Deja Vu Helvetica (Research + Identification)

c3007888's picture


I am currently doing university research on Helvetica. I will be comparing and identifying clones and lookalikes (or rip-offs) of the 1951 Haas Helvetica.

I am not sure if this post is appropriate for the Type Identification Board. But it would be greatly appreciated if any of you could spare your time and knowledge on Helvetica clones and rip-offs (lookalikes) and help me identify them.

Name the typeface, if you can specify the type foundry that created it.

If you can help, great! Thanks.


Mark Simonson's picture

Many of these are obsolete now since everything went digital in the eighties:

Claro (Alphatype, phototype)
Helios & Helios II (Compugraphic, phototype)
Triumvirate (Compugraphic, phototype and digital)
Geneva (Graphic Systems and Singer, phototype, not to be confused with the Mac system font of the same name)
Vega (Harris Fototronic, phototype)
Newton (Photon, phototype)
Helvestar (Star Graphics, phototype)
Megaron (Varityper/AM, phototype)
Swiss 721 (Bitstream, digital)
Arial (Monotype, digital)
Nimbus Sans (URW, digital)

There were some metal faces that might qualify (such as certain weights of Ludlow's Record Gothic), but I don't know that I would call any of them clones as much as competing expressions of the same general idea. They were clones in the sense that you couldn't use Helvetica on a Ludlow machine (Helvetica was only available for Linotype machines), so Record Gothic was offered as a substitute.

Most of the phototypesetting faces listed above were offered for similar reasons, but were nearly indistinguishable from Helvetica.

Arial is an unusual case in that it was created specifically as a substitute for Helvetica. It was originally for use in PostScript clone laser printers and imagesetters when Helvetica was called for by the print job. It uses the same metrics for all the characters and a similar overall appearance, but differs in its details. It could be thought of as a separate design, except that without Helvetica, it would not exist or have any reason to exist.

pattyfab's picture

If you're researching Helvetica there's a cute book called "Homage to a Typeface" by Lars Muller. It's kind of short on info but lots of visuals.

metadox's picture

Something I just discovered about URW's Nimbus Sans: it's actually closer to the display version of Helvetica, which Mark brought up in an old thread, than either the original Linotype digitization or Lino's Helvetica Neue. Notice how the bold weight is slightly lighter and how, partially as a consequence of this, the counters on the 'a' seem wider. (This is more like the version of Helvetica you see on things like NYC subway entrances and old Lego boxes from the '70s and '80s.)

c3007888's picture

Mark, thanks for all that info on the reasons behind the numerous clones of Helvetica. I didnt realise this.

I am currently trying to obtain type specimen sheets of the phototype clones of Helvetica. So far I have been able to find Megaron, but no luck on the others. Do any of you know particularly where I could obtain them?

One of the things I observed is that URW's Nimbus Sans D has a smaller x-height, as a result it has a lighter tonal weight to it. This is especially noticable in blocks of text.

Nimbus Sans D seems to be based on the original Haas Helvetica not LT's Helvetica Neue (the end serif on the leg of R seems to imply this)

Metadox, I hope you don't mind me using the word "Real." as "R" and "a" are often where differences in Helvetica are identified.

c3007888's picture

Sorry, I meant Swiss 271 (not Nimbus Sans D) seems to be based on the original haas Helvetica, and Nimbus seems to be based on Helvetica Neue. My mistake!

James Gareth's picture

Great information here! One thing that's still true from looking at these samples: Arial is one ugly face! I wish the PC world used heletica instead, now we have to look at that abonination everywhere :-(

metadox's picture

URW seems to have digitized at least 4 (!) different optical sizes of Helvetica, along with Helvetica Neue. (Here I'm talking about the Bold, since that's the weight I can remember seeing most in display type.)

Nimbus Sans T: This one is more like the Linotype digitizations I posted here, with heavier stroke weight and more dramatic curves on the 'R' and 'a'.

Nimbus Sans D: Intended for display -- this is what I used to make the sample.

Nimbus Sans P: The P is for Poster. Intended for even larger sizes! Looks like the glyphs are thinner still, and spaced more closely together by default.

Nimbus Sans L: Not sure what this is meant for, but it seems to resemble the text faces more than the display faces.

I think these are all based on the pre-Helvetica Neue designs, because in addition to this, URW also has many of the same optical variations of "Nimbus Sans Novus", which presumably is a digitization of Helvetica Neue (and has SC/OsF!?!).

Though I don't have a type designer's eye to tell you if these faces are well-digitized*, I am really liking the robustness of the Nimbus Sans family. Has any other foundry done this with their Helvetica equivalent?

* One weird thing with URW fonts, is that URW will (or at least would, at a time) provide the outlines to different licensees in their Ikarus format, and they can do things like alter the curves (maybe), metrics, kerning, hinting, etc. (definitely) in the process of generating T1's, so not all URW digital fonts you get are equal, especially if they came bundled with something else!

Mark Simonson's picture

Metadox, thanks for pointing out the various versions of Nimbus Sans. I had not looked at it very closely before, assuming it to be similar to the rest. I'm especially surprised to see that URW did the display versions, which match the old display versions of Helvetica.

As you point out, the display versions of Helvetica were distinctly different from the text versions (which are what nearly all of the digital versions--clones or not--are based on). It's too bad Linotype has not released such a version. Helvetica Neue is fine, but the old display version has some merits, especially for anyone trying to capture the look that made it so popular in the '60s and '70s. The text versions (or even Neue) don't do it.

I've often wondered why Linotype has never done a display version of Helvetica, and now I think I know why. In metal, the display version was only available from Haas, and all the "cold" display type (film fonts, rub downs, etc.) got their Helvetica from Haas, not Linotype. Linotype was traditionally a machine composition system used mainly for text even when they went to phototype. Linofilm Helvetica only went up to 36 point. Looking at it in one of my old specimen books, it looks exactly like Linotype's digital version. The Linotype metal version only went up to 14 point. So, that may be why Linotype has never released the display version--they never had it in the first place.

Mark Simonson's picture

I am currently trying to obtain type specimen sheets of the phototype clones of Helvetica.

Geoff, the book you want is Production for the Graphic Designer by James Craig. It was first published in the '70s. The list I compiled (above) is mainly from this book, which has several pages of specimens set from different manufacturers' equipment.

One caveat: The book has been updated, and the copy I have is one of the older editions. I don't know for sure if this section is in the current edition (after all, nobody uses phototypesetting machines anymore). Perhaps someone else here can confirm this. Otherwise, I would recommend getting it from a bookstore or library so you can examine the book and make sure the specimen pages are in it.

metadox's picture

That's fascinating about Linotype, Mark

Bald Condensed's picture

> Arial is one ugly face!

Well Helvetica is not exactly queen of the prom neither... :-)

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