An Incremental Change in Identity

An Incremental Change in Identity

SUMMARY: Dave buys a new typeface to use for his business identity and in his form design, because it makes him happier than stuffy old Helvetica Neue.

I’ve been working on the smaller-sized versions of the Emergent Task Planner with 50-plus testers who have kindly volunteered their time. The upshot of this is that I’m looking at an awful lot of Helvetica Neue, the typeface that I use for most of my productivity forms. It’s a slightly more refined version of the old workhorse typeface Helvetica. Since I tend to like denser data layouts, it’s Helvetica Neue Condensed that gets put to work. However, I’ve always felt that there was something about Helvetica Neue that bugged me, so I’ve been open to finding alternatives.

Enter Proxima Nova, a typeface designed by freelance graphic designer Mark Simonson. I stumbled upon it a couple of days ago, and it instantly caught my eye. After sleeping on it, I dug out the business credit card and purchased the Proxima Nova Condensed font pack (with the @fontface license as well) through FontSpring. I’m mentally committed to making this my new go-to font for work and my own business identity. I perhaps should have researched it a little more thoroughly as far as typeface trends go, but I figure it’s GOT to be an improvement over Helvetica, so I bit the bullet and went for it.

So what did I actually get? Here’s a side-by-side comparison (click the image to see a clearer PNG file if this looks too blurry to you):

Proxima Nova vs Helvetica Neue Warning: I am going to describe qualities of these typefaces that will be invisible to the casual observer. While I’m only an average typographer, I’m highly aware of the way visual elements make me feel; this is what I will attempt to convey.

Shape

On first glance, both typefaces are fairly similar. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the letters of Helvetica Neue Condensed (right side) look more squished.

Looking a little further, I find small details in Helvetica Neue that just don’t sit well with me. While it is an attractive font overall, it feels just a hair “pretentious”. The capital letter ‘R’, for example, retains a vestige of pride in the way the end of the tail curls up. The squished letterforms makes the letters look taller and thinner, which conveys a sense of data density and straightforwardness I like, but it also creates distracting vertical movement; in other words, I want to look up and down, not left and right, because it looks like each letter is stretching upward.

Then there are certain letters that bug me. The big dot in the “DAVIDSEAH.COM * COPYRIGHT” line at the bottom, for example. GIGANTIC and it attracts too much attention to itself. And I have always hated the colon in Helvetica, which looks like cheap stitching on an otherwise nicely-proportioned pair of leather gloves. And don’t get me started about the oblique characters (I don’t worry about…), which visually don’t really seem to belong. They are awkwardly tilted into place, and the proportions don’t match the feel of the regular characters. I find it pretty jarring. Ugh.

The Proxima Nova Condensed (left) letterforms, by comparison, are more visually rounded. It is less squished, and I think this is due to the slightly lower x-height (the ‘top’ of the lower-case letters compared to the top of upper-case letters). Because it’s less squished, the text visually flows left-to-right as it should, without the distracting vertical bias. At least, that’s how I see it.

I also think the letters of Proxima Nova Condensed flow together more smoothly, with more unified proportions from letter to letter. Compare, for example, the word “common” in the fourth line of the paragraph text. The Proxima Nova version is quite pleasing to my eye, but the Helvetica Neue version looks like the ‘mm’ characters are swollen; I’m not a fan of the Helvetica Neue ‘n’ either. Another improvement is the use of “real” italics, as opposed to the “slanted” version in Helvetica Neue. The colon, while still kind of bugging me, looks a little more integrated into the neighborhood, and the type color just seems much more even overall.

Linework

Helvetica is one of the first commercial no-nonsense fonts to come into existance, and it’s no slouch in the “lack of superfluous ornamentation” school of design. However, there are little things in the letterforms that remind me of old world machine tooling. The shape of the S, for example, looks like it was hand-shaped on wooden molds by hammer-wielding craftsmen; there are some interesting compound curves in it. The R, as I mentioned, drives me a little crazy in Helvetica Neue with its wriggly little tail. The lower-case ‘a’ also has something going on, its enclosed part pointing defiantly in a direction shared by no other letters. And what’s up with the lower-case p? It looks like a wombat trying to pass as a cuter animal at the local petting zoo.

Proxima Nova, by comparison, feels more relaxed. Proxima Nova would meet you in the garage while he was setting up the charcoal grill for the BBQ later that night, passing you a cold beer without you having to ask for it. I also think it feels more relaxed because the curves in the letterforms aren’t as tightly formed. The S, for example, is under less tension to maintain its shape, and the shape is simpler too. Proxima feels like common sense and plain-spoken language, whereas Helvetica Neue feels like it has a slightly neurotic edge in the design of its letterforms. It also has a kind of celebrity sophistication because of Helvetica’s long association with the tradition of Swiss / International Style that dominated communication arts. There’s a hint of international drama in Helvetica Neue, while Proxima Nova just gets to work without telling you a story about how his ex-girlfriend doesn’t understand him.

I’m probably reading way too much into this, but I not surprised to see that the type designer is from Minnesota.

Utility & Identity

Proxima Nova represents my desire to be clearer and more plain-spoken. I licensed the 14 fonts of the condensed family, which cost me US$244.00, but for an additional $67 I also got the web font version of the font for unlimited domains on the Internet. That means I can incorporate the type into my webpage and maintain some visual consistency. I made sure that the licenses allowed me to use the fonts for creating my PDFs (allowable if the PDF is uneditable); as I’m planning on selling more products in the future based on PDFs and print, I think it’s important for me to be using licensed fonts to make sure I have that covered. I probably could have found Proxima Nova as a free download somewhere, or transcoded into a poor-quality imitation, but as an entrepreneurial creative professional I believe that I should be buying my tools from people like me. What goes around comes around, you know…if you want to make money selling something you’ve made, you should buy your tools legitimately.

From a function perspective, Proxima Nova carries all of the word-density capabilities of Helvetica Neue, and it’s also more legible. It has real italic letters, and is available in a broad range of typeface weights and sizes should I need to expand. There’s also something a little bit 20th century about the typeface design with an additional sophistication in the way the letters are “fitted” to each other, like a curated collection of modern furniture. It also feels more approachable, instructional and factual, which are qualities that I would like my own products and services to have. Helvetica Neue Condensed can be a little overbearing because it’s associated with governmental graphics (signs, tax forms) and snooty art magazines.

What it really comes down to is this: I just really like the typeface, and I find that it gives me a little thrill of pleasure everytime I look at it. I still like Helvetica Neue Condensed for the period authority it oozes from its association with important design principles from the 1950s-1960s. However, while it satisfied my design needs at the time, it has never made me happy

Typefaces…they do affect me in strange ways :-)

7 Comments

  1. Family Lifeboat 12 years ago

    I know what you mean. After I read The Elements of Typographic Style I am much more aware of the fonts I use, though I haven’t yet got to the point of getting a special one. I have other priorities first, though Proxima Nova looks gorgeous.

  2. Sue Thomas 12 years ago

    In the comparison graphic, my first reaction was, “Oh, no, another font size reduction that’s going to make it harder to read.” After I put on my reading glasses, which I’m having to do more and more on the computer, it was a little less bothersome. I guess I just want one more point on the font size, especially in the comparison. :-)

    I do get your points about forwardness vs. up-and-down, the screwy Helvetica italic, the big dots. About the “R” — now that I’m thinking about them, I notice that the Proxima capital R, especially at the end of “Designer” under your name at the top, has a tail that seems a little short, like the letter is going to fall over … or, I can look at it as lifting the end of the word, so it’s pointing up to your title name. Inside the word “Copyright” at the end, the R looks just fine. How wierd!

    Thanks for an interesting visual exercise! And congratulations on finding something that makes you happy to work with.

  3. Nils Geylen 12 years ago

    Well, you’ve described the typeface well enough so no additions there. And I agree, Helvetica is snotty (Neue too) and this one looks nice. Especially the fact that it’s condensed yet not so. And the cursive looks definitely great, although I have to agree on the uppercase R; it does seem to have a funny tail — in the blurry screenshot at least.

    Personally, I tend to go for open source fonts more; in tune with my entire creative commons, open source way of thinking. In this case I’m not so sure. If you didn’t pay the guy, who would design typefaces? Then again, what I do (and you) is tailor-made and one-off consulting, design or assistance. We can’t re-sell our work ad infinitum (well, you can with your PDFs) and I’m not sure that having designed a typeface once merits paying nearly 300 bucks for it. I can make a one page site design for that (well, nearly).

    Now if the guy designed the typeface for you… But that would be costlier still. Hm.

    Sorry, I’m typing as I think. And while it’s messy, it’s also good because your posts make me think. I’ll have to come back on what my stance here is ;)

    Congrats on the purchase though and have fun playing with it. I know I would ;)

  4. Author
    Dave Seah 12 years ago

    The screenshot is clearer if you click on it and see it larger; the automatic thumbnail generator I’m using is set to use a lower jpeg quality, and it murders thin lines with artifacting. I probably should bump up the default quality.

    Sue: On the R…yep, I thought it was a little unbalanced at first, like some kind of funky modern chair made of stainless steel tubes. I imagine there’s a good story behind it…it may inject just a bit of fun in the text to keep it from getting too stodgy, given the letter frequency of the character itself…not as common as some, but more common than average. I was just checking to see if there was an alternative R character included in the font, but there is only a few lower-case letters and the G.

    Nils: 300 bucks does feel like a lot of money, and I had to think about it because it’s not like I really have the money to do it. It was actually $244 for 14 fonts (7 weights, regular and italic) in the Proxima Nova Condensed family. The complete set is something like $800, which includes the Regular and Expanded styles. I paid an extra $67 for the web font licensing, which is a kind of hot thing right now in web development with pending browser support for your own fonts. FontSpring actually pre-generates the webfont files for you so you can host them on your own server, unlike the competing services (TypeKit, for example) which license the fonts for a yearly subscription. However, I like having the files on my own server, so I thought it was worth paying for once.

    There’s always been a controversy between typeface providers and typeface users. Type is so ubiquitous that people assume it shouldn’t cost too much. And, as you’ve noted, there are plenty of options for grabbing fonts from a variety of sources. I did look at the open source fonts (I love what the League of Moveable Type is doing), and for the digital download version of the Concrete Goals Tracker Form (as yet, still in development) I have used an “open” font called Deja Vu so people can download it without buying a license of Helvetica Neue. As someone who has worked in software development, I’m pretty sensitive about paying for the software I’m using to make money…it would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise. Typefaces are in a funny area; the designs themselves aren’t protected by copyright, but the font files are. This is similar to fashion, where you can make a stitch-by-stitch copy of someone else’s clothing design and it’s not illegal.

    Morality aside, another factor I considered was the sheer amount of time it takes to make a comprehensive new typeface. It’s relatively easy to slag off a limited typeface with Fontographer or FontForge and throw it out there. It takes a lot more work to create coverage for all western languages. It also takes a lot of time to design a typeface that works well under a variety of text uses, compiling and recompiling font files, adding hinting for the characters so they are spaced correctly, and ensuring that everything just fits together out of the box. Your typical open source or free font is built like a cheap car, as far as design and font features are concerned. I’ve used a few of them; Deja Vu, for example, is one of the more comprehensive ones, and it drives like a 10 year old mid-sized sedan in need of a wheel alignment and new shocks. The default character spacing is awful, and I have to hand-adjust the placement of more characters than I care to. All that stuff is taken care of for me in a good font package by the type designer, who has the eye and love for how it all fits together, so there is very little I need to do except bring in the tracking on larger type. Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work and experience are required to get to this level of happiness; this is master artisan level work. I’m getting all that for an average of $20 per font, and it makes my work look great. Your typical open source font, though, comes in one weight and is missing a bunch of characters, doesn’t play well with other fonts, have uneven visual tone, and invariably has more than a few terrible-looking characters that don’t fit in with the rest. That’s not to say that there aren’t some beautiful free or open fonts out there, but I have yet to see one that stopped me dead in my tracks and made me go WOW now that is what I’m looking for :)

  5. I prefer the Proxima Nova as well, it’s easier to read. The other looks too squished to me – I’m guessing it’s the lower x height but I’m not an expert in these things by any means.

    I think it’s incredibly powerful in your type of work to have the right font. Having the right font (like the right lay out) makes a form that much more inviting – and hence more useful.

  6. Paul Grosse 11 years ago

    The Helvetica is a true condensed font whereas the Proxima Nova Condensed that you are comparing it with is only partially condensed so you are not comparing like with like. Why…

    • The M height is smaller on the Proxima.

    • The tracking is greater on the Proxima

    • The x-height on the Proxima is smaller.

    • The leading is greater on the Proxima.

    • The Proxima has a lighter weight.

    Most of the text is in lower case so if you chose a proxima version that had the same colour as the Helvetica, adjusted the Proxima so that the x-height was the same as in the Helvetica, changed the leading so that it was the same, changed the tracking so that it was the same, you could make some sort of objective comparison.

    Increasing the leading and the tracking always makes text more legible and will remove to some extent the effect of having a true condensed font with Helvetica. Choosing a lighter font will increase legibility as well. One reason that the legibility of Helvetivca is so good is that t has such a high value for the x-height and here, where most of your text is lowercase, you could increase its legibility just by making it lighter – as light as the Proxima.

    Less seriously, if you cross your eyes sot hat the two images are superimposed, you can see – from how much the text sticks out of the screen – how the tracking in the fonts vary. the right hand end of the third line in particular.

    Good luck.

  7. Author
    Dave Seah 11 years ago

    Hi Paul! Great commentary, though I am not sure where you are coming from. I think you’re speaking from a specific perspective that may indicate greater familiarity with the technical details of typography than I am…maybe you have a technical printing background? I’ll try to explain where I’m confused.

    First: “true condensed”. As far as I’m aware, true condensed refers to a font that is designed by the type designer to be narrower on a letter-by-letter basis. This is the case for both the Helvetica Neue Condensed and Proxima Nova Condensed. In other words, I didn’t buy Proxima Nova, in other words, and use the Photoshop “condensed type” effect…that looks awful. I bought the Proxima Nova Condensed family only. If there is a technical standard for how much a condensed font needs to be condensed, I’m not aware of one. I believe I am comparing true condensed fonts to each other if I hold to this definition. If yours is different, please tell me.

    In any case, I’m looking at the default metrics of two type families that have a similar aesthetic quality, which is a subjective call. To be clear: the tracking is the default unadjusted setting for both fonts. The leading is set the same, but it isn’t set to below “solid.” Out of the box, Proxima Nova Condensed looks like that. And so does my particular instance of Helvetica Neue Condensed. And while I can see that yes, Proxima Nova Condensed appears to have a greater amount of tracking, I didn’t have to do it. In other words, it is more legible because it was designed that way. And that saves me time.

    The same argument applies to typographic color. It appears that it’s up to the typeface designer how much more bold is bolder, and how much more condensed is condensed. Across typefaces, I don’t think it is expected to be consistent; typographic color is more of a qualitative impression of ink density.

    Where I’m most confused, though, is that you assert that I could make a more objective comparison if I adjusted the weight and x-height of Proxima Nova Condensed so it matches Helvetica Neue. These are not parameters that I’ve seen as adjustable in any design app other than a font design program, and even then it means redrawing each glyph. You are suggesting that I redraw Proxima Nova Condensed so it is something else so I can make an “objective comparison”, but the methodology you suggest distorts the original font…how in the world is that an objective comparison?

    While I can see what observations you are making, my tentative impression is that the conclusions you are drawing are based in a misunderstanding of how computer-based type is practically adjusted in a design application. I suspect you are considering something very specific that I am not seeing. If you have the time to clarify, I’d be very interested!