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!