More on Helvetica Neue in iOS 7

More on Helvetica Neue in iOS 7

Summary: Developers have been railing against the use of Helvetica Neue Light and Ultra Light in the iOS beta. The update released on Tuesday switched to a regular weight.

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On his blog, developer and writer Marco Arment pointed to reports that iOS 7 beta's font choice has now changed from the lightweight Helvetica Neue Light to plain old Helvetica Neue. This change came out of the blue and is the latest example of how iOS's new fonts continue to be a subject of much discussion among the developer and content professional class.

Yesterday, I wrote about the new typographical APIs in iOS 7 and the use of the Helvetica Neue family in the mobile OS.

According to Arment, it was an example of "letting cool come before functional."

With Ive’s new role leading UI design, I was afraid that we were in for a long series of such failures. And with iOS 7 being unveiled so publicly and confidently, I really didn’t think any decisions as significant as the system font would change before release.

Now, we know otherwise.

Apple’s stated design philosophy of iOS 7 was "clarity, deference, and depth". They nailed deference and depth, but clarity has suffered in many big and small ways.

Arment's last charge is difficult for me to comprehend. Can the presentation of thin and ultra light weights over heavier weights of a font family degrade the clarity of vision for iOS? Certainly, san-serif fonts offer a more-modern feeling than the skeuomorphism-friendly serif font families. In a post about the typography choices in iOS 7, designer Khoi Vinh said the thinner versions of Helvetica denote modernity.

Historically, these fonts have figured prominently into 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. They facilitate aspirational marketing messages, ideals that consumers can aspire to by applying that perfect shade of lipstick or putting on that perfect summer dress. And more often than not they’ve also been meant to indicate femininity.

Vinh suggests that Apple may be trying to make its mobile devices more appealing to a wider audience through Helvetica Neue. He says that "digital media as a whole has been striving to appear less male-centric, less geeky, more worldly."

So Apple may be recognizing that its mobile devices are being used by a wider range of users than its desktop and laptop computers and that these new customers may have different interface sensibilities. Or perhaps it is that Apple is reaching out to women, as Vinh notes.

However, the process of the font changes also came under scrutiny. Marco Arment said that there must be an internal debate inside the halls of Cupertino.

Since Apple is just people, they’re usually trying to figure out the best answer to the same decisions and trade-offs we argue about on the outside: what’s best for the user, what’s best for battery life, what apps should be allowed to do, how multitasking should work, how far sandboxing should go, and so on. Almost any decision that causes controversy on the outside has almost certainly caused just as much on the inside, it’s probably still being argued, and the decision probably isn’t set in stone.

We can’t participate directly in those debates, but we can provide ammo to the side we agree with.

Or it's just the Apple giving us something shiny to wonder about. Either way, much appreciated.

Topics: iOS, Apple, Apps, iPhone, iPad, Operating Systems

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40 comments
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  • Or . . .

    . . . could the clarity issue be resolved with even higher resolution displays???
    Gr8Music
    • Maybe to some extent but unlikely

      The issue at some stage becomes the resolution of your eye.

      The whole point of Retina is that it's higher res than you can see - going higher is of dubious benefit and possibly none.
      richardw66
  • As long as it takes

    While Tim Cook is in charge and apple fiddles with fonts while leaving all the big things broken, I say "as long as it takes".
    toddbottom3
    • The fact that the company does "fiddle with fonts"

      is why a certain cadre of users will always buy their products. Attention to those kinds of details (first scalable type, then scalable type with rich hinting back in the 80s - 90s) has always set them apart for people who like machines that are not just nice to use, but nice to look at.
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter
      • I'm happy apple is wasting their time in this

        Like I said : as long as it takes.
        toddbottom3
        • Their customers are happy they're "wasting" their time on it too

          Attention to detail is one of the reasons they have them.
          Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • True

            There is a category of customer who will fawn over everything apple does like fiddling with the thickness of a font while the rest of the UI is unable. The rest have higher expectations and won't put up with this much longer.

            As long as it takes.

            Now, I wonder if you get it. It is okay if you don't, I'm having a blast here.
            toddbottom3
          • Sorry toddbottom3

            "As long as it takes" has already used by the Mac Daily News peeps for a few years now when referring to Balmer's leadership. You using it now is kind of tacky.
            CowLauncher
          • Ballmer

            Ballmer that is
            CowLauncher
          • Cowlauncher gets it

            He knows exactly who I'm making fun of.

            Tim Cook : As long as it takes.
            toddbottom3
          • I doubt they're "fawning"

            iOS/Apple fans do have a mind of their own. I think we can see from "Jonny Ive Redesigns Things" that, when they get some stuff wrong, the high standards have that make fiddling with fonts OK, also made poor design choice ridicule-worthy.
            Mac_PC_FenceSitter
        • I'm happy you are wasting your time

          Thanks for the continuous spouting of lies and failure to understand the real world.

          Keeps you off the streets I guess?
          richardw66
        • It isn't a waste of time

          Typography is important to the UI.

          Every company is getting on that bandwagon, the one that Apple started.
          Michael Alan Goff
          • Microsoft gets credit for this one

            Microsoft, with their brilliant Modern style, is the one that started this movement. apple, once again, is following with a flat typographical UI. apple was all about the skeumorphism before ios 7. What changed between the skeumorphic ios1 and flat, typographical ios7? Microsoft.
            toddbottom3
          • Huh?

            Apple has been moving to a Helvetica-type font for a while now. It might just be coming to iOS, but it's been clear that they were heading that direction for going on 4 years now.

            As for flat? You do know Microsoft wasn't the first to do flat, right?

            Microsoft can get credit for a lot of things, but flat isn't one of them. Also, Segoe UI is essentially a modified Lucida Grande.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • You made the claim apple had started the bandwagon

            Where was apple's flat, typographical UI for mobile devices? It would be great if your reference predated the Zune.

            I'll wait.
            toddbottom3
          • No

            Apple did start the obsession with typography, not with iOS. They started it with Mac OS. Steve Jobs was really inspired by an earlier calligraphy class that he sat in on during his time in College. They didn't start flat, though, the first company that started to go flat would be ... I don't know, flat was done before faux depth was done.

            Google made it popular again, though, or maybe it was AOL in the 1990's. It isn't either Apple or Microsoft, there are more companies out there.

            "But it wasn't mobile".

            And? A mobile computer is still a computer, and typography was always one of Apple's big loves.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • Actually the fascination with typography began with Apple

            Scalable type and TrueType come from them.

            But I do agree that Microsoft has been strong in this area as well. They pioneered fontography on the web, and came up with ClearType and OpenType.
            Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • Trouble is....

            The trouble is with that, Microsoft is managerially, creatively and productively bankrupt.

            Microsoft produced a truly flat Windows 8 which is pretty much pointless. It is an enormous step backwards. The public response has been to flush it down the pan.

            Not least because of that flatness. In a nest of partially overlapping Windows, that flatness obscures what is happening.

            And the ham fisted attempt to combine touch and desktop interfaces is so badly done that it should never have got out through the door.

            iOS 7 has no such problems. iOS isn't about partially overlapping windows. And the alternative 3D clues provide just as real an icon segregation, as did the shaded edges on the icons themselves.

            While I had some doubts about the flatter icons, when all I had seen was badly photographed screen shots from Alpha devices, not I have been using it for a few weeks, I really like it.

            But that is one small part of iOS 7.

            That it's the part getting the most press, tells you more about the press, than about Apple.
            Henry 3 Dogg
          • Like I said: fawning

            I'll laugh when Windows 9 is released, looking all flat and typographical, and Henry 3 Dogg will claim that Microsoft copied apple's design language.

            "iOS isn't about partially overlapping windows"

            Too funny because this is EXACTLY what ios7 looks like: confusing, busy, messy, overlapping windows. It looks like someone thew up on the screen after drinking koolaid.
            toddbottom3