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Helvetica Neue: Integrating with Linux

First, this post is not sponsored by anyone and has no links or ads that make me any money. Let's go!

I grew quite a bit of a sympathy for Helvetica fonts recently and ended up buying font Helvetica Neue a few days ago eventually. Users of macOS

While buying and then integrating the font into my Linux setup I learned a few things… that I would like to share with you.

Buying process + choices I had to make

Precisely I bought bundle "Neue Helvetica Pro Basic Family", 8 weights, each italic and not italic, desktop license 1-5 computers, Pro OpenType TTF, 20% discount from a promo code from signing up for their newsletter prior to buying, totaling at 141.85 Euro including VAT.

I picked Helvetica Neue over other Helveticas because it seemed like one of the more modern options fit for 2020. Also I had seen it work very well before (with content of The Futur in particular), and it was not an experiment (like Helvetica Now would have been), and it was more affordable than some of the other options.

I picked OpenType TTF over OpenType CFF for the desktop download because in my local prior experiments, TTF fonts rendering looked different and better. I should not pay twice to get both formats though, that's not cool.

Out of all the font-selling websites run by Monotype with close to identical offerings — fontshop.com, fonts.com, linotype.com, myfonts.com — I went for FontShop for buying because I liked the arty feeling about the site and because they allow experimenting with a font prior to buying in a more fun way than the others.

What that go me was 16 .ttf files:

  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-It.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-UltLtIt.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-UltLt.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-Roman.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-Lt.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-Md.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-Hv.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-HvIt.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-Blk.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-BdIt.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-Bd.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-Th.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-ThIt.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-LtIt.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-MdIt.ttf
  • HelveticaNeueLTPro-BlkIt.ttf

Installation

Installing them was easy:

  1. create a folder like ~/.local/share/fonts/Monotype_Imaging/TrueType/Helvetica_Neue_LT_Pro/,

  2. put the 16 .tff files in, and

  3. ran fc-cache to update the Fontconfig cache.

Integrating with Linux more

But I wanted a bit more. I often saw website refer to plain Helvetica — e.g. through CSS like font-family: [..],Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif,[..]; — and I wanted browser to use my Helvetica Neue for that. Also, I wanted change the default choice for sans-serif to Helvetica Neue, at least to see how it would feel for a few days. To summarize I wanted:

  • to map Helvetica to Helvetica Neue for all applications and

  • to set Helvetica Neue as the default sans-serif font for all applications.

Took me a few takes to get that right but looking back it's actually not that hard.

Tool fc-match helped me understand where I was at. When I started out, sans-serif mapped to Liberation Sans and Helvetica mapped to TeX Gyre Heros as can be seen here:

# fc-match Helvetica
texgyreheros-regular.otf: "TeX Gyre Heros" "Regular"

# fc-match sans-serif
LiberationSans-Regular.ttf: "Liberation Sans" "Regular"

Those mappings are configured in .conf files below /etc/fonts/ and also ~/.config/fontconfig/. So I learned from the existing .conf files I found, put two more files into ~/.config/fontconfig/, one per task, and ran fc-cache again. This is how I named my files:

  • ~/.config/fontconfig/conf.d/01-helvetica-neue-aliases.conf

  • ~/.config/fontconfig/conf.d/02-neue-helvetica-default-sans-serif.conf

Let's a have a closer look at their content.

To make Helvetica Neue win over TeX Gyre Heros I came up with this:

# cat ~/.config/fontconfig/conf.d/01-helvetica-neue-aliases.conf
<?xml version="1.0"?>
<!DOCTYPE fontconfig SYSTEM "fonts.dtd">
<fontconfig>
  <description>
    Serve Helvetica Neue when asked for Helvetica
  </description>

  <!-- needs binding="same" to win over TeX Gyre Heros -->
  <alias binding="same">
    <family>Helvetica</family>
    <prefer>
      <family>Helvetica Neue LT Pro</family>
    </prefer>
  </alias>

</fontconfig>

Mapping sans-serif to Helvetica Neue was similar, slightly easier:

# cat ~/.config/fontconfig/conf.d/02-neue-helvetica-default-sans-serif.conf
<?xml version="1.0"?>
<!DOCTYPE fontconfig SYSTEM "fonts.dtd">
<fontconfig>

  <description>
    Make Helvetica Neue the default sans-serif
  </description>

  <alias>
    <family>sans-serif</family>
    <prefer>
      <family>Helvetica Neue LT Pro</family>
    </prefer>
  </alias>

</fontconfig>

Using fc-match, it was easy to verify those files worked:

# fc-match Helvetica
HelveticaNeueLTPro-Roman.ttf: "Helvetica Neue LT Pro" "Regular"

# fc-match sans-serif
HelveticaNeueLTPro-Roman.ttf: "Helvetica Neue LT Pro" "Regular"

During my experiments, I played with a downloaded copy of Web Font Specimen to make sure that both Firefox and Chromium were doing what I expected. (I had one of the <prefer> tags be an <accept> earlier and that made Firefox and Chromium behave differently — I still need to figure out why, but use of <prefer> fixed things for me.)

I also got curious in which order fc-cache process the .conf files, in particular how user config and system config would blend together. Why not just spy on fc-cache while it does the work… using strace. I'll trim this down a bit to the interesting part:

# strace -F -efile fc-cache |& fgrep openat \
      | grep -Eo '"[^"]+\.conf"' | sed 's,",,g' | nl
     1  /etc/fonts/fonts.conf
     2  /etc/fonts/conf.avail/10-hinting-slight.conf
     3  /etc/fonts/conf.avail/10-scale-bitmap-fonts.conf
     4  /etc/fonts/conf.avail/20-unhint-small-vera.conf
[..]
    10  /etc/fonts/conf.avail/50-user.conf
    11  /home/user/.config/fontconfig/conf.d/01-helvetica-neue-aliases.conf
    12  /home/user/.config/fontconfig/conf.d/02-neue-helvetica-default-sans-serif.conf
    13  /home/user/.config/fontconfig/fonts.conf
    14  /etc/fonts/conf.avail/51-local.conf
[..]
    51  /etc/fonts/conf.avail/70-yes-bitmaps.conf

So that's where fonts.conf and user config come in. It's controlled by 50-user.conf, cut down to the interesting bits:

# cat /etc/fonts/conf.avail/50-user.conf
<?xml version="1.0"?>
<!DOCTYPE fontconfig SYSTEM "fonts.dtd">
<fontconfig>
  <description>Load per-user customization files</description>
  <!--
    Load per-user customization files where stored on XDG Base Directory
    specification compliant places. it should be usually:
    $HOME/.config/fontconfig/conf.d
    $HOME/.config/fontconfig/fonts.conf
  -->
  <include ignore_missing="yes" prefix="xdg">fontconfig/conf.d</include>
  <include ignore_missing="yes" prefix="xdg">fontconfig/fonts.conf</include>
</fontconfig>

My personal summary

  • I'm very happy to have desktop access to Helvetica Neue now, e.g. for use with future presentation slides.

  • I will probably revert back to Liberation Sans or DejaVu Sans for a sans-serif default though, will see.

  • Mapping or re-mapping fonts on Linux is not that hard.

  • Fontconfig configuration can be adjusted without root permissions by putting a small XML file into directory ~/.config/fontconfig/conf.d/.

  • Tools fc-cache and fc-match are the Fontconfig commands needed to get user fonts and configuration to work.

  • Font Manager is great for browsing and previewing installed fonts on a Linux System.

  • Googling for differences between OpenType TFF and OpenType CFF for quite a while did not help me making the choice easier. Converting one font TTF-to-CFF and another CFF-to-TFF using FontForge and comparing results did.

Enough fonts for me today.

Best, Sebastian