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 FontBlog.de 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.