Tim Cook took to the stage on Tuesday to announce not just two new iPhone models, but also Apple’s first foray into the wearable tech market. Opinions vary in the Degree 53 office on the new devices.
Our Head of Design loved the Apple Watch and our Head of Native App Development was somewhat less enthusiastic. Whatever you think about the new devices – personally I’m cautiously optimistic about the Apple Watch – it is undeniable that any new product release by Apple is BIG news.
Media outlets from all over the world; general news broadcasters, tech sites, and even fashion blogs, all clamoured to get their hands on the new watch. Like millions of others worldwide, I sat at my Mac cursing the failing live stream and eager to learn more about the Apple Watch.
All in all, I think it looks great. The features impress me and, as you’d expect from Apple, the fine attention to detail (e.g. How the device charges and how the strap mechanisms work) make you want to touch it and try it for yourself.
In addition to the two new iPhone models and the Apple Watch, we also saw an extra surprise addition to the Apple family. It wasn’t mentioned at all on stage and other than a throwaway line later added to the Apple website, it may have gone unnoticed by most, but it’s the one thing that left me staring at screenshots long after the event was over. The Apple Watch isn’t using Helvetica Neue. This is huge news.
A little bit of (potentially boring) history: with iOS7 Apple changed the default system font to Helvetica Neue Ultra Light. Shortly afterwards, with the release of Mavericks, we also saw Helvetica Neue replace Lucida Grande on Apple’s desktop OS. Apple’s direction was clear: Myriad for the web, Helvetica Neue for OS. The beta releases of Yosemite and iOS8 give us no indication that this is going to change any time soon.
As much as I like Helvetica Neue, I’ve been complaining for close to a year about how poor a choice it is for an OS.
Let’s be honest, it is not what it was made for, and it really shows. Shortly after the release of iOS7, Apple backtracked slightly and released an update that allowed users to switch to a stronger weight to improve legibility. Still, Helvetica Neue has remained and all signs pointed towards it being applied to the Apple Watch OS.
Therefore, it’s a massive, albeit welcome, surprise to see Apple move away from Helvetica Neue for the Apple Watch. The big question is; what is this new typeface? At first glance I thought it was FF DIN (a wonderfully versatile typeface). On closer inspection, it becomes clear that this is something new. It seems based on FF DIN (with inspiration also taken from Colfax), but – as confirmed later on the Apple store website – it’s a bespoke typeface built in–house specifically for the Apple Watch.
So why is this so important? Isn’t this something that only interests type nerds?
I cannot stress enough just how vital the typeface is, not only for a user interface, but for anything that is providing content to users; whether it be in print or on screen. I’d go so far as to say that getting the type right is the most important thing for designers to consider. The average user may not know Arial from Century Gothic but they will know if something isn’t right. They’ll know if they can’t read a phone number without squinting and they’ll know if they have to mess with zoom settings.
More than that, they’ll know if they don’t enjoy being on a web page, or using an app, or consuming content on their smart watch. Whilst they might not be able to put their finger on what exactly is causing that feeling, you can be certain that they’ll notice something is amiss.
This is why typography is as much a science as an art. The Apple font, whatever they end up calling it, is well considered. They’ve clearly learned from the obvious failings of the first Roboto release and, rather than make a bastardised mish-mash of everyone’s favourite fonts, they’ve gone down the more logical, and user focused, path. The typeface is nicely rounded and bold – helpful for a small watch UI. It’s also welcoming and charming. There is generous space between the letters and the counters aren’t too tight. The high x-height also helps ensure that it’s legible even at such small sizes.
So what does this tell us? It tells us that Apple have considered everything – from the MagSafe charger and multiple strap choices down to the bespoke typeface. They do not intend to fail with the Apple Watch. Despite years of rumours and anticipation, Apple held off rushing the product to market. It’s a product that has been years in the making because they wanted to get it right. Presumably the same applies to the new typeface.
Perhaps it also hints to Jony Ive’s own personal taste when it comes to type. Here’s to hoping that we will see a move away from Helvetica for Apple’s mobile and desktop OS releases in the future.