Helvetica vs. Neue Helvetica: The Same but Different

Helvetica is one of the most popular and well-known sans serif typefaces in the world ever since its inception in 1957. It’s been used for every typographic project imaginable, including print, signage, movie titles, the web and other digital media, and type in motion. It’s even used by the U.S. government on federal income tax forms, as well as by NASA who selected the typeface for the space shuttle orbiters. True, it is available on virtually every computer, which makes it available to the masses, but it just works well in numerous environments leading to its use by even the most high-end design studios. In fact, there is even a feature-length film about it entitled Helvetica, which is well worth viewing for designers and non-designers alike.


The typeface we now call Helvetica did not start with that name. The original Helvetica design was created by Max Miedinger in 1956 under the direction of Eduard Hoffmann, managing director of the Haas Type Foundry, and named “Neue Haas Grotesk.” The name was changed to Helvetica as it more closely embodied the spirit and heritage of the face. The name “Helvetica” was a close approximation of “Helvetia,” the Latin name for Switzerland. (“Helvetia” was not chosen because a Swiss sewing machine company and an insurance firm had already taken the name.) It was then released by Linotype in 1957.

Neue Helvetica

Neue Helvetica was a re-working of the 1957 design in order to unify its structure, weights and widths, and was released in 1983 by D. Stempel AG, Linotype’s daughter company. Refinements included adjusting character weights, proportions and spacing, all of which were sometimes compromised in earlier versions of the family in order to comply with inherent limitations of typesetting technologies of the day. As technologies improved, these limitations were removed, allowing total design freedom.

It was these modifications that led to the redrafting of Helvetica in 1983, when the complete family was carefully redrawn and expanded with additional weights, now a whopping 51 versions! The outcome, entitled Neue Helvetica, was a synthesis of aesthetic and technical refinements that resulted in improved appearance, legibility and usefulness. In 2004, Linotype released Neue Helvetica Pro, which is an OpenType version with expanded foreign language support.

Some of the changes – from subtle to more obvious – made to the original Helvetica design include the following:

  • A number of characters were subtly altered to be more consistent with the overall design, as well as to improve legibility. These changes include widened crossbars on the lowercase f and t to increase character recognition in text.

    The width of some characters, such as the cap M, has been extended to improve balance and aesthetics. (The pink overlay is the Neue version.)


    Widened strokes on the arm of the r as well as the crossbar of the lowercase f and t increase character recognition in text. (Black signifies the updated Neue Helvetica.)


    Rounded characters have been given softer curves to better harmonize with the rest of the design.


  • Figures have been widened, again to blend in with the other glyphs.
  • Some of the punctuation has been reworked and strengthened for better balance and improved reproduction.
  • The cap heights are now consistent throughout the family, correcting subtle differences in the previous version.
  • The x-height has been adjusted to appear optically the same in all weights. In previous versions, the x-heights were all the same actual height, but, since type tends to look shorter as it gets heavier, the new x-heights compensate for this optical illusion.
  • Each weight and version of Neue Helvetica is identified by a number in addition to the weight name for easy reference (similar to Univers and Frutiger).
  • The Neue Helvetica family was expanded to a total of 51 versions, include eight weights plus italics for the regular width, obliques for the expanded versions, nine weights plus obliques for the condensed, as well as a bold outline version for the regular width.

    Neue Helvetica is available in regular, condensed, and expanded widths, as well as a bold outline version.

Neue Helvetica eText

Most recently, Monotype has developed a version of Neue Helvetica specifically tailored for the text-heavy environments of e-readers, tablets, mobile devices, and the web. Neue Helvetica eText consists of four weights with corresponding italics, all designed and optimized to enhance the reading experience at the smaller point sizes that contemporary web and device environments call for. These e-versions contain a richer contrast, an even color with greatly increased letterspacing, and slightly taller lowercase characters, all while ensuring that the typefaces appear as unmistakable cousins of their original print designs. The designs also include small caps and oldstyle figures for professional-quality publishing design.

All three Helveticas mentioned in the text are shown here.

The takeaway is this: if you deem Helvetica to be the typeface you want to use for any particular project, selecting the best version for the job might take you longer than you anticipated, but the results will be well worth it!

Posted on: December 6, 2017

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

3 Comments on Helvetica vs. Neue Helvetica: The Same but Different

  1. Nice comparison! I would have mentioned the most obvious thing about Neue Helvetica ET: its looser spacing, which makes it actually readable in a paragraph, unlike either Helvetica or Neue Helvetica.

    It would also have been interesting to compare all of these to Christian Schwartz’s two takes on the original Helvetica design & its inspirations: FF Bau and Neue Haas Grotesk.

    • John, you are so right about my neglecting to mention the more open spacing of the ET version. I think this is the most important and useful change in these versions, so I added it into the text. Thanks! Ilene.

  2. Sorry you are not continuing with All Things, but happy to see your voice will still be heard here on CP

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