The Golden Age of Helvetica Ends – But Not at Apple.

Designers always loved Helvetica. And they redeclared their love for it constantly. In film. On countless t-shirts. Pinterest collections. Hell, there’s even a Helvetica perfume!

I love Helvetica t-shirt

Photo: santheo

As a typeface, it’s always been the ‘Glenda the Good Witch’ to Comic Sans’ cackling ‘Wicked Witch of the West’.

But some time around 2010 something happened to the relationship.

We started seeing posts from rockstar typographers and designers trash-talking Helvetica.

Swiss type designer Bruno Maag called it ‘vanilla ice cream’ and designed a new typeface — Aktiv Grotesk — with the explicit aim of replacing it.

In 2012, Erik Spiekermann declared it sucked, and can be very difficult to decipher. Earlier he’d even called it ‘the McDonalds of type’.

Dirk and Weiss at AnyoneCanSwiss queried whether Helvetica was just ‘a complete design cop-out‘.

After 50 years of puppy-eyed admiration, the tide certainly seemed to have turned on the former designer’s darling.

Ironically, on Monday Apple announced the next version of OS X (Yosemite) would drop Lucida Grande — a fixture of the OS since 1999 — in favor of Helvetica Neue.

Lucida Grande vs Helvetica Neue at various sizes

There was an immediate and mostly negative reaction from designers.

In particular, Tobias Frere-Jones — perhaps the ‘Paul McCartney’ of rockstar type designers — said ‘despite its grand reputation, Helvetica can’t do everything. It works well in big sizes but it can be really weak in small sizes ‘.

Comparisons of the apertures on the Lucida Grande and Helvetica Neue 'S' respectively.

Tobias argues that the apertures — or openings — in letters like ‘S’ close off when scaled to smaller sizes.

Obviously in anything as complicated as an operating system, text will be presented in many sizes, weights and colors. Versatility is key.

Now, there’s little doubt that Apple is a company that has built an empire on smart design choices. They’ve also never shied away from potentially difficult decisions.

Nevertheless, this one seems a little bit tin-eared.

We will see.

(Originally published in the SitePoint Design Newsletter)

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  • Andrew Wasson

    I don’t know why Apple is going to drop Lucida Grand; it doesn’t really make sense unless there’s some sort of licensing issue at the heart of it. It’s a font, it takes very little space in the big picture so dropping it must have something to do with a business & licensing issue.

    Aside from that, IMO Lucida is a bit of a junk font. It’s pretty on first glance but not all that nice to read. I would far rather read a page of Helvetica than one of the Lucida variants.

    Aside from that, I don’t really think it matters much going forward. If I’m looking for a print font and I want Helvetica, I have several types of Helvetica to choose from and if I’m doing something for the web, well… Typekit, Google Web Fonts, etc. will certainly fill the gap.

    Also, Helvetica is Tony Stark to Comic Sans JP Patches.

    • deconai

      It doesn’t really matter where the font is being served from as much as the forms of the glyphs themselves. The main problem with Helvetica is that at smaller sizes, the forms start to close in. An “S” becomes indistinguishable from an “8”, for example.

      For a UI, you need the typography to be able to stand up to small sizes. You want a generous x-height, and large, open counters. Helvetica’s counters tend to close and it’s a much wider font compared to Lucida Grande.

      Aside from that, your comparison of Helvetica to Tony Stark is not very accurate. Tony is all charm and personality. Helvetica was designed to be void of personality. It says nothing about anything. It’s great as a backdrop, but as a star player, it leaves much to be desired, no matter how many logos are made with it.

      • Andrew Wasson

        I read that bit about the letter s closing at small sizes but in actual use, I don’t see it as an issue. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but that when it happens the font is at a ridiculously small size and would anyone expect to use the font at that size other than as an adornment.

        For example I’ve found that anything smaller than 9px as a font size tends to render poorly, particularly on Windows PC’s so when designing stylesheets, I don’t go below 9px and certainly I wouldn’t have body copy at such a small size. At 9px if I can’t make our the s’s in something like “simply irresistible” then it’s time to up the lenses in my glasses or bump up the size. As a practical matter, it’s not really a valid argument.

        Maybe you’re right about the Tony Stark comment. Helvetica has charm but it’s more of a quiet confidence. It’s a reading font and it may be the best at the time; it’s certainly miles better than its knockoff, Arial. Lucida on the other hand, looks good on first glance but in practice, I’ve found that people (my clients) get tired of it and prefer something simple like Helvetica for a reading font. Then again, with the availability of more fonts via web fonts services, it’s probably not really going to be an issue.

  • Ergys Ura

    Oh the irony, the fact that this website “still” uses Helvetica Neue as their font. Come on people, Helvetica Neue whether we like it or not is pretty much here to stay. It just works. I don’t know why or how and frankly i don’t care. It does the job better than other fonts. Sure there are specific fonts for some specific tasks (small screens, print, poster etc.) but in my opinion this font rules. If it works for the users, it works for me. I am typing whilst looking at high resolution (1920 x 1080 @ 15,6″ Monitor) screen and it makes reading so much easier.

    • Alex Walker

      I would argue there’s a very different set of considerations in place when selecting a body font for a single website, versus font choices for an entire OS.

      One is like provisioning a spaceship for a long journey — every non-essential item you pack costs you space and fuel. Frugality has a pay-off.

      The other is like terraforming a planet. It takes a very long time, so there’s no reason not to make sure the air is perfect and the water is pristine.

      Hehehe.. That was quite an ambitious analogy, but I’m going with it!

  • Alex Walker

    Good link.

    There’s something a little ‘Linuxy’ about Firs Sans, but it’s open and crisp. I think I could get used to that quite quickly.

  • deconai

    Interesting.