Helvetica Neue as system font is a bad idea

Nick Heer, in the Mac OS X 10.10 section of his Spitballing WWDC 2014:

But, if the rumours are to be believed, OS X is about to receive a major overhaul. According to Mark Gurman of 9to5Mac, OS X 10.10 will be the star of the conference, with changes such as…

… similar toggle designs to iOS 7, sharper window corners, more defined icons across the system, and more white space than the current version.

Meanwhile, Craig Hockenberry is convinced that the system UI font will be changed to Helvetica Neue from the current Lucida Grande. In fact, the Iconfactory is, in general, trying to get ahead of the curve on 10.10.

I’ve been hearing about the change from Lucida Grande to Helvetica Neue for a while now, and my initial reaction hasn’t changed — I believe Helvetica Neue to be a terrible choice for a system font. On iOS it’s tolerable because you keep your device closer to your eyes than a Mac when you interact with it. On a Mac, I honestly fear Helvetica Neue is going to be a bit of a legibility nightmare.

Let me get a few things out of my system (no pun intended):

  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with Lucida Grande. It is a solid font, very good for display, with great legibility at the various different sizes needed for all UI places and elements.
  • Moving away from Lucida Grande only because ‘it feels old’ is a silly excuse. Especially when the supposed replacement is not an improvement, at all.
  • Choosing Helvetica Neue because it’s the system font on iOS and visually amalgamating Apple’s operating systems is nice, is another silly thing. Why not use VAG Rounded then, since it’s the font in use on Apple’s keyboards? Or why not use Myriad Pro, since it’s Apple’s corporate font? Because the best way to implement a font is considering the context. The user interface of a smartphone or a tablet is different from the user interface of a desktop or laptop computer. This should be Human Interface Guidelines 101.


My humble proposal

If I were tasked with coming up with an alternative to Lucida Grande to be used in Mac OS X, my font of choice would be Process Type Foundry’s Seravek:



I find Seravek to be an incredibly versatile font for the screen, and quite legible even at 8-9 pt. It’s my preferred reading font on iBooks, and the only font I feel comfortable keeping at small sizes despite my not-great eyesight:

seravek in iBooks.png


To further illustrate my point, I’ve taken three samples of UI elements in OS X Mavericks, and done a quick retouching job in Acorn to show how they would look when Helvetica Neue is used instead of Lucida Grande. I’ve tried to maintain the same font size and spacing. I think there’s no need to use abstruse typographic jargon to explain why Helvetica Neue doesn’t work very well as system font:




I chose to capture Reeder 2 for Mac‘s menubar because it has more items than the Finder’s and features longer words like ‘Accounts’ and ‘Subscriptions’. 1) is the current system font Lucida Grande, 2) is Helvetica Neue, and 3) is Seravek. I still like Lucida Grande best, and you can see the similarities between Seravek and Lucida Grande (although I very much prefer Seravek’s lowercase L). You can also see what’s wrong with Helvetica Neue: there are clusters of letters that end up looking too compressed, for starters. Look at ile in ‘File’, it in ‘Edit’, ie in ‘View’. The lowercase E, having a perfectly round form, looks like the letter theta of the Greek alphabet (ϴ).

But the font size in application menus is one of the biggest across the system. Let’s look at a portion of the Finder’s sidebar:


Look at how better spaced both Lucida Grande and Seravek are at this size. In Lucida Grande and Seravek, thin letters like ‘l’ and ‘i’ are given more room to breathe, and that alone allows for an overall better legibility. Helvetica Neue has too regular shapes and too tight spaces between letters, creating a compressed look that feels even more compressed and more difficult to read as font sizes get smaller.




Here I’ve captured a portion of the Account panel in Mail.app Preferences, and I’ve added the same labels in Helvetica Neue near the originals in Lucida Grande. Here the system font gets even smaller than in the previous example, reaching 10-11 pt. Maybe those of you with a better eyesight than mine or with Macs equipped with a Retina display won’t mind Helvetica Neue at this size. To me, it’s borderline unbearable. I mean, I can read what it says, but I feel an increased strain that is simply absent when reading Lucida Grande. Look how terribly compressed — and visually awful — that (iCloud) in parentheses is. Same for Outgoing Mail or the tifi in ‘Certificate’.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

I know this UI exercise may not prove much, because we’ll have to see how the whole OS X’s user interface changes. Perhaps there are going to be a lot of other visual changes that make Helvetica Neue look better. I know that eventually there are going to be more Mac models with Retina displays, therefore making the system font look even crisper. Still, I maintain that even under those new conditions, there are so many other fonts that could be better choices for a system font rather than Helvetica Neue.

System fonts are one of the key elements in an operating system’s interface. We look at them all the time. In my opinion, such fonts have to be, above all, legible and utilitarian rather than stylish or satisfying other criteria that have little to do with usability. As I said, possible reasons like ‘bringing together the look of OS X and iOS’ or ‘Lucida Grande feels old’ or ‘Don’t worry, Helvetica Neue is going to look great on Retina displays’ are simply not enough to justify such a key change in the Mac’s operating system.

Anyway, let’s see what happens on Monday at the WWDC. I just hope my fears will turn out to be unfounded.

Update, June 3 — Well, unfortunately Apple has decided to follow the Helvetica route. At least I’m not alone in thinking that’s not a great choice: read Tobias Frere-Jones’s contribution, Why Apple’s New Font Won’t Work On Your Desktop.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves, and/or subscribing to Vantage Point magazine. Thank you!