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Why Apple's New Font Won't Work On Your Desktop

Star typeface designer Tobias Frere-Jones explains the challenges of using Helvetica Neue as an operating system font.

For the first time ever, Apple is ditching Lucida Grande as the OS X system font in favor of Helvetica Neue, which also happens to be the iOS system font. For an operating system that's used by 80 million people, that's no small thing. Will it make reading on desktop computers easier? Harder?

We asked Tobias Frere-Jones, the famed typeface designer who has worked with some of the world's best publications and design shops, to offer his insights on what this change means for consumers. In his view, Apple might have made a mistake. Here, he highlights some of the challenges of deploying Helvetica Neue onto an OS abundant with small type and devices where non-Retina displays are still the norm:

Apple's desktop and mobile operating systems have been gradually converging for some time. So it was inevitable that one typographic palette would displace the other. With OS X 10.10, Mac desktops will sport Helvetica everywhere. But I had really hoped it would be the other way around, with the iPhone taking a lesson from the desktop, and adopt Lucida Grande. Check the lock screen on your iPhone. You’ll see Helvetica there, a half-inch tall or larger, and it looks good. Problem is, there aren't many other places where it looks as good.

Despite its grand reputation, Helvetica can’t do everything. It works well in big sizes, but it can be really weak in small sizes. Shapes like ‘C’ and ‘S’ curl back into themselves, leaving tight "apertures"—the channels of white between a letter’s interior and exterior. So each shape halts the eye again and again, rather than ushering it along the line. The lowercase ‘e,' the most common letter in English and many other languages, takes an especially unobliging form. These and other letters can be a pixel away from being some other letter, and we’re left to deal with flickers of doubt as we read.

Lucida Grande presents open apertures, inviting the eye to move along sideways through the text. It has worked really well—for years, and for good reason. For any text, but particularly in interfaces, our eyes need typefaces that cooperate rather than resist. A super-sharp Retina Display might help, but the real issue is the human eye, and I haven’t heard of any upgrades on the way.

Seeing as Helvetica Neue was not universally well-received on the iPhone, it will be curious to see how Mac users react this fall when OS X Yosemite goes live. Until then, maybe try and get your eyes in peak working order.

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  • Kubie Kat

    DESKTOP USERS SHOULD BE ABLE TO CHOOSE THEIR OWN FONT! Period!!! We don't care about iOS limitations!!!!

    We were like..... able to change OS font in OS 9!!!!
    For christ sakes!!!!

  • With Helvetica Neue really facing a lot of criticism and hearing the rumors that Apple is changing the font yet again for San Francisco, this article seems to be accurate prediction of where things might lead. Now it would be nice to hear what Tobias has to say about OS X taking lesson from the iWatch.

  • Mark Mazziotti

    The Helvetica was a distraction right away. Thanks for the patch back to Lucinda.

  • Zulma Edmondson

    Apple know the future is retina, and Helvetica looks perfectly fine on retina.

  • Pigoon Rancher

    No, Helvetica does not look perfectly find on retina. I've been working for a little over a year on a 13" Retina MacBook Pro, spending around 10-14 hours a day on it, with screen resolution set for maximum real estate. This was absolutely not problem until I upgraded to Yosemite, and developed eye strain within an hour. I'm extremely unhappy and stressed about this change and have set aside other work this morning in order to fix this horrible, eye-damaging font change.

  • It is possible to change the font to anything you want, with the right tools etc...

    <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Managed to tweak the system so that Proxima Nova is now the system font on OSX Yosemite (10.10) and it's gooooood! <a href=""></a></p>— David Beeston (@TechGeekDB) <a href="">October 29, 2014</a></blockquote>

    <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script>

  • It is possible to change the font to other one's.

    <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Managed to tweak the system so that Proxima Nova is now the system font on OSX Yosemite (10.10) and it's gooooood! <a href=""></a></p>— David Beeston (@TechGeekDB) <a href="">October 29, 2014</a></blockquote>

    <script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script>

  • Ryan Patrick McAvoy

    :shrug: the new Helvetica Neue font looks perfectly fine on my old non-retina 2011 Macbook Pro AND my new retina 2014 Macbook Pro. I think as long as you have an HD display, you're good. I also ported the font to my Galaxy S4 as a system font, and it looks great on a 5 inch 1080P display. I will say that rendering for Helvetica Neue THIN looks awful on non-retina devices.

  • Apple is now in jump the shark mode. All the crapple fanbois now only point to AAPL making a ton of money. Nobody even defends their jailed OS, security hazard iCloud, spying, corruption, and Nazi control with sandboxing, fencing and police state in the App Store. AAPL is more or less now walmart electronics with a great marketing department to keep the scam going.

  • mail

    Helvetica looks good on my (non Retina) Macbook Pro. I don't see what the fuss is about.

  • The new system font in OS X 10.10 (Helvetica Neue) does not look good on my desktop system. How can I change the system font back to Lucida Grande? Helvetica is fine for a variety of other purposes, but I do not like it as a system font on my desktop Mac.

    I have installed TinkerTool 5.31, but this only provides a way to change the font in applications rather than the system font.

  • John Wilson

    Can we get the script in script form instead of an APP? Would like to see what it does before letting it run on our Macs. Thanks!

  • Alex Aldrin Gamboa

    Thanks it works... I was ready to switch back to Mavericks coz I didn't like the fonts...and Lucky for me I read your comments...

  • howardmason

    Interesting. Good for you. What does the patch do? Is it reversible? Could a font other than Lucinda Grande be patched in using the patch?

  • Jon Pall Vilhelmsson

    First thing you notice on a MBP is fuzzy system typeface. Is there a way to change system font back to Lucida grande?

  • Ty Morton

    They should bring back Charcoal – or better yet, Chicago! Doesn't Apple know that change is bad! /sarcasm