrote.
“Unica is like an urbanite who has had to move in with his villager in-laws, but has decided to make the best of it,” he continued. I tried to get in touch with Papazian in hopes that he would elaborate, but I suspect type designers will know exactly what he means.