is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
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.
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.+