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Summary:

Noted designer Erik Spiekermann has called Apple’s typeface choice a “youthful folly.” Speaking at Gigaom’s Roadmap, he explained what he meant and offered other insights into how he sees the world of design.

Erik Spiekermann, who has crafted dozens of version of the alphabet for companies and cities, believes typeface designers have an obligation to craft letters that are not just pretty but practical, too.

“User interface designers must forget their vanity…don’t forget you’re running a service. You are supposed to design something for other people, not yourself or your mother” said Spiekermann, at Gigaom’s Roadmap conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.

His observation was partially an elaboration of an observation he made this summer, when he described Apple’s choice of Helvetica Neue Light for its iOS 7 interface as a “youthful folly.”

Speaking with Adobe Products VP, Jeff Veen, Spiekermann likened Apple’s designers to a group of young students from the same school who become so enraptured with a particular typeface (in this case Helvetica Neue), that they forget the practical aspects of what they do.

“You have to be modest,” he said. “If you’re showing the world what a great designer you are, it will be illegible or annoying.”

According to Spiekermann, designing letters is highly constrained because 95 percent of the structure is pre-determined — vary from it too much and the “a” you are making will no longer be recognized as an “a,” and function is lost. At the same time, he warned that designers too often forget that typefaces are part of the service they offer, and make the mistake of using them too often.

“Treat it like other design items. You don’t use the same images for different jobs,” he said, adding that designers should identify the distinct features of each project and audience, and choose the typeface accordingly — Should it be muscular? Should it be more subdued? And so on.

Spiekermann also acknowledged that typeface is essentially utilitarian like water coming out of a tap — people want it simply to work and not distract them. But, at the same time, he noted that people also crave variety and “something spicy,” likening the many forms of letters to the many types of vineyards we use to produce red and white wine.

Most importantly, he said, the role of a designer is that of an interpreter, and is becoming more important than ever as the world around us becomes more complex and difficult to navigate.

“Designers are the interface, making the world at large intelligible … and more understandable.”

Check out the rest of our Roadmap 2013 live coverage here, and a video embed of the session follows below:


A transcription of the video follows on the next page

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  1. Strongly agree. Same could be said about many other iOS 7 design elements, in my opinion. No matter how neat it looks when you’re looking at it to look at it, if it doesn’t make it a better phone, don’t do it. CHANGE IT BACK, APPLE!

  2. Fully agree. I kept vacillating between fonts until I saw a comment in one fellow’s blog that really hit home. He made the point that the font should be somewhat “ignorable” because, after all, it’s the content that counts. Any font that can be read *quickly* without drawing attention toward itself and away from the content, is better. I’ve chosen plain ol’ Helvetica.

    1. I think it’s beautiful. Change is good. Keep up the good work Apple.

  3. Interesting discussion. I actually love the typeface in iOS7 and the flat look. I used to hack my phone to make it look that way.

  4. Font preference, just like any forms of art or design is purely subjective. You either love it or hate it. iOS 7 font is utilitarian, light, simple, modest, legible and practical to me.

    1. There’s a fundamental flaw in that reasoning. Art is subjective, design is not. You can’t measure how beautiful a piece of art is, but you can measure how well something is designed. If something is poorly designed it’s difficult, frustrating, or impossible to use. If something is well designed it’s easy and intuitive to use.

      The new iOS7 with its pretty font-face may be beautiful, but it’s increased the cognitive effort involved in using and traversing the operating system for most users. Think of a door with a doorknob. If the doorknob is tiny and slicked with grease, that’s a poorly designed doorknob and equates to a subpar user experience, even if the damned thing looks pretty from an art perspective. I would argue that with Helvetica Neue Light and iOS7, Apple made a miniature doorknob and dipped it in grease.

  5. I don’t usually comment, but I have to disagree with this article. I personally like the new look! And here is the thing; everyone has different aesthetic tastes, so Apple will never be able to please everyone. Keep up the good work Apple.

  6. Rahul M Meharwade Wednesday, November 6, 2013

    I some what liked both earlier and new versions….sometimes I like it the way it was before and sometimes as I spend more time with my new iPad, I kinda like it!!

  7. I think that the author of this article can go to Helvetica.. =D .. But in all seriousness, Helvetica is one of the most commonly used typefaces for extremely widespread things like street signs and directional signs.. In this scenario the typeface really makes no difference.. A san-serif is great for non print reading, the only problem I could see is how accessible it is, but then again you can increase the size!

  8. Typefaces used to be classified as headline or text faces. The “London” design team at Apple loves Helvetica Neue and its lighter weights and yes it looks great but where? Legibiity is not great at small sizes and as far as font selection being subjective – no I disagree with the ‘disagreers’ – there are a number of derivations that do not work withing the iPhone interface. So as much as I want to disagree with the bald condensed German, I find myself agreeing. Fan boys… wake up!

  9. basically there are two types of people.
    those who want it to look pretty or nice or artsy and dont really care if it is totally functional
    and
    those who want it completely functional and easy to work with.

    i.e – the people that just want to get work done will not like it.
    the people that want the artsy, pretty, nice and new will like it. (although it does not work that good, but it looks good.)

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