Yesterday, Apple unveiled its first wearable: a small smartwatch with a 1.5-inch display that caught the eyes of font buffs because it has a new custom typeface. Forget the watch, that typeface might very well be the biggest surprise Apple has unveiled in years.
Not to say Apple’s never done a typeface before. The company has designed many typefaces over the years, like Susan Kare's Chicago. But with a couple of small exception like the release of Apple's corporate typeface Myriad in 2001, Apple mostly stopped designing fonts in 1993.
What makes yesterday's unveiling of the custom Apple Watch typeface so significant is that it's the first system font Apple has designed for scratch in over twenty years. And short of a couple faint murmurs, we never heard anything about it ahead of time: something that practically never happens when it comes to Apple. But what do we really know about it?
So far, Apple hasn't said much, except to admit that the Apple Watch features a new custom typeface designed "to maximize legibility." We don't even know for sure the typeface's name. However, it could be called Apple Sans, a typeface that Apple insider and pundit John Gruber said back in June that Cupertino had been working on internally for years.
Whatever it's actually called, the new typeface has a lot in common with the first version of Roboto, a custom typeface designed by Google in 2012 for its Android platform. In fact, as the Verge shows, in execution, the Apple Watch typeface looks like a bolder, rounder version of Roboto.
That's no accident. Both Roboto 1.0 and Apple's watch typeface appear to share the same inspirations: most notably, Helvetica and FF DIN, a sans-serif typeface famous for its excellent visibility at small sizes. (Both fonts, incidentally, are Apple faves: Helvetica Neue is Apple's preferred system font on iOS and the Mac, and the company uses DIN in the UI of the iOS 7 Camera App.) But while Roboto 1.0 was widely criticized at release, this new Apple typeface is already garnering more positive reactions from type critics.
Upon its release, Stephen Coles of Typographica blasted Roboto 1.0 for being a "four-headed Frankenstein" of a font, but has been decidedly more kind towards Apple, calling it on Twitter "a lot more refined" than Google's font (It's worth noting Google has since updated Roboto to address some of these criticisms. One wonders if Apple's latest typeface will similarly become an evolving typeface.)
But why create a custom typeface for the Apple Watch at all? Why not just use Helvetica Neue? Legibility.
Type designer Tobias Frere-Jones tells me that typefaces designed for smaller mediums, like the Apple Watch, need to be designed differently than for typefaces meant to be used on larger devices, like smartphone and laptop screens. I asked him how he'd go about doing it, if he was Apple.
"The principles are similar to what's needed for small sizes in print (as when I designed Retina), and much of it comes down to: Let the letters breathe," Frere-Jones tells me. "Having more space between letters will allow their shapes to be rendered and understood more clearly. There are other points like avoiding really thin features and fussy details, but most of it comes down to letting the letters breathe."
It's certainly true that the letterforms used for the Apple Watch seem to have more breathing room by design than in Helvetica Neue, making them more legible... an important consideration when you're trying to take in the maximum amount of information with just a glance at your wrist.
And maybe there's another perk here besides mere legibility. Not only does this new typeface seem rounder, friendlier, and less austere than Helvetica Neue, but it also has qualities that make it seem a little more sporty: a little round, a lot fast, and easy to track with the eye, like a tennis ball. To me, it's a typeface that makes stats like calories burned, miles walked, and minutes left to run a little less scary, a little more approachable. And I don't think that can entirely be an accident, given the way that Cupertino is pushing the Apple Watch as the ultimate fitness tracker. It's a small, sporty font designed specifically for Apple's smallest, sportiest gadget yet.
We've reached out to Apple and are hoping to learn more about the design of the Apple Watch typeface in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.