I have been noticing a disturbing trend in custom interface design of third party applications for Mac OS X. As it is no longer an exception for software developers to build interface elements that are entirely unique to their application, the threshold for customizing other, system-standard interface elements is also lowered significantly. The ghastly trend I am about to describe is in existence due to this lowered threshold. In fact, I think this particular deviation off the beaten interface path would have been far more frowned upon a few years ago, when Mac interface designers were more conservative in using custom UI elements in general, and Apple disapproved of it more fiercely. Today, however, it won’t even stand in the way of scoring a design award runner-up, as my examples will go to prove.
The problem I want to address can be referred to as ‘Swiss Interface Syndrome’, and its symptoms extend to the apparently randomly distributed presence of Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann’s 1957 typeface — Helvetica — in the graphical user interface. Helvetica is, without a doubt, the most used and abused typeface in existence. Since its birth, it has grown from a fad, into a ubiquitous beacon of neutrality, and today into an even more omnipresent showcase of classic Swiss typeface design. Unfortunately for us, Max Miedinger did not exactly have computer screens, Aqua source lists and pixel font sizes in mind when designing it. After all, all of those things weren’t even invented. Which is why you can probably see why using Helvetica in something like an application sidebar is such a mortal sin.
Mac OS X comes with, in my opinion, one of the best typefaces of our time that is optimized for the computer screen (also more shortly referred to as a ‘screen font’); Lucida Grande, designed by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes. If you are using Mac OS X, you won’t have to look far to find it; your top menu bar is completely set in it, your Dock labels are, most of your browser interface is, and even the sidebar of this website is set in it (by my own preference). It’s also obvious why Helvetica and Lucida Grande are so different; one has been designed before any computers existed, and the other was designed in 2000, with pixels in mind. Obviously, Lucida Grande isn’t as neutral or multipurpose as Helvetica; it has the clear appearance of a small-point size typeface that doesn’t work comfortably at large sizes or in print. But that is not an issue if you take into account its design principles. In those tiny text sizes of our interface, Lucida Grande truly shines. It completely gets out of your way and remains extremely legible.
Now you should be able to see why I found myself in a state of utter disarray and bewilderment when the runner-up of last year’s ‘Best Leopard Application’ Apple Design Award had an interface that proved to be more riddled with Helvetica than a keyboard is with buttons. And it set another precedent; applications like Outspring Mail, the recently released $95 mail client for Mac OS X, also joyously frolicked into the crowd of Helvetica-like interface enthusiasts by applying Arial and Helvetica liberally across source lists and list views (I thought this was Helvetica, but John Gruber pointed out it is Arial in the source list). I was at first merely outraged by the usage of Helvetica in the sidebar (I mean, three letters: ‘Why?’), which is bad enough in itself, but it’s not just limited to that; it bleeds into list views, graphs, sheets, and tables, for… well, what really? The reasons are a mystery to me.
Honestly, why? Why bother to change the sidebar and list view font?
While Helvetica fails to bother me on a high-resolution screen like the iPhone in large point sizes, the shadow of its former self known as the ‘hinted’ version, for the tiny pixel sizes it is used in in these applications, is a grim wreckage of the neutral typographic style reduced to a format it’s not comfortable in. Lucida Grande, that towers above these depressing interfaces as the window title (thank the powers they didn’t change that too) stands out like a tiger in a lineup of kittens in glass bottles.
The left numerals of reconciled value and total value are set in Lucida Grande, and the jaggy numerals on the right graph are set in Helvetica. This is a screenshot of an Apple Design Award runner up, which means Apple basically approved this typographic misbehavior.
My biggest problem isn’t actually with the tasteless use of just going with Helvetica, the ‘default font’ of the last 30 years, but so intensely tearing the font out of its comfort zone of small but not minuscule pixel font sizes. Arial, Microsoft’s Helvetica clone, is also shipping on Mac OS X computers for the sole reason that its very different and optimized hinted pixel version is indispensable for correctly displaying a lot of websites. It eludes me why anyone would choose Helvetica over Lucida Grande other than the virtue that it’s different and Apple is using it.
As with most new Mac interface fads, changing a well-established interface font isn’t something that would be done by developers and interface designers without a reassuring precedent. In the last products of Apple, Helvetica has become quite poignantly present. It has expanded into Apple’s product lineup like an oil spill, from the iPhone and iPod Touch interfaces, to the new iLife suite of applications and OS X Leopard (what, you didn’t notice iPhoto, iCal, and Time Machine’s interfaces have been liberally sprinkled with Helvetica?). It is clear Miedinger’s brain child is the true comeback kid.
iPhoto ’08 using Helvetica in its main content view.
Speaking of iCal, which proudly boasts Helvetica in miniature point sizes on the screen, it has the utterly mind boggling feature that it shows you calendar information on a computer screen with everyone’s favorite 1950 typeface for print, and prints these exact calendars on paper in Lucida Grande, a computer display font from this milennium. ‘Utterly backwards’ might be an apt term for such misfit typography. With these kind of typographic failures, I truly wonder if there are still designers working at Apple with any typographic sense in their Miedinger-tainted brains at all.
Hey, look on the bright side, at least they’re not mixing Lucida Grande and Helvetica numerals too.
Apple’s receiving some flak here, and it’s for good reason; for Vista and Office, Microsoft commissioned some of the best type designers on this planet to make a set of great new typefaces. Vista now ships with a proper UI font (no more hinted Arial and Verdana like in Windows XP) similar to OS X’s Lucida Grande, and with a typeface assortment that makes OS X pale in comparison. Apple may have had the upper hand in 2002, but as the times have changed, Apple has done absolutely nothing to keep its catalogue of type fresh and to add more and better typefaces to it. This reflects in the world of design around us, seeing that 90% of computer users create things with the system-provided set of typefaces. I find it the worst example possible that a company — that is supposed to be so design-oriented — can make. Please don’t tell me I should just switch to Windows if I like proper typography, because I’d much rather get punched in the face repeatedly than being forced to switch to something else than OS X, where the ‘details’ matter.
Edited note: If you feel like further bringing this to Apple’s attention, consider sending them feedback or digging this.
I’d like to conclude this plea for common sense with the best educated guess I could find on the actual reasons for a Helvetica popularity surge in this day and age. Erik Spiekermann, a great type designer, was asked in the eponymous Helvetica movie;
“Why, 50 years later, is [Helvetica] still so popular?”
Erik stares into space a few seconds, pondering, sighs, then answers:
— “I don’t know… Why is bad taste ubiquitous?”