What’s so Neue about Helvetica?

fonts
So, I was just reading Rani Molla’s post on GigaOM called What’s all the fuss about Apple and Helvetica Neue? and I felt compelled (as I so often do, about so many things) to comment on the issue here.

Contrary to how the GigaOM article seems to frame it, the controversy — the, if you will, fontroversy (I regret it already) — when Apple demoed iOS 7 at WWDC last month was not that they were switching to Helvetica Neue as the iOS 7 system font. It’s that they were switching to Helvetica Neue Ultra Light, a particularly delicate weight of the general Helvetica Neue font family. (I’ve read some things that suggest they’re reversing course on that decision based on developer feedback, but the GigaOM post doesn’t even touch that.)

The fact is, Helvetica Neue has been the iOS system font ever since the introduction of the iPhone 4. When the iPhone was first introduced, it used plain old Helvetica as the system font. But with the introduction of the Retina Display, Apple switched to the slightly more refined Helvetica Neue.

So the concern with iOS 7 is not Helvetica Neue itself — that’s been working out just fine. It’s this extra thin weight of the font, which becomes difficult to read at smaller sizes.

Personally I like Helvetica Neue Ultra Light. I think it continues the trend towards refinement Apple began with the switch to Helvetica Neue itself, and is demonstrated effectively in Cabel Sasser’s animated GIF featured in the GigaOM article. The version using Helvetica Neue Regular feels heavier and clunkier to me. That said, I do understand and appreciate the legibility concerns with Ultra Light at very small sizes.

I’m not sure how this will work itself out. I doubt Apple will switch to a different typeface, though they may increase the weight of the font in the final version of iOS 7. But part of the reason Apple went with Helvetica in the first place is that it’s neutral (at least in principle). It gets out of the way and isn’t distracting. It doesn’t convey any particular personality. It’s a “blank canvas” of a font, which makes it a perfect fit for iOS devices, where the device itself disappears and becomes the app you’re using. Developers don’t have to use the system font in their apps, but a lot of them do, and by keeping the system font as neutral as possible, Apple avoids predisposing apps to a certain personality or style.

This is exactly the opposite of the opinions expressed in the closing of the GigaOM article, and is I think the opposite of Apple’s intentions with the iOS experience. Using a custom font that “reinforces a more distinctive brand voice” would be the equivalent of sticking a big Apple logo on the front of the iPhone. Apple’s branding goes on the back (where it can be an effective marketing tool). It’s never a part of the user experience.

A first look at the Sleep cover art

As usual, I am putting the cart before the horse with my new album, Sleep (which may end up with the title Sleepy Sleep, if I can get over the fact that unless you get the Beach Boys reference and understand the history of this project, it sounds kind of stupid).

This past weekend, my 9-year-old son Fletcher drew a phantasmagorical picture that I knew on sight was the perfect cover illustration for an album whose music probes sleep, dreams and the subconscious. I scanned the image, colorized and further manipulated it in Photoshop (while, I believe, staying true to the spirit and design of the original), and added some type set in the Dickens McQueen font designed by Kyle Fletcher and distributed (for free!) by Chank Fonts. (Full disclosure: I built the current version of the Chank website, with design by Robert Pflaum.)

I think this cover art is looking great, and it is going to inspire me to keep working and finish the album!

Morning cup o’ links

Perhaps it would have been better to make a sausage analogy for these links, rather than a coffee-and-sausage one. But since one of the links is to a post written by Marco Arment, coffee seems appropriate. (Then again, a Google search reveals that I am far from the first person to use the phrase “morning cup o’ links” so maybe I should spend less time worrying about it being a non sequitir and instead worry that I am horribly unoriginal.)

Each morning I start the day by perusing the latest on Twitter and my RSS feeds, and I almost always find something interesting to read. But today was more interesting than most, and simply retweeting the links didn’t seem adequate. Also, some of these links may become topics for discussion on this week’s episode of The Undisciplined Room, so this is your homework.

First up, we have a post on The Verge discussing homeless hotspots at SXSW. This is a topic I’ve been reading about for the past few days, but this post was the first that made me think beyond my gut reaction that this was shameless exploitation.

Next, with a HT to Daring Fireball, and via Marco Arment, we have a look at Curator’s Code and why it’s a bad idea. The evidence has been mounting for me that Maria Popova’s 15 minutes of (borrowed) fame are almost over (especially when I’m reminded of her love of Ayn Rand and Malcolm Gladwell), and Marco helps solidify that thought.

Then we have type designer Mark Simonson (who designed the Proxima Nova font that I use in the Room 34 logo and branding materials) discussing font anachronisms in The Artist. As much as I enjoyed The Artist, issues with the fonts it used (especially straight quotes, and the fact that it used fonts in a lot of places where hand lettering would have been more appropriate) even distracted me, so I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone like Mark Simonson or Chank Diesel. (Full disclosure: I did development work on Chank’s mobile website.)

And finally… Chicago musician and multi-talent Joshua Wentz has just announced the release of the Side 2 EP by Absinthe and the Dirty Floors, one of the many musical projects with which he’s involved. He’s also made a video for each song on the EP, like this:

I kind of wish I didn’t notice things like this

I spend a lot of time with my Mac. In fact, I stare at my Mac’s screen for so much of the day that I have become intimately familiar with the nuances of Lucida Grande, the humanist sans-serif font that has been Apple’s default system font since the introduction of Mac OS X roughly a decade ago.

I’m not a huge fan of Lucida Grande, as I’m not a huge fan of humanist fonts in general. I prefer geometric fonts, even if they’re not as easy to read. I just prefer their mathematical precision because, well, I’m a geek. But I think the biggest reason I don’t love Lucida Grande is just that I’m sick of it. Even though it’s way better than Chicago (the original Mac system font) or Charcoal (the system font from Mac OS 8 and 9), I’ve just seen too much of it over the last 10 years. I want something new. The encroachment of iOS interface elements on the newly released Lion (Mac OS X 10.7) suggests I may be seeing even more of Helvetica Neue in the future, which is fine by me.

But in the meantime, we still have Lucida Grande. Lots and lots of Lucida Grande. And since I know it so well, I notice even the slightest change to it. For instance, I noticed immediately that something was… different… about the contextual menus in the latest version of iTunes, even if I couldn’t immediately put my finger on it:

It didn’t take too long though before I realized what it was. It’s ever so slightly smaller than the font in the contextual menus I’m used to seeing, including, unfortunately, those still present in the current version of the Finder:

The change is extremely subtle, but I like it.

Apparently the 10.7.1 update is out now. I’m sure I’ll begin downloading it within the hour. I’m not sure what changes it contains… but I suspect that despite my deepest desires, they will not include a 1-point reduction in the size of the Finder’s contextual menus.

Still, one can hope.

Trying out a new look

I’m trying out another new look for this blog. This design will probably evolve over time, but I am excited about the new direction — most significantly, the new colors, and the custom fonts using @font-face in CSS. The fonts are from a site I just discovered and am very excited about: The League of Moveable Type (no relation to Movable Type, the blogging software).

Of course, Internet Explorer won’t support it, so the fonts degrade to more common, standard, and boring options.

Let me know what you think!

Arial vs. Helvetica: a cheat sheet

Stoking the flames of the ongoing (mixed-metaphor) battle between Arial and Helvetica comes this cheat sheet courtesy of the ragbag. (Found via swissmiss via… wait for it… Daring Fireball, surprise!)

This guide hits all of the key differences I go by (the capital R and G; the lowercase a), and a few I hadn’t previously noticed.

Arial vs. Helvetica

The best part of the whole thing, though, is something I discovered in a comment on the swissmiss post: Helvetica, the Shirt. Sweet. Every one of these is bound to piss someone off, albeit for a different reason: the one actually in Helvetica will enrage those who hate Helvetica on principle (it’s overused, it’s not really neutral, it is really neutral, etc. etc.), while the one in Arial will piss off the Helvetica lovers (including myself), if they bother to look closely enough to see the differences.

The one in Cooper Black… well, I don’t know; for me that font will always be associated with Garfield in the early ’80s. I actually like Cooper Black in a cheesy, retro sort of way. But I think the point is probably that Helvetica is so neutral, or at least aspires to be, whereas Cooper Black is the epitome of a font with a personality of its own. (Well, OK, that title probably really belongs to Rosewood, but Cooper is at least a somewhat versatile.)

And then, of course, there’s the one in Comic Sans, which we will never speak of again.

On IKEA’s sad validation of Verdana

IKEA 2010 catalog, set in... GAACK! VerdanaAny use of a font is a validation of its aesthetics, and since I find the aesthetics of Verdana appalling, I am sad to see it get validation from the likes of IKEA.

I feel like I got a bit of a scoop here, because I first noticed the use of Verdana at IKEA about a month ago. At the time I thought it was a fluke — I saw it on one of their vertical banners, posted near the cafe, and it appeared to be a locally-produced sign advertising some particular regional specialty they were temporarily adding to the menu. It looked like someone at the local store had tried to design a banner to match the corporate standard, but was ignorant of the nuances of fonts, and used Verdana because they either didn’t have Futura or couldn’t tell the difference (gasp!)… or both.

But then earlier this week I was leafing through the 2010 IKEA catalog that was sitting on our coffee table, when it struck me that the whole bloody thing was set in Verdana. How could this be?!

As I said, I feel like I got a bit of a scoop here, because I mentioned this observation on Twitter three days ago, and only now is it showing up on Daring Fireball via lonelysandwich via Hunk-O-Mass via jhn brssndn via hellaposer via Typophile. And apparently Typophile does not yet have the bandwidth to handle being “fireballed” and “sandwiched” (and… uh… “34ed”… yeah, that’s it), since I can’t get it to load right now.

I feel like I’m in good company though, because these guys are echoing my longstanding sentiments towards Verdana. From Gruber:

I have never seen Verdana look good in any way other than in small sizes on-screen.

And, even more on-the-money, from Lisagor:

Sure, Gruber uses it tastefully, but at anything larger than 11pt, it feels to me a bit squat and dopey. Friendly and readable, but a little bit simple, in the way you’d say a person is simple, but only behind his back.

Well played. Part of IKEA’s rationale is that “they want to be able to give the same visual impression both in print and the web.” Well, that can be done without resorting to this abominable solution. Especially with the imminent ascension of @font-face.

Here’s hoping 2011 will bring a return to sanity.

The only thing worse than Arial is a careless mix of Arial and Helvetica

I snapped these photos yesterday in the parking lot of the Lyndale Rose Garden in Minneapolis. Why, at a garden with huge displays of flowers, fountains, sculptures and more, would I bother taking not just one but multiple photos of the pay machine in a parking lot?

Fonts.

In particular, ever since I saw the documentary Helvetica, I’ve been observing instances of the use of Arial — that abomination of a Helvetica knockoff Microsoft foisted upon the world by being too cheap to license Helvetica for Windows — on public signage. In days gone by, the default, almost ubiquitous, font on all sorts of public signs was Helvetica. But in the modern PC era, these signs often use Arial, the readily available not-quite-lookalike, instead.

But this pay machine is something else entirely. It displays a schizophrenic mix of Arial and Helvetica.



'PAY HERE' and taped-on sign in Arial
The most readily distinguishable difference between Arial and Helvetica, as I’ve noted before, is the capital R. So this pay machine immediately caught my attention with the giant “PAY HERE” sign at its top, immediately recognizable as Arial. I also noticed that the taped-on “ATTENTION” sign (which frustratingly informed me that the credit card function was not working) was in Arial as well.



Dymo labels in Helvetica
Next I noticed the pasted-on Dymo labels below the change slot, which were printed in Helvetica.



Machine instructions in Helvetica
The instructions printed on the machine, presumably by the manufacturer, are in Helvetica, albeit an ugly, artificially compressed version. So it would appear that the “PAY HERE” sign was a Minneapolis add-on and not part of the original unit.


The R’s have it… “It” being the most distinguishable difference between Helvetica and Arial

The R’s have itWhether or not my aesthetic sense and artistic ability really warrant the appellation “designer,” design has been a part of what I do for my entire career, and I’ve had the eye for detail (minutiae?) since I was a kid. It follows naturally that I have an unhealthy fixation on fonts. Just ask anyone how I feel about Verdana to erase all doubts on that point.

My obsessions seem slightly less unhealthy working in the publishing field, and they’re downright validated at moments like last Friday, when the recent documentary honoring the 50th anniversary of Helvetica was screened in our boardroom over lunch. I loved it.

While I unequivocally loathe Verdana (unless, that is, it’s displayed at such a small point size that it’s hard to tell what it is), I hold Helvetica in high regard. It’s rather plain, I’ll admit, but it’s just such a perfectly realized vision that in its relatively short lifetime it has become the norm. Helvetica is just how letters should look, and any other font’s uniqueness is judged most clearly by how it differs from that norm.

Unfortunately, on-screen type is a world of its own. Although with the advent of Mac OS X, system-wide anti-aliasing has made smooth font rendering possible, most computer systems still look better when fonts are specially tooled for the low-resolution environment of a CRT or LCD display. And for the most part, Helvetica has never really fared too well in such an environment.

So when, in the mid-’90s, Microsoft made what might have been their single most thoroughly positive contribution to the world by releasing a set of standard fonts to be used on web pages that look (reasonably) good on computer screens, I embraced them wholeheartedly (Verdana notwithstanding).

The closest counterpart to Helvetica in this set of fonts is Arial. Many people hate Arial, for reasons generally too arcane even for me to appreciate, but ultimately, for me, the fact that it doesn’t quite hit the mark of being a pure Helvetica clone, it tends to render much better on-screen than Helvetica does, and it’s become my own personal standard (along with another of the Microsoft web fonts, Georgia) for web design.

But this Helvetica movie has turned my world on its ear. For the last week I’ve been hyper-sensitive to fonts, noticing Helvetica everywhere I turn all day long, and becoming acutely aware of every slight difference between Helvetica and its web font doppelgänger, Arial. I think I’ve hit upon the most easily identifiable difference between the two fonts: the right “foot” of the capital R.

To be honest, I don’t really like the capital R in Helvetica. That wavy little foot seems too jaunty, too incongruously immoderate next to its supremely efficient and utilitarian siblings. But if anything is worse than the capital R in Helvetica, it’s the capital R in Arial! What the heck is that? It’s almost enough to make me want to give Verdana another chance. (After all, it’s even used on the Helvetica site.)