Hell No, Helvetica: The Yosemite Backlash


When Apple began using the Neue Helvetica type family for iOS 7 and later Mac OS X 10.10, an uprising ensued. Designers and typographers voiced their disdain for the font, even though it had risen to acclaim, having starred in its own documentary, aptly named Helvetica. But now that it’s starring in iOS and Mac OS X, has Helvetica “jumped the shark”? Between users avoiding Yosemite and others switching from Yosemite’s default Neue Helvetica to a different system font, it would appear so.

source: Apple.comsource: Apple.com

Is Helvetica all that bad? Not necessarily, but among some experts, it’s considered a poor choice for user interfaces. Typomaniac, typographer, and designer Erik Spiekermann made a chart in 2012 showing why, and as of February 2015, the blog post’s comment thread was still active. Type designer Tobias Frere-Jones also weighed in on the cons and pros of Neue Helvetica for user interfaces in a Fast Company interview, where he suggested that a Retina Display might help alleviate some of the problems. All in all, it doesn’t matter if you have a Retina Display or not, because when it comes to Mac OS X, there are two camps: No Yosemite or Yes Yosemite.

Most of the Yes Yosemite camp has had to deal with Neue Helvetica and the icon flatness, but thanks to designers such as Alex Griendling, who engineered a full suite of icons to replace Yosemite’s, you can make Yosemite even flatter. Griendling weighed in on the customization of Apple products, or the lack thereof: “Apple seems more and more inclined to limit its users’ ability to customize their software, so it’s admirable that there are people helping to subvert Apple’s efforts.” But if Griendling’s custom icons aren’t for you, then maybe switching from Neue Helvetica to another font family will suit your tastes.

Fira Sans, source: Mozilla.org

Fira Sans, source: Mozilla.org

In November 2014, Jens Kutílek posted a kit and instructions at GitHub for replacing Neue Helvetica with Fira Sans in Mac OS X. Fira Sans, originally developed for the Firefox OS, is licensed under the Open Font License (OFL): anyone can modify and redistribute it. Around that same time, reports began circulating at 9to5Mac as well as Gizmodo about how to install the forthcoming Apple Watch font San Francisco in Yosemite, and both pointed to Wells Riley’s kit and instructions for doing so. But in January 2015, 9to5Mac reported about how a takedown notice disabled Riley’s repository, leaving those who still wanted to substitute Neue Helvetica with just one option: Fira Sans.

Fira Sans in Yosemite, source: Jens KutílekFira Sans in Yosemite, source: Jens Kutílek

Even Erik Spiekermann, who was commissioned by the Mozilla Foundation to design Fira Sans as a completely free and open-source typeface, has promoted Kutílek’s substitution on Twitter. Kutílek, who is a Font Engineer at Monotype in Berlin, took time to answer some questions about typography, Yosemite, Neue Helvetica, and Fira Sans.

What’s your overall critique of Yosemite? Do you like the flat look and feel, and similarity with iOS?
I use an iMac and an iPhone on a regular basis. For me, the two systems feel quite different, maybe because of the large difference in screen size, and because I use them in different contexts. That’s why I don’t really see the need to make their appearance as similar as possible.

When I started using Yosemite, I needed a while to adapt to the new look, especially the bright colors and the new system fonts. In retrospect, I think it was similar to earlier updates. The new versions always felt different, but you got used to it. But I still like the 10.9 look better, I feel more familiar with it. The critique that remains after 6 months with Yosemite are the choice of Neue Helvetica, which I remedied using my system font customization, and, more importantly, that the contrast is very low in some places, like inactive windows. When you use palettes or multiple windows in one app, the palettes are styled like inactive windows, but of course they are used for important tasks, and the low contrast, grey in grey, makes it very hard to find what you are looking for. Things like that slow me down in my work, and I find it tiring.

Fira Sans in the Spotlight interface on Yosemite, source: Jens Kutílek

Fira Sans in the Spotlight interface on Yosemite, source: Jens Kutílek

When it comes to Neue Helvetica in Yosemite, what doesn’t work and why?
Neue Helvetica is just a bad choice for user interfaces. Its spacing is very tight, which gives words a very “designed” look, but it’s bad for word and letter recognition. Its letter forms are closed, for example the lower right terminal of the “e.” It goes all the way up until the end reaches the horizontal, closing up the interior form. The outer shape gets therefore quite similar to “c” and “o” at least on normal resolution screens.

On Retina displays the higher resolution helps, maybe that’s why on the iPhone, Helvetica doesn’t bother me that much. Requirements of UI fonts are similar to those of signage typefaces. In that field, Adrian Frutiger set the standards in the 1970s when he developed a signage alphabet for the French airport Roissy. Some people expected that he would use his Univers family, but he knew that its closed, static forms would make a bad signage typeface. The Roissy typeface later evolved into the Frutiger typeface family. It’s still one of the most widely used signage typefaces. Microsoft uses a very similar font for their Windows systems, Segoe UI. The open letter forms and generous spacing maintain the characteristic shapes of the letters even when viewed under bad conditions (low light, low resolutions) and from far away. Another point are the numbers, which are also quite important in user interfaces. The Helvetica numbers are very hard to recognize at a glance, also due to the closed forms.

Fira Sans in Yosemite's System Preferences, source: Jens Kutílek

Fira Sans in Yosemite’s System Preferences, source: Jens Kutílek

Why did you go with Fira Sans instead of Neue Helvetica? And what’s been the response?
Fira Sans was conceived as a UI font for Firefox OS. It has extreme proportions (the uppercase letters are very small compared to the lowercase letters), which makes it look odd in big sizes, but I think it works well on screen in small sizes. It is also a bit condensed, and thus space-saving which is good on screen.

An important aspect was the licensing. As I work in the font business, of course I want to respect font licenses. Fira Sans is licensed under the Open Font License (OFL), which allows everyone to modify and redistribute the fonts. Some other hacks, which use Lucida Grande or Apple’s San Francisco fonts (the Apple Watch typeface) are in a grey area in this respect: they don’t distribute the fonts, which would be a clear license violation, but usually modification of fonts is forbidden.

Source: Twitter.comSource: Twitter.com

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Some people don’t like the look of Fira, but that’s okay. When Erik retweeted my announcement, my phone was buzzing all weekend with favorite and retweet notifications. A lot of people sent suggestions, such as to tweak the weights of the Medium and Bold fonts to appear a bit lighter, and reported bugs, which unfortunately I think can’t all be fixed, because of course Apple has tuned the system to use Helvetica, so if you use a different font, the alignments have to be off in some places. A funny thing is that in the Calendar app, the name of month is spaced out. Apple seems to have noticed that Neue Helvetica Light is spaced too tightly. Of course, this is nothing I can fix in my font. Some people just sent thank you notes, which is very nice.

source: Twitter.com

source: Twitter.com

As of this writing, version 4.0 of Fira Sans was just announced. What version of Fira Sans are you currently using in Mac OS X?
I’m currently using version 3.1 of Fira Sans. I have modified it a bit, for example I have made the tabular figures the default because all numbers are supposed to be the same width in the UI, like it is in Neue Helvetica. I also interpolated a new, slightly lighter Bold weight from the design masters, because some people found the original Fira Sans Bold too heavy on Retina screens.

I guess I’ll update to Fira Sans 4 at some point, but not very soon, because it is a bit of work, and there are mostly additional characters in version 4 that are not really needed in a UI, like phonetic characters.

U7286_3In addition to your modification kit and instructions, there are others online that debuted around the same time as yours. Are you in touch with others who are replacing Neue Helvetica with other font families?
I think it was me who found out the way the fonts have to be modified to swap them in the system. I like to really go into the details of font technology to find possibilities like these, it’s just my natural curiosity. Earlier I found out Apple’s color font format, before the spec was published, and built some tools to generate fonts in this format, as well as a RoboFont editor extension to edit color fonts.

With some of these fonts available on Github or for download, we were watching each other’s progress, and some bugs were fixed, but there are still some bugs for which nobody seems to have found a solution (like the battery percentage indicator that sits too high). David Jonathan Ross sent me some screenshots when Fira greeted him even in the Migration Assistant when he transferred his data to a new Mac.

The other people who offer system font replacements followed my method. Some gave me some credit, like David with his Input fonts, others didn’t but incorporated the modified name tables from Fira into their fonts. That’s just the way the web works.


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