Raiders of the Lost Font

Monotype's Dan Rhatigan discusses the history — and personal rediscovery — of Unica.

The year was 1980, and a trio of designers by the name of Team 77 gave birth to brand new font. Contracted by the Haas Type Foundry, André Gürtler, Christian Mengelt and Erich Gschwind had set out to create the ultimate sans serif, the love-child of Univers and Helvetica. It would be called Unica.

Team 77 was originally contracted to create Unica by the Haas Type Foundry — the same foundry that originally released Helvetica — as an alternative for their ubiquitous typeface. Part of Team 77’s process was to not only conduct an in-depth analysis on Helvetica, but also on Univers and Akzidenz-Grotesk. They published their findings when the original Unica was released.

Unfortunately Unica was the right font born at the wrong time. As the industry evolved and digitized, type foundries began to close one by one, and Unica was a casualty. It was left behind, as Helvetica and Univers eventually flourished and went on to be mainstays on computers all over the world.

If Unica is the love-child of Univers and Helvetica, then Monotype’s Dan Rhatigan and Toshi Omagari have become its surrogate parents. Through a series of curious events, Dan and Toshi led the charge to revive a font which had attained almost mythical status in the type community after its demise so many years prior.

Dan Rhatigan, Type Director, Monotype“I had seen scans of Team 77’s original findings across various message boards,” says Dan, Type Director at Monotype. “I had read up on the development of this typeface over the years and had seen specimens of it. It was this mysterious relic of the type world.”

“Many years later, I was doing a research expedition in our office in Germany, which were the old offices of the Linotype Foundry,” Dan continues. “I was looking through their archive, and I came across this old box. I opened it up and discovered the original tracing paper master drawings and the film positives of Haas Unica. These were the big masters where you could see the detail and all the care put into those shapes. It had been a fascination of many type designers for a long time, and here it was, right in my hands!”

“It had been a fascination of many type designers for a long time, and here it was, right in my hands!”

It was at this point that Type Designer Toshi Omargari took Unica on as a personal project, creating digital drawings based on masters than Dan found. “There was an intense period of looking at source material and establishing what this design is all about, figuring out how to reflect its intended shape and texture,” explains Dan. “The more Toshi worked on it, the more it took on a life of its own. He pushed forward and added Greek and Cyrillic, he drew thinner and bolder weights that had been mentioned as an original plan, but were never actually produced. It became about not just reviving this typeface, but building upon its foundation and to making it something suitably ambitious and contemporary.”

Of course the question that needs to be asked is — why now? Does the world really need another sans serif? “There is such a wealth of options in sans-serif typefaces available, but we see that people are always asking for more,” Dan explains. “Even through the sheer amount of times we have redeveloped Helvetica for people as custom projects, there is always an interest in pushing forward and exploring more within this fairly narrow realm. Unica’s big advantage is readability. It’s a little bit quieter than Helvetica. Helvetica is more for display graphics, headlines and advertising. Unica has a bit more air in and around it so it’s a little more comfortable to read long passages of text. It’s got a little bit more roundness in the shapes so it’s a little bit less crisp and cool than Univers is and it lacks some of the eccentric qualities of Helvetica that call attention to themselves like it’s big squarish proportion capital letters and such.”

“It’s like a carpenter or mechanic with a growing selection of tools for doing just the right thing.”

So will we ever see a day where Unica reaches the level of ubiquity of Helvetica and Univers? “We hope so, but realistically it’s not likely to happen,” laughs Dan. “As well known as it is, Univers only nibbles at the heels of Helvetica. The truth is, Helvetica is deeply embedded in our visual culture. Not only has it been heavily promoted for years now, but it’s made its way into so many everyday tools for designers and non-designers alike use. The reason Helvetica had a documentary about it really was because it had become so deeply embedded in design sensibilities. But for that same reason people push back against it, and I think that’s what’s interesting about Unica. There is a sense of freshness to it. It is not Helvetica. It is not Univers. It has some of the same functional qualities, but it has its own space.”

Given the polarizing nature of Helvetica, it will be interesting to see if Unica is embraced or rejected by the design community. To that point, Dan is quick to point out that it’s not an either or scenario. “It’s like a carpenter or mechanic with a growing selection of tools for doing just the right thing,” he explains. “You don’t have to reject Helvetica in order to work with Unica. You just have to be able to see that it does some things better.”

As an ADC Member, you have the opportunity to take this storied font out for a test drive. Thanks to Monotype, your ADC Membership gives you full access to the Monotype Library until June 5. Click here for more info. Not yet an ADC Member? Join today!