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Do you need to care if Apple changes its system font? (Spoiler: Nah.)

Christopher Phin | May 22, 2015
If Apple does change iOS and OS X's system font to San Francisco to match the Apple Watch, the font itself is only half the story.

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9to5Mac reported yesterday that Apple may switch out the system font used in OS X and iOS from Helvetica Neue to San Francisco, the font it developed in-house for the Apple Watch. And if you listen very carefully, that faint background noise you can just discern on the edge of your hearing is half the Apple community bellowing denunciations that this is a stupid idea, and half yelling that OS X 10.11 and iOS 9 (when the switch is rumored to happen) can't come soon enough.

The amount of energy being expended on this is quite remarkable, but does it matter, and should you care? "Well, a little bit" and "somewhat" are the correct answers, though they don't make for a sparkling copy.

First, the case for caring. Though many people will tell you they can't tell the difference between fonts, that's usually just when someone smugly shows them a capital R and demands they say whether it's Arial or Helvetica. (Actually, that's an easy one!)

Although you might not be able to distinguish font families on demand, the font used in an operating system is so pervasive that it quite definitely gives the whole thing a distinct feel--a particular flavor. One of the criticisms of Apple's switch to Helvetica Neue with Yosemite was that after a long tradition of using highly characterful typefaces for the system font, in plumping for Helvetica they picked a font that kinda has no personality. That's not quite accurate, of course. Helvetica has a personality, it's just that its personality is--or has become defined as being--bland and unassuming.

The other big criticism of Helvetica Neue is that that family of fonts--descended from the ur-sans serif, Akzidenz-Grotesk--were conceived as print fonts, not fonts for screens. That might sound like a terribly esoteric distinction, but in fact there are many ways in which letterforms are tuned and optimized for particular media.

Here's an analogy which might help. The 1938 font Bell Gothic, and to an even greater extent Bell Centennial, which replaced it in 1978--the typefaces used to print AT&T's telephone directories--feature a nifty little trick called ink traps. If you were to look at the design of the letters on the drawing board, they'd look odd, with little bits of letters cut-away, and peculiarly spindly forms. The reason that's so is because they're designed for the context and the medium they will be used on: at tiny sizes on poor-quality paper. By designing the glyphs so that the ink will spread on the paper into those cut-aways--rather than splurging out of those intersections and creating soft, unreadable shapes had the font not incorporated ink traps--you get clean, crisp, legible text.


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