Are there differences between Nimbus sans and Helvetica?

pinguin's picture

Hello everybody,

I would be really curious to know whether there are any differences between Helvetica and Nimbus Sans. Are there any features that would allow one to clearly differentiate between the two? I like Helvetica and I personally find Nimbus sans essentially a clone of Helvetica. I could not tell the difference if I would see a text and I would be asked which of the two types was used.

Thanks in advance for the input

blank's picture

A really obsessed person could probably spot the difference, but your clients will never know.

billtroop's picture

In Robert Norton's wonderful book 'Types Best Remembered/Types Best Forgotten', Dr Peter Karow of URW explains that the many errors in Helvetica were first fixed by Berthold, then by Linotype with Helvetica Neue, and finally by URW in Nimbus, which some would argue was the best version, as it took advantage of all the preceding work. Karow also makes a persuasive case for Max Miedinger as the designer of Helvetica, and pours scorn on Linotype for minting money on Helvetica while letting its designer die a pauper.

An interesting sidelight Karow points out is that when Adobe first developed ATM, they couldn't get any of their versions of Helvetica to work with it. They had to come to URW for completely fresh data.

James of course is right: your clients will never know.

billtroop's picture

In my previous post I relied on memory without checking the facts first. Going back to what Dr Karow actually wrote, there are some slight differences (i.e. Neue came after Nimbus; Miedinger was complaining about Stempel (later absorbed into Lino). Here it is, a great little nugget of typeface history from one of the great participants:

I started the IKARUS program late in 1972. In February 1973 we had completed the digitizing and plotting parts, so we could produce the first typefaces. My first customer was Walter Florenz Brendel from Dusseldorf. He had prepared the master characters for digitizing in a large size. As we do it today: 6 inches for bodysize. It was the typeface Olympia. I asked him whether he drew the characters himself: 'No, my designer did it.' They were inked and black/white. Later we used just pencil drawn contours. Then he added after severe questioning: 'Yes, the typeface is very close to Helvetica of the Stempel AG.' (formerly part of today's Linotype-Hell AG) In 1976, I met with Max Miedinger. He said, 'I am the designer of the famous Helvetica. I did it in 1957. Now, Stempel earns lots of money with it, but I am out of the game. I feel cheated.' In 1977, we digitized the Helvetica originals with IKARUS from large friskettes.... We got that service contract from Stempel AG in Frankfurt. In 1978, we digitized Holsatia, a Helvetica-clone made by the Hell company. In 1980 we digitized SANS for IBM. They never used it. In 1981, we helped the Typoart company in the DDR to digitize their Maxima, another clone of Helvetica. I guess this was the best data we ever made. One font (800 char.) included also Greek and Cyrillic and lots of accented characters. In 1982, we digitzed the Akzidenz Grotesk Buch for the Berthold company; I viewed it as another clone of Helvetica, as did Rene Kerfante, manager of the Stempel AG. In 1983, Hermann Zapf started the design of our typeface URW Grotesk because a very big publishing company (Axel Springer) wanted to have a sans serif alternative typeface. In 1985 we did our Nimbus Sans tyepface, a merger out of Helvetica, AG Buch, Hosatia, and others. We tried to avoid some of the mistakes with the old Helvetica. In 1986/87, the Stempel AG produced the Neue (New) Helvetica. They cloned themselves, but called it a new and innovative design. In 1987, we digitized the Arial typeface for Monotype, another clone. This time, Rene Kerfante, being manager at Monotype convinced me that Arial is very different from Helvetica. In 1990, we delivered new data of Helvetica to Adobe because they could not handle their old data of Helvetica with ATM. They wanted a clean start. In 1992, we made our URW TypeWorks product (500 masters +Inline, Outline, Relief, Shadow and Round). Now, one can have Nimbus Sans as a 'sixpack'. In 1993, Stefan Rogener (a typograph living in Hamburg) made statistics on the use of typefaces in the advertising branch. He came out with: 'By more than 90%, the creatives use Helvetica, Futura, Garamond, and Baskerville. They are stupid. Give me a pistol.' He is still alive. But Max Miedinger died in the late seventies, poor and without glory. I can't forget Helvetica.

boardman's picture

Well, one difference is that Nimbus sans has a crazy stencil character set!

pinguin's picture

Thank you for all for the replies. I am really new to this field and I am very interested to find as much a possible about font design.

I like very much Helvetica (and Nimbus Sans) and for some reason I dislike Arial so I wanted to kind of understand how a type designer looks at similar fonts, and what are the critical elements one would consider when differentiating between very close designs, besides the aesthetic element.

For instance there are fonts that technically are very close in design but the overall impression, the optical effect is totally different - at least that's how I look at Arial vs. Helvetica.

Another reason I am interested in this topic is that I recently decided to learn font design. Sans serif's are my preferred types, because of their clean appearance, readability and wide potential usage. As an exercise I decided to attempt to draw a simple sans serif font (for my own use) to replace Arial. Of course the font looks almost identical to Helvetica at this point... and it is more like a sketch at this stage.

I posted the early results in another forum (Critique) and I would be very interested in your feedback. Besides working on curve smoothing and making sure that the stems have equal weights I am now trying to give the font a more distinct appearance without
losing the elements that I like in fonts like Helvetica. One of the things that I tried so far is to give some fonts a more squarish appearance - as much as possible without altering readabillity.

Please look at this post and let me know what you think. Thanks

RG's picture

1./ In Nimbus Sans, not all terminals are perfectly horizontal or vertical - a, c, G, 5 and many more.
2./ The counter of “a” (the tear drop) has a slight notch at the bottom right (see the Bold weight).
3./ Nimbus Sans has a set of fonts for text setting and a distinct set for display setting.

Despite of points 1 & 2, I personally like Nimbus Sans; it stays loyal to the original design. I wish URW++ cleaned this up, and became competition to “Helvetica” or neue or whatever.

(ps. There’s also Christian Schwartz’ Neue Haas Grotesk - quite promising. I wish there were a “45 Light” in the Text set as well.)

riccard0's picture

I wish URW++ cleaned [Nimbus] up, and became competition to “Helvetica” or neue or whatever.

RG's picture

Yeah, I know. But novus or neue does not have the charm of the original.

mjkerpan's picture

I can't really tell the difference. Certainly, Nimbus is much closer to the real thing then Arial (which is really Monotype Grotesque squashed to fit the Helvetica metrics)

Still, Nimbus does have the nice advantage of being free...

RG's picture

Michael (mjkerpan),

Only Ghostscript fonts belonging to the Nimbus Sans L family are free. When Nimbus Sans is praised for its loyalty to the original design, it’s usually the Nimbus Sans and the Nimbus Sans Display or Poster (or sometimes the Nimbus Sans Novus) families being talked about, which are not free.


mjkerpan's picture

Well, I always though that Nimbus Sans L was a subset of the larger family (just the upright and oblique versions of the two basic weights) so I assumed that it was accurate...

RG's picture

They are indeed distinct families. Here are the Bold of a select few Nimbus Sans.

Nimbus Sans Bold:

Nimbus Sans D Bold:

Nimbus Sans Novus Bold:

Nimbus Sans L Bold:

agisaak's picture

AFAIK the 'L' versions are ones designed to be metrically compatible with the version of Helvetica which is resident in most LaserPrinters. I don't know whether there are any differences between the glyphs in the L and T versions, but the sidebearings will differ.


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