Typeface designer: Apple making a mistake with new OS X Yosemite system font

“For the first time ever, Apple is ditching Lucida Grande as the OS X system font in favor of Helvetica Neue, which also happens to be the iOS system font,” Suzanne LaBarre reports for Fast Company. “For an operating system that’s used by 80 million people, that’s no small thing. Will it make reading on desktop computers easier? Harder?”

“We asked Tobias Frere-Jones, the famed typeface designer who has worked with some of the world’s best publications and design shops, to offer his insights on what this change means for consumers,” LaBarre reports. “In his view, Apple might have made a mistake.”

Apple’s desktop and mobile operating systems have been gradually converging for some time. So it was inevitable that one typographic palette would displace the other. With OS X 10.10, Mac desktops will sport Helvetica everywhere. But I had really hoped it would be the other way around, with the iPhone taking a lesson from the desktop, and adopt Lucida Grande. Check the lock screen on your iPhone. You’ll see Helvetica there, a half-inch tall or larger, and it looks good. Problem is, there aren’t many other places where it looks as good. Despite its grand reputation, Helvetica can’t do everything. It works well in big sizes, but it can be really weak in small sizes… For any text, but particularly in interfaces, our eyes need typefaces that cooperate rather than resist. A super-sharp Retina Display might help, but the real issue is the human eye, and I haven’t heard of any upgrades on the way. – Tobias Frere-Jones

Read more in the full article here.

Related articles:
Tobias and Jonathan’s Excellent Adventure ignites Font War: Inside the design world’s $20 million divorce – April 9, 2014
Typeface designer: Apple’s Jony Ive’ s iOS 7 font ‘beautiful as typeface, totally sucks as an interface’ – November 8, 2013
Beyond Helvetica Neue: The real story behind fonts in iOS 7 – July 9, 2013
Jony Ive changes his mind, thickens system-wide font in iOS 7 beta 3 – July 9, 2013

87 Comments

  1. They say “for the first time ever”, but that’s not true. Ludica Grande is the third (?) was major system font used by Mac OS.

    I’m not a huge fan of the font switch either, but time will tell how well it works. I’m just glad they have common sense, unlike Microsoft’s use of the illegible Verdana for years in their OS. I never understood that choice.

        1. I won’t argue on the issue of web legibility, since I’m not an authority,but visually, Arial is just appalling. There is an online quiz for visual design professionals and fans, “Spot the difference” between the two fonts:

          http://www.ironicsans.com/helvarialquiz/index.php

          Just seeing the iconic logos re-done in Arial makes it obvious how visually bad Arial is compared to Helvetica.

          The most common story about Arial is that Microsoft hired someone to quickly do a Helvetica-lookalike font for their upcoming Windows OS, in order to avoid paying potentially massive licensing fees for Helvetica.

          1. Helvetica on standard 72dpi screeens or even 96dpi screens is really inferior to Helvetica, which is a better print typeface.

            Helvetica Neue, designed for the screen, beats out Arial.

          2. I took the test and got 17 out of 20. The only ones that were hard were the all caps with few different letter forms. For the rest, Arial is visibly inferior to my eye.

  2. Seriously now some unknown dude, after an unknown doctor is teaching Apple what font to choose?

    It wouldn’t be for Apple we would still use the black screen with one unique font.
    I am using Yosemite for 2 days now and it never felt so natural and pure. Use before you critic.

    1. “Never felt so natural and pure. Use before you critic.”

      Simply put, I don’t have to be a chicken to know when an egg is rotten.

      That said, enjoy, enjoy.

  3. The system font has no impact on most of what the user will be doing on a Mac. There aren’t large amounts of text used in the OS, just menus, labels, a few words here and there. Web sites usually specify the font, and for rare cases when they don’t, the user can specify any default font he or she wishes. Documents control the font. Actually, I think Helvetica Neue helps get the system out of the way so the user can focus on the work. While I Frere-Jones qualifications as a designer of type faces are unquestionable, I don’t know how much experience he has had designing operating system interfaces.

    So let’s wait and see how Yosemite looks when we can get our hands on it in a real world situation before we start writing a bunch of articles about mistakes. Sheesh. Give me a break.

    1. “The system font has no impact on most of what the user will be doing on a Mac”. System fonts are seen in every single application on an operating system. Helvetica Neue, not being designed for the screen, puts the system in the way as now legibility is reduced.

      It doesn’t matter that there are large amounts of text. I completely agree with Frere-Jones. What he’s talking about it legibility at small sizes. Just because there aren’t a lot of words, it doesn’t mean they should be difficult to read. People rarely change defaults.

      Ive is an industrial designer so he’s even more out of his league. I’d tend to go with the typography expert.

        1. Absolutely, and exclusively. But in the same way, you wouldn’t say Apple transformed photo editing. The Mac gave life to PageMaker, which then destroyed the typesetting business overnight. Then Adobe eventually destroyed PageMaker.

  4. They are claiming better readability. I hope so. But OS7 gave us the stupid “cool” thin design and stupid translucence that made my lock screen photo illegible. (Once in a market, a woman returned my phone I had dropped because I kept my picture on the lock screen.). Apple is starting to do more stupid things like the Beats crap. A lot of people think tattoos are “cool.” But I sold all my AAPL stock in May and am walking away.

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