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What’s all the fuss about Apple and Helvetica Neue?

GIF comparing Helvetica Neue Ultra Light to Helvetica Neue — Apple switched from the former to the latter for iOS 7. (Graphic by Justin Youens)

If you followed the unveiling of iOS 7, you may have heard of Helvetica Neue. That’s the font Apple ultimately settled on after designers complained via Twitter that Helvetica Neue Ultra Light, a much slimmer version of the font that the company had originally chosen, would be too hard to read on small devices.

Helvetica Neue (German for “new,” pronounced “noy-a”) has been around since 1983 — it’s a reworked version of the 1957 staple, with a more unified set of heights and widths  — but it’s become a hotly contested font in the design and developer world. Some designers swear by it, saying it’s reliable and versatile, while others say it’s lazy and unimaginative– a way for brands to gain a sort of prepackaged legitimacy.

Apple has used Helvetica Neue before at greater widths, including in iOS 6 — and it was one of Steve Jobs’ favorite fonts. But Helvetica Neue is much bigger than Apple. In fact, it’s all around us: 3M, BMW, American Apparel and many, many others use it. We talked with a number of designers and developers to find out what the fuss is all about with Helvetica Neue.

Who uses it?

Lots of people. Helvetica Neue can be found everywhere: websites, products, publications (including this blog). Apple’s embrace of Helvetica Neue means that its third-party iOS app-makers will likely adopt the typeface if they want their apps to fit with Apple’s look. This includes major companies like Google, with its iOS Maps and Gmail.

But Helvetica Neue is the most ubiquitous in advertising copy and logos, where it is featured in large sizes.



American Apparel helvetica neue
Many companies use Helvetica Neue for branding. Some designers say that this font is much better on large displays than in small sizes, such as an iPhone.

“Historically, these fonts [Helvetica Neue] have figured prominently in the typographic vocabulary of the beauty and fashion industries, where they’ve been used for years to connote notions of modernity, Euro-centric sophistication and near-anorexic thinness,”  Khoi Vinh, the former Design Director for The New York Times, wrote on his site Subtraction in a piece lamenting Apple’s choice.

Is it readable?

Yes and no. Of course, you can read it, but the idea of readability falls on a scale. You can read any font if you stare at it long enough, but the best fonts—especially for devices, which further impair vision with artificial light—are quickly readable at many sizes. Good fonts can actually make reading quicker and more intuitive.

Here are the first few lines of Catcher in the Rye as black and white body text in Helvetica Neue. How "readable" is it to you?
Here are the first few lines of Catcher in the Rye as black and white body text in Helvetica Neue. How “readable” is it to you?

Stephen Coles, a typographer and editor of multiple typography publications, cites a number of problems with the Helvetica Neue: Uniformity of lettershapes makes it difficult to read at small sizes; many characters are so similar they can be confused (e.g. lowercase ‘l’ and uppercase ‘I’); the apertures, or openings in letters characters like ‘e’ and ‘9,’ are small, causing them to blur; tight spacing makes the space within letters much larger than the space between letters, further straining the eyes.

“In short, Helvetica has almost none of characteristics that are required for readability at small sizes or long passages: rhythm, openness, moderate letterspacing, moderate contrast,” he told me.

Some designers argue that letters and numbers like "e," "9," "l" and uppercased "i" are hard to read in Helvetica Neue. What do you think?
Some designers argue that letters and numbers like “e,” “9,” “l” and uppercase “i” are confusing or hard to read in Helvetica Neue.

Jürgen Siebert, CMO at FontShop AG, a German font foundry, says the great leap forward with Helvetica Neue isn’t the look of the font but the underlying technology. In a piece from the German and translated in Typographica, he says Text Kit and Dynamic Type, which are features new to iOS 7, make any font easier to use. Text Kit, which Apple engineer Ian Baird called “the coolest feature in iOS 7,” lets designers use substantially less code to deploy text. Dynamic Type lets users change the font sizes—so that they can accommodate their own vision needs.

Is it good design?

helvetica light to thick 2
Successful fonts have a variety of different weights. Here are some of the weights for Helvetica Neue.

For the most part, developers seem to think so. Michael Simmons, a developer and co-founder of Flexibits, which makes iOS apps, told me, “It’s a clean font that looks very nice.” It’s “modern, nice, readable, not awkward.”

Typography designers, not so much.

Graham Clifford, president of Type Directors Club, an industry organization, feels the font choice doesn’t speak well for Apple’s design. “It feels more like a default position rather than a design decision,” he said.

Why is Apple using it?

Helvetica Neue will be the main UI font for iOS 7.

The font comes in many weights and is compatible across browsers and platforms. Like many of Apple’s products, Helvetica Neue has an industrial feel. Apple is also sticking to the font for branding/continuity purposes—the company has used it before and will probably use it again.

Flexibits’ Simmons says staying with a more standard font is part of a larger design ethos for Apple: “With iOS 7, the whole design message is clear: It’s less about the design and more about the usability.”

Coles is less generous. “Helvetica is a safe bet for any designer. It aways ‘looks good.'” The subtext here is that Apple isn’t a company that should be going with safe bets — it should be a design leader.

Should Apple switch to a different typeface?

Coles and Clifford argue for an Apple-designed typeface, though with iOS 7 coming out this fall there isn’t much time. “I would have thought designing a custom screen font would have been a smarter idea — one that works better on the technology and reinforces a more distinctive brand voice,” says Clifford.

Coles agrees. “Even Myriad, the typeface that Apple has used for years as a corporate and marketing face, would be a better choice,” he said. “Apple would do even better to make their own typeface that is not only designed specifically for their OS and devices, but also lends the products a distinctive identity. Because in iOS 7, more than ever before, the type is the brand.”

We’re holding our annual RoadMap conference in November in San Francisco, which will focus on experience design for the tech industry.

This story was corrected at 7:22 pm with the correct attribution of the iOS 7 GIF. It was created by Justin Youens.

22 Responses to “What’s all the fuss about Apple and Helvetica Neue?”

  1. Why can’t the UI just be designed so you can have one of a selection of different typefaces? That way its personal to you, anyway, I;d be disappointed if Helvetica wasn’t one of those to choose from.

  2. I’m surprised that this article didn’t make reference to Microsoft’s adoption of the Segoe family for all things modern at Microsoft (Windows Phone, the Windows “Modern” (aka Metro) UI, the new Microsoft trademark).

    As I understand it, there’s quite some controversy around Microsoft and Segoe, though, I believe that there is more consensus that Segoe acquits itself nicely (from a designer point of view) as a computer font.

  3. Andrew Sturgess

    Sorry but all the print/web/other designers don’t know half a shit about mobile UX or the mobile/handheld market. They may be wonderful typographers, and yes, both the TDC and the New York Times can hold court on general typography. Unfortunately they (seem to) have no fucking clue about personal computing UX, something which Apple has been doing since 1976 (starting at Xerox PARC.) I don’t think any of the critics’ in this article have ever designed an operating system.

    If iOS and the iPhone/iPad used the same screen fonts as OSX (or any other prominent desktop system font) then the general public would have seen it as a portable computer; The genius of iOS and the iPhone (which got it into millions of hands SO quickly) is that Apple tricked people into thinking it was just a special phone. Not a computer. Using a font so familiar and accepted, one with virtually no negative stigma (beyond those who waste their time claiming it’s too Euro or whatever) makes the device immediately acceptable, which is why you have people who “hate” computers or using iOS devices by the droves.

    Re: use of ultra light. I think it looks fantastic, and the new grids are cleaner than anything elsewhere on a mobile device, and frankly I see it almost as a power play to the competitors because Apple simply knows Google (and god help them, Microsoft) cannot set type like them. Google’s marketing design is getting really, really nice (glad they are stealing Apple’s aesthetic. Seriously. It works. And it’s pretty.)

    I also have another theory about the critics here – they’re probably all hanging onto print media for dear life, and will always look down upon people READING WORDS ON SCREENS!!

    Sorry dudes, when I take a dump I read the 24 hour updated news on my iPod Touch at 264 dpi. And it rules.

    Now if we could just get someone to write a type-related article about Akzidenz Grotesk instead of Helvetica….There’s a face that needs some serious name recognition…

      • Andrew, please look up my credentials and our article on Typographica before assuming my biases. Most of my publishing projects are made for screen, not print. Regardless, this is not a battle between print and screen design. Helvetica has the same characteristics in print as well.

    • “use of ultra light. I think it looks fantastic”

      It’s very hard to read, especially at tiny sizes on a photographic or multicolored background.

      are you evaluating the iOS7 beta? I am. In the 1st beta release, the titles on the icons on the home screen were completely unreadable if you used a photograph for your wallpaper.

      and “Sorry but all the print/web/other designers don’t know half a shit about mobile UX or the mobile/handheld market” is a supremely ignorant statement. I know many professional “print/web/other designers” who ‘get it’ when it comes to software/UIs.

  4. Why ask typographers about readability? It’s an empirical question, to be answered in the psych lab, and has nothing to do with ‘design’. You make the point for me in the caption:”Some designers argue that …”. Well, exactly. It’s just opinion. For empirical realities like ‘readability’, ask nature and stop arguing.

    • True, that’s the original name. In a past effort to keep the Helveticas together in the font menu, Adobe has changed the way most people know the typeface. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late to go back now.

      • Late or not I think it was a mistake in the first place to call it “Neue Helvetica”. Maybe they wasn’t thinking about computers etcetera but for the conservation’s sake it would have been better to choose ‘Helvetica Neue’ from the beginning.

  5. Nicholas Paredes

    To paraphrase many others… Helvetica is for Modernists. Universe is for Humanists.

    Personally, I like the slight oddness of Akzidenz Grotesk which many consider to be the base of Helvetica. Helvetica Neue is controllable, and in my past career as a book designer that helps a lot, particularly with structured content. A font does have to be redesigned for the new technology as Hoefler & Frere-Jones have done with their cloud typography.

  6. Yawn. There is no fuss other than made up controversy by tech sites and design snobs. All of a sudden every one and their brother is a design expert and tech sites quote all these designers we’ve never heard of before.

  7. ““Even Myriad, the typeface that Apple has used for years as a corporate and marketing face, would be a better choice,” he said. “Apple would do even better to make their own typeface”

    Making Apple “wrong” is the driving motor of the TECH internet.