Monotype’s Toshi Omagari has resurrected the lost typeface Unica to create the Neue Haas Unica font family, which boasts the familiarity of Helvetica and Univers as well as superior legibility in user interfaces.
By now, you’ve likely heard about (or experienced) some of the drawbacks of Helvetica in the digital space. If not, you might want to read up on some of the drama in Jason Tselentis’ recent article about the backlash to Neue Helvetica as the default typeface for Yosemite. In short, if you don’t have a retina display, the otherwise-felicitous Helvetica loses much of its legibility as on-screen text descends in size. Retina or not, Helvetica simply wasn’t designed for user interfaces.
Enter Unica, a Helvetica alternative that had been lost since it went defunct 30 years ago—that is, until Monotype’s Dan Rhatigan and Toshi Omagari found the lost phototypesetting files and brought the typeface back to life as Neue Haas Unica.
Reviving a Lost Typeface
Back in the late 1970s, Helvetica and Univers had already been in use for a couple of decades, and designers were already well aware of what each one could—and couldn’t—do best. The Haas Type Foundry created Unica in 1980 based on key attributes of Helvetica and Univers.
“Designed by Team ’77, the new hybrid—Unica—hit the sweet spot, with a look that was less formal than Univers and less mannered than Helvetica, yet still sophisticated, clean and versatile,” Monotype write in a press release.
As the graphic design industry transitioned to desktop publishing in the late ‘80s, phototypesetting became obsolete—and with it faded Unica. Adapted for digital use, Helvetica and Univers continued to prosper, but the original pattern drawings of Unica were lost.
Having looked at scans of the original analysis documents that Team ’77 created, Rhatigan was already impressed with Unica and its perfect place between Helvetica and Univers. But he had only seen a few examples of it in use, and the rights to the typeface were unclear.
“When I was in our offices in Germany [a couple of years ago], I was going through their archives of material for our Pencil to Pixel exhibition,” Rhatigan said, “and I discovered the original production materials from Unica, which was so exciting.”
Rhatigan had discovered the original pattern drawings and film negatives for Unica, which had more detail, clarity and form than any scans available elsewhere. And best of all, the rights to work with the materials had transferred to Monotype upon its 2006 acquisition of Linotype.
A Fresh Face for an Old Font Family
Omagari gave the classic typeface a fresh digital facelift with more weights, languages and letters to meet the needs of designers and tech users alike.
“[Unica] was drawn from scratch after looking though the original artwork designed for phototypesetting systems,” Rhatigan said. “The artwork it was drawn from—the 10-inch high letters drawn in pencil on tracing paper, which the films were cut and negatives made from—had a lot of adjustments to deal with. Things tended to round off and clog up with photographic reproduction.”
In contrast, today’s technology allows for infinitely scalable digital fonts with sharper details that can be rendered more crisply on screen. So when designing Unica from scratch, Omagari sharpened up the details of the letterforms to better capture what it was meant to look like.
“The act of designing this version of Unica was not to just slavishly recreate the original artwork that we found,” Rhatigan said, “but to really look deeply at what the design intention was of the original artwork and design it more crisply. We wouldn’t expect it to go through so much distortion in reproduction now.”
Omagari began reworking and reviving Unica as a side project, adapting it for modern use so that it would render crisply on-screen.
“We began slowly developing and then expanding the family far past the original version, which had only had four weights plus italics,” Rhatigan said. “Toshi built this out into an 18-member family, designing all-new Greeks and Cyrillics, which had never been done before. So very much the design intention was not to just replicate what had been done before, but to be much more ambitious and breathe more life into it.”
As a result of Omagari’s work, Neue Haas Unica offers exceptional versatility for print and digital designers. The revival includes a comprehensive suite of fonts, multilingual coverage, support for special characters, aesthetic improvements and a delicate gradation of weights.
“I’m honored to bring back Unica and make it something even better for today,” said Omagari. “Neue Haas Unica is equipped with all the stuff that users would expect in a modern font, including abundant weights, tons of kerning, and OpenType alternate glyphs. I’ve also added a few language-specific characters because I care a lot about non-English languages.”
Good News for User Interfaces
A rich, modern version of the Unica design, Neue Haas Unica remains true to its Helvetica-inspired roots with a touch of influence from the Univers typeface. Familiar yet unique and refreshingly legible at any size, the typeface is particularly suited to UX and UI design.
According to Rhatigan, Unica’s most significant advantage over Helvetica is its “quieter rhythm,” which allows for an overall improvement in readability.
“[Unica is] spaced differently than Helvetica,so there’s a little bit more air around the letters, which can make it a little bit easier to form into words,” Rhatigan said. “Helvetica has very peculiar big square capital letters and Unica is a bit quieter in that regard. There’s also a little more roundness in Unica, whereas Helvetica tends toward being squared out. And there’s a little more bounce along the x-height—the height of the lowercase letters and along the caps.”
Due to those qualities, readers will be able to make more sense of word shapes than they might when working with Helvetica. This can be particularly helpful for on-screen text and headlines, providing a more immersive and seamless reading experience.
What Designers Are Saying About Neue Haas Unica
Understandably, the new typeface redesign is turning heads and generating buzz. Abbott Miller, partner at Pentagram, calls the design an “elegant, mature sans serif groomed for the digital present.” Furtherm Miller said, “Asleep for three decades, Neue Haas Unica has woken up fresh-faced and optimistic for the future.”
Here’s what other prestigious designers had to say:
- “The rush is going to be: who’ll use this first?” – Bryan Edmonson, founder, SEA Design
- “A beautiful, classic, sans serif with a touch of warmth.” – Tony Brook, founder, Spin
- “Unica is a typeface that sits perpetually on the tip of one’s tongue: familiar, so close, and yet new and different enough to prove essential.” – Darrin Crescenzi, design director of innovation, Interbrand
- “Unica manages to retain the lovey awkwardness of Univers, while dialing in the precision of Helvetica.” – Juan Carlos Pagan, design director, Deutsch NY
- “It’s a whole other univers.” – Stefanie Weigler and David Heasty, founders, Triboro
- “I am aware of Toshi’s work. I am thrilled Toshi is the one who has undertaken this project. He is meticulous and faithful in his reproduction; you know it is done right with no liberties taken.” – Corey Holms, graphic designer
(Holmes also distilled the typeface down to two words: “sheer badassery.”)
More About Neue Haas Unica
Neue Haas Unica may be licensed as either desktop fonts or Web fonts from MyFonts, Fonts.com, Linotype.com or FontShop.com. All subscribers to Fonts.com Web Fonts paid plans also have access to the new fonts as Web fonts, while Pro, Master and desktop add-on subscribers can also use the family as desktop fonts as part of their subscription.
More About Monotype
Monotype is a leading global provider of typefaces, technology and expertise that enable the best user experience and ensure brand integrity. Headquartered in Woburn, Mass., Monotype provides customers worldwide with typeface solutions for a broad range of creative applications and consumer devices. The company’s libraries and e-commerce sites are home to many of the most widely used typefaces – including the Helvetica®, Frutiger® and Univers® families – as well as the next generation of type designs. Further information is available at www.monotype.com. Follow Monotype on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.