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

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:
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A transcription of the video follows on the next page