Blog Post

Apple font “beautiful as typeface, totally sucks as an interface” — insights from a famous designer

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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(s appl) 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:
[protected-iframe id=”05d2a7a8e89b67547228dc86754ffb6a-14960843-25766478″ info=”″ width=”640″ height=”360″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no”]
A transcription of the video follows on the next page

18 Responses to “Apple font “beautiful as typeface, totally sucks as an interface” — insights from a famous designer”

  1. While the Helvetica Neue Light font is artful and loaded with understated grace, it has about as much visual impact as a styrofoam BB. Back in the day when I designed billboard ads, I had to be sure readability was priority 1. Rapid absorption of content is a much greater challenge when your less than 20/20 eyesight has to adjust focus on a thin-stroked font awash in a sea of white negative space. Even a greater challenge when the white or light colored background is backlit.

  2. As part of the “Youthful Folly” critique, I’d like to add that people who have begun the downward decline from perfect 20/20 vision, any thin-stroked font presents a greater challenge for readability. As a graphic designer, I appreciate the artfulness and understated grace of thin-stroked fonts, but with a background in billboard advertising, I know that readability is paramount in the fast-paced absorption of content.

  3. Actually, I completely loathe ios7 and find it to be quite precious and pretentious. But I could live with that. What is absolutely infuriating is the unnecessarily tiny, translucent, light grey font. Why? Why design an interface that is so challenging for many of us to read? Except for a few ineffective modifications there’s no way to darken the text or other graphic elements. Unfortunately the tiny, thin, light grey epidemic is spreading to countless websites and apps. I can’t wait for it to become passé.

  4. The bottom line is who is the audience? It is 1000 avant guard designers, who love the thin, modern font, or is it 100 million users who need to have high readability and recognition and don’t like the font.

    I don’t particularly like it.

  5. I actually think that the font is fine, there are some instances where it may be a tad fine-thin but I think the real design problem is in other interface elements and positioning, I find myself making way more clumsy mistakes, making the design less functional…correct these and we will have a beautiful and fully functional iOS design

  6. 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
    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.)

  7. BritGrot

    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!

  8. 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!

  9. Rahul M Meharwade

    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!!

  10. 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.

    • chrisalvino

      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.

  11. fjpoblam

    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.

  12. 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!