iOS 7 Thins Out

Was there a lot that was terribly wrong with the look and feel of iOS 6? Not in my book. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and many swaths of it were begging for some kind of house cleaning, but it didn’t need to be chucked away entirely. Apple decided to do just that, though, in their just announced iOS 7. The new operating system is significantly less ornamental than its predecessor; if you can call something “more minimal,” then iOS 7 looks to be just that. It’s simpler, less cluttered, and decidedly flatter, as folks like to say.

It’s also more like the cosmetics counter at your local department store than ever before, because, apparently, it makes liberal use of the thin or ultra light weights of Helvetica Neue throughout its many revamped interfaces.

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.


New Look

Nevertheless it’s probably no accident that they’ve found currency with the technology industry today, when digital devices are becoming ever more a part of our thinking about style and personal presentation, and digital media as a whole has been striving to appear less male-centric, less geeky, more worldly.

This is a perfect mission for these fonts, too. When companies seek to add legitimacy to their design lexicon, Helvetica is a common shortcut. (Take it from a guy who’s used Helvetica for almost everything for two decades; it is an extremely efficient vessel for prepackaged ideas.) This is especially true if a given flavor of the type family can so clearly communicate specific concepts the way that thin and ultra thin weights of Helvetica Neue can signal aspirational sophistication.

Apple is hardly the first to use Helvetica in this way, of course. Google’s recent iOS apps — Gmail and Google Maps in particular — use similar weights of Helvetica Neue for this same effect. For Google, Helvetica is one remedy to the long drought in design elegance that plagued the company in the years before Larry Page took over as CEO. Where the company once looked on design as a delivery system for algorithmic outputs, the use of Helvetica Neue in their iOS apps is meant to declare their embrace of design as a kind of status symbol: “We used Helvetica Neue, ergo we have taste.”

But in the case of both Apple and Google, their uses of Helvetica Neue are so prominent that they’re almost indiscriminate, and as a result both of these efforts skirt that thin line between aspiration and desperation. Where many graphic designers would mix in additional typefaces or even just different weights of Helvetica Neue to achieve an optimal reading experience and a balanced aesthetic, both Apple and Google seem overeager to use the thin and ultra light weights wherever they can.

Anyone is welcome to use these fonts in any way that they like, of course, but to my mind, the thinnest weights of Helvetica Neue are best used as display faces — meaning at larger sizes, for headlines and titles, and in relatively short bursts. Their very shapes were optimized for those cases where there’s ample room for the eye to truly travel along their supple curves, leisurely tracing the long, sprawling stems, bars and bowls of each letterform. To use them as both Google and Apple do, in text settings, in small sizes, in paragraphs, makes reading more visually cramped and more difficult than it should be. It also feels like too much sophistication — which is often indistinguishable from poor taste.

To be fair, these uses of Helvetica Neue’s thin and ultra light weights are not necessarily indictments of the design strategies that Apple and Google are pursuing. Google’s iOS apps have been exemplars of thoughtful design for mobile devices, and their typography approach has been a cosmetic misfire, at worst. As for iOS 7, it’s still too early to fully pass judgment on its major design shift towards the minimal. Only hands-on usage will reveal whether their use of Helvetica Neue is indicative of deeper-rooted problems with the revamped operating system, or just a surface blemish. There’s a lot to mull over and about in this release, but then with Apple there always is.

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23 Comments

  1. Most people commenting on Apple and their products fail to notice that large part of Apple’s success came from the skillful adoption of fashion industry’s paradigms into the world of tech.

    - Focus on design? Check.
    - Seasonal collections showcased at events attended by every industry journalist? Check.
    - Absolute secrecy prior to launch? Check.
    - Celebrities sporting the tech accessories? Check.
    - Fashion dictator getting applause on stage? Check.
    - Post-season discounts? Check (unsold units from past collections are only sold as refurbished, they’re never stay just discounted in store with current collection).

    Apparently, with the current candy collection, Apple is not trying to appease the tech crowd who — as usual — think whatever Apple does, is meant for them. Apple has been addressing entirely different groups for quite some time and now are expanding further.

  2. This is one of those times where I’m glad I now live outside the world where I need to keep my iPhone on the latest and greatest iOS. I’ll not be upgrading for the next little while I think. My 4(not S) works pretty well, and I like it just the way it is.

  3. I think this is just a case of the need for Apple to embrace great typography in its design. I think most decent designers wouldn’t consider Apple’s typographic design to be of the highest order. It’s about on par with Ikea——simple, well executed, but not noteworthy.

    Where Apple is finicky about flawless joins, perfect finishes, and cutting-edge processes, it should put that same effort into great typography: developing real grids (not the goofy one they showed for the icons) and systems, and using a well thought out type hierarchy.

    I’m glad Apple is rethinking the look of its interface, but it seems a bit dated and derivative at this point.

  4. You hit the nail on the head Khoi; a little too much Helvetica Neue. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was it that I didn’t quite love, and I kept thinking I’ve seen someone recently using Helvetica Neue. It’s nice and flat and some of the new interactions feel fresh, but I’m a bit afraid Ives is jumping into the Helvetica bandwagon. I think some of the large numbers on the Windows iOS are Helv. Neue as well.

  5. I had similar thoughts about the new typography yesterday. I guess my summary would have been, “they used this on everything? It’s gonna be hard to read.”

  6. To my eye, there doesn’t seem to be enough contrast in weight between much of the type and controls like the tracks on sliders and the – for lack of a better word – ornamental lines that segregate groups of controls into discrete sections, especially in areas like Control Center. I think this also applies to some of the icons, such as those on action bars (Quick Look, Save to Camera Roll, etc).

    Also, there seems to be too little use of differing font weights to create contrast and hierarchy (although there seems to be some in places like iTunes Radio); the main contrast seems to be size and whilst this is an absolutely valid technique, the many labels and text in the srceenshots we’ve seen so far appear (to my eyes at least) at least to begging for some heavier weights in some of the smaller sizes.

    The one place where the use of the thinner weights of Helvetica Neue works well is the lock screen, with the lighter weights set at a large size looking gorgeous floating above the wallpaper.

    With all this said though, iOS7 is still in beta (and has been turned out very quickly) and I’m sure that the new visual language will see some revision before it launches but seems a shame to have debuted it with such seemingly egregious mistakes.

  7. Nice post! I have enjoyed that you approached the question from different view point (history, fashion, business…)

  8. There was talk of “ЁdepthЁ” from the Apple camp: perhaps Helvetica “New-Eh” will receive a proper billing stop each respective pinnacle in the OS hierarchy—

  9. Apple is introducing a new core element on iOS 7 called “Text Kit” this system is managing all the font rendering on the OS and they have some very inventive ways of scaling the font to different sizes.

    Its not so simple has saying “Helvetica Neue Thin” is the new system font of iOS 7 in fact Apple is actively changing the typeface family, kerning and other properties depending on the size of the font. Its very clever and recommended for designers to be lecture in “Text Kit”.

    I think Apple will have more chapters on this iOS 7 design history up till the final release, they embarked on a titanic task: redesign the interface that changed all interfaces on a year.

    It’s still too early to call judgement and fall victim of the terrible choice of launcher icons for this Beta release.

    I encourage all designers to hear Apple speak about their design choices on the different WWDC sessions, there’s much more to iOS 7 than what the surface shows. There are new technologies that represent a whole new way to design, Apple is moving from static images to include active dynamics into the UI something no one else is doing.

    The new design language of iOS 7 is not flat when “depth” is one of the new core principles, what we envision has flat they interpreted has “simple” they are on a quest to reduce elements not flatten them, this is why they still have gradients on the icons and texture on the note app.

    The new UI that Jony envisioned is an integral part of the hardware design it even moves with it and changes depending on the user actions.

    For all WWDC sessions log in with your Apple Developer account on: https://developer.apple.com/wwdc/videos/

  10. Light typefaces aren’t chosen “just because” – texts set in these fonts, like the name suggests, appear lightweight and elegant, offering plenty of ‘breathing room’. This makes the entire text block look more approachable and, dare I say, friendly.

    And of course, let’s not forget that light typefaces simply look better on a high-density display. A thin font can really emphasize the sharpness and clarity of the increasingly higher-resolution screens found on phones lately, so this really is just software decisions being enabled by hardware improvements.

    By the way, Helvetica Neue has been a mainstay of iOS since the beginning; I don’t see how they should get flak for using what they’ve been using all along. And “the use of Helvetica Neue in their iOS apps is meant to declare their embrace of design as a kind of status symbol” is such a weak argument against Google. Perhaps, and quite likely, they’re using Helvetica Neue because the rest of iOS is typeset on Helvetica Neue. To use Helvetica Neue as a ‘status symbol’ does not make sense if they’re increasing the use of their own Roboto font elsewhere, especially in Android.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Khoi. It got me thinking more about the different positioning and typography on iOS vs Android, and lead to somewhat of a follow-up post.

    I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here, with the exception that I think it’s unfair to lump Google’s use of Helvetica and Apple’s use of it together since, as yauhui pointed out, Google is likely using it on iOS simply because it’s the platform standard, and they’ve gone a somewhat different route on Android.

  12. How come someone like you is not able to realise that that there is a BOLD option, as well as a font size adjustment to MUCH larger in the settings now on iOS 7? I mean, com on….. I know all blogers want trafic in their blogs and all that…. but writing crap before you even do your maths? Pathetic!!!

  13. Thin fonts prioritize looks over readability and usability. They are particularly ineffective at small sizes, so they had to enlarge them in apps like messaging, taking up very limited screen space. Same goes for removing shadows, borders, use of color, etc. Jony Ive never took a GUI course.

  14. I think the best said on this topic was Maeda’s article

    “What we need now is to move beyond the superficial conversation about styles and incremental adjustments to boldly invent the next frontier of interface design.

    In a hands-free, “eyes-free” interface world, this doesn’t mean removing a shadow or flattening a button. It means thinking way beyond the pattern of intensity rendered by pixels on a screen, to stop worrying about the dots-per-inch as if we cared to count the individual dots if we tried. Apple and other leaders in the design space should be thinking like the designers who are imagining a complete gesture-based operating system across an array of small and large display systems (like at Oblong). They should be playing with bytes, paper, and optics with a refined yet playful spirit of craftsmanship (like the folks at Berg).

    Ultimately, good design will be born from consideration of multiple perspectives. It should be something we haven’t even dreamed of yet.”

    http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/06/the-future-of-design-is-more-than-making-apple-ios-flat/

  15. To be clear, Helvetica Neue has been the iOS system font for the entirety of iOS’ existence, and has shipped with every Mac since 2001. This discussion is really about weights getting lighter.

    I think they simply changed too much too quickly, and so a lot of what we have seen is flawed and even broken. I think they embraced the changing of the guard within their own executive teams and forgot that roughly half of all iOS users are on their first device, have 90% customer satisfaction, and are not hungry for change. I would have liked to see them do a Mavericks-style evolution once a year for 2—3 years until they get to a “redesigned” iOS 10 that wouldn’t have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Especially given that they had to retreat so much from the Aqua Mac OS X redesign, which made many of these same mistakes (e.g. paint everything white, make everything translucent, change for the sake of change.)

    I’m skipping iOS 7, too. I agree with Jony Ive in the iPhone 5 intro video — we have a unique relationship with our iPhone and changing it is very serious. I think that applies even more to software, which is 90% of the device. There is just way too much change for the next year of iPhone/iPad use to be better on 7 than on 6. iOS 7 will be in Siri/Maps-like beta for the entirety of its 2013—2014 life. Mavericks I will not only use right away, but will buy new Mac hardware to run it.

  16. I am no expert on typefaces, but from playing around with the settings on my Kindle my experience has been that “serifs” (or whatever those little lines are called) substantially improve readability.

    Doesn’t that readability carry over to user interfaces? Why are practically all user interfaces done with serif-less fonts like Helvetia?