More on Helvetica Neue in iOS 7

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.
Written by David Morgenstern, Rest in Peace on

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.


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