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128: Proxima Nova: An Incomplete History of Type

Updated: Dec 14, 2023



Name: Proxima Nova

Release Date: 2005

Designer: Mark Simonson

Classification: Geometric Sans Serif

Owned By: Mark Simonson Studio

Claim to Fame: Replacing Helvetica as the world’s most popular typeface.


My name is Zoe Soeiro and today I will be your host on An Incomplete History of Type. The typeface that we are going to be dissecting today is called Proxima Nova and it has quite the history.


I’m going to start off with the technical aspects of Proxima nova. It is a geometric sans serif typeface with a total number of 48 fonts in the family. It has become the most popular commercially paid typeface on the web and is used in thousands of websites globally. Proxima Nova has an OpenType format and can be found on applications such as the Adobe Creative Cloud. It can be found in eight different weights including: Thin, Light, Regular, Medium, Semibold, Bold, Extrabold and black. It also contains 3 different widths including: Normal, Condensed, and Extra Condensed.


Proxima Nova started out the same way all other typefaces started; as an idea. Mark Simonson started working on various forms of the typeface in 1981 and the initial sketch was originally called Zanzibar, simply because he enjoyed the way that word sounded. The lowercase letters in the original sketch are very similar to the current typeface and it was said that the uppercase letters were developed later on. In 1991 Mark was the art director of Business Ethics magazines where he mainly used the typeface Gill Sans. He liked the way that Gill Sans looked, but longed for something that felt more modern and more plain, but still kept the same geometric look. After searching for a typeface that matched all of these qualities, he began to realize that no such typeface existed. This led Mark to dig up the original Zanzibar sketch, and start designing a typeface of his own.


The second sketch that Mark created was named Visigothic because he modelled it after the American Gothic style of typeface. He borrowed many of his design ideas from other typefaces in order to create his design. The general proportions and stroke were modelled after Helvetica and Akzidenz Grotesk, but other details were borrowed from Futura, Kabel, atf gothics, and even the U.S Federal Highway Signage typeface. From all of this borrowing, a hybrid typeface was created that combined modern, even-width proportions, and a geometric appearance. Mark called this typeface Proxima Sans and released it through FontHaus in 1994. It was a family of 6 fonts including - Regular, Medium and black with matching italics. Mark thought that the original name Visigothic sounded too similar to a recently released font at the time called Visigoth.


He chose to rename it Proxima Sans because “it was near to other sans serifs in design but also because those letters happened to display some of the distinctive characteristics of the design.” Mark took a break from working on the font after it was released because he recently became a new parent, took on a new full-time job, and didn’t have the greatest sales. But by the early 2000’s he started to get requests to expand the Proxima Sans family. One of those requests was from Rolling Stone magazine who chose Proxima Sans as a part for their redesign in 2003. All of this newfound buzz around Proxima Sans inspired Mark to do some reworking on the typeface and he re-released it as Proxima Nova in 2005.


Proxima Nova was an advanced typeface and included advanced typographic features such as "small caps, different figure styles, fractions, and alternate characters, enough to take on the most demanding typographic applications.” Mark went over every character individually and refined all of it. He rebuilt the italics from scratch, redid hinting for better on-screen display, and grew the character set from 245 to 699 characters with the latest version reaching 1435. He scrapped all of the original spacing and kerning, and rebuilt all of it.


Since the release of Proxima Nova, it has become extremely popular and has continued to expand in additional languages such as Vietnamese and Greek. A Proxima nova supplemental font has even been created that is a single font file compatible with both Macs and PCs.


Proxima Nova is such a strong font because it’s modern, personal, cool and not too much of anything. Proxima combined the strength of modernism that Helvetica offers with the same feeling that Futura gives. When comparing Proxima to Helvetica, it’s important to look at the lowercase letter “i”. The lowercase “i” in Helvetica is dotted with a square, while the lowercase “i” in Proxima Nova is dotted with a circle. This shows the contrast of softness and hardness between the two typefaces.


Overall, Proxima Nova has been perfected over the years and is a fan-favourite amongst many brands and users. The simplicity, mixed with its modernism, great screen display, and variety of characters makes it an advanced typographic typeface. Thank you for listening to this episode of An Incomplete History of Type and we hope to see you again next week.



References


Cowles. (2015, June 9). The single reason why Proxima Nova is the world’s best font. Cowles

Media. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from


SparxTeam. (2021, May 17). The Story Behind Our Font: Proxima Nova. Sparx Publishing


Simonson, M. S. (2017). The Story of Proxima Nova. Mark Simonson. Retrieved February 25,


Simonson, M. S. (2021, May 21). Proxima Nova. Mark Simonson. Retrieved February 25, 2022,





About Our Guest Host:

My name is Zoe Soeiro and I recently graduated from Graphic Communications Management with a concentration in Publishing. I have since started working in Public Relations for an advertising agency in Toronto. Typography was my favourite course at Toronto Metropolitan University and I’ve always had a passion for all things type!




Music (public domain): TRG Banks - Above the Earth


Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle


Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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