Mac OS X Yosemite— Helvetica as operating system font

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

Hello guys et gals—

So Neue Helvetica is the operating system font that replaces Lucida Grande. Let’s hope the Apple Helvetica variant has glyph compatibility with Lucida Grande (similarly extended) and is properly hinted.

Oh and it would be really nice if Apple made some architectural improvements to the OS type engine too.

Discuss amongst yourselves,

Mikey :-)

jasonc's picture

properly hinted?

Nick Shinn's picture

Ideally one should be able to choose one’s own OS font.

riccard0's picture

Nick, except maybe for something like Windows Phone 8, using an arbitrary system font is potentially disruptive. Just like replacing a font in an accurately laid out document.

quadibloc's picture

I know that in Windows, one certainly can choose a non-default font for things in the operating system. This was true as far back as Windows 3.1. So one could choose a different font for menus, for window bars, for button labels, for text boxes, and so on.

Thomas Phinney's picture

You can change the system font in Windows 7 and 8, but it is pretty well hidden.
(the instructions apply to Windows 8 as well)

hrant's picture

This might be predictable coming from me, but that doesn't make it untrue: this is yet more evidence that Apple no longer cares about typography (and I claim hasn't since the viability of movin' pitcherz).


JamesM's picture

I doubt if Apple would go for a changeable system font because they are moving towards a unified experience across all Apple devices (Mac, iPhone, iPad), and having different system fonts on different devices would be a step in the wrong direction to their thinking.

And I doubt if it's very high on the list of user requests. If it was, it wouldn't be "pretty well hidden" on Windows as Thomas said.

GrubStreet's picture

Apple no longer cares about typography

In a sense, they do care. Apple seems to want to homogenise type with everything else and treat them like usual (meaningless) visual blocks. I think they have pursued visual conformity a bit too far; the obsessive use of Helvetica Neue Light on iOS 7 is already evident.

Thomas Phinney's picture

Yes, nice work by Jens. I am now trying to decide which typeface to use myself, as it is fairly wide open. Suggestions?

Obviously anything open source is fine. I have the whole Monotype library (courtesy TypeCon). Also a lot of Adobe stuff thanks to software bundles and actual licensing. I probably won't license something new for this purpose, but I'd be curious to hear about other suggestions anyway.

dberlow's picture

"I doubt if Apple would go for a changeable system font because they are moving towards a unified experience..."

They tried that in OS8 JM, remember? and until OS X there was no warning not to replace the system font(s), as there was last I looked. They've gone to great lengths to add optical sizes so lots of styles of UI fonts can appear thin at all sizes. So the "system font" (a family actually), might be called on for font files your replacement family doesn't have, and I wonder if it's as fairly wide open as any normally styled family may appear.

"Apple seems to want to homogenise type with everything else and treat them like usual (meaningless) visual blocks. "

Not so much meaningless, as attention-less. This is like the curtain and walls and ceiling and stage in the theater, before someone else, like a MS app e.g., takes it over for their own little show. And I still ain't heard a single suggestion in all the tumult, other than some typeface no one has ever seen in it's place. :)

hrant's picture

They've gone to great lengths to add optical sizes so lots of styles of UI fonts can appear thin at all sizes.

Wonderful. The runway model model of UX design. The closer you get, the more unnatural it looks.

I still ain't heard a single suggestion

You haven't heard all those people pointing out the obvious? That poor cash-strapped Apple should pay for a custom font that is Actually Good. But it doesn't for a very good reason: Helvetica perfectly embodies its fashion-centric*, form-over-function philosophy that has in fact been there since day one. Evidence? The one-button mouse. Looks, not brains, is how Jobs sold it to consumerist peons.


You know what would be cool? If Apple commissioned Font Bureau for the work. Two birds with one stone!


dezcom's picture

I really love my one button mouse ;-P

JamesM's picture

> They tried that in OS8 JM, remember?

I remember OS 8, but it was released 17 years ago. All I'm saying is that they're working towards unified experience with Macs, iPads, and iPhones, so they behave like a unified system of devices. And having the capability for different system fonts on different devices would be a move in the wrong direction.

Technically possible, sure, but not desirable to their thinking.

quadibloc's picture

The one-button mouse made sense in 1984, because PCs ran DOS, hardly anyone had used a mouse before, so with two buttons, they would have to be told which button to click to do something.

Of course, making the left button bigger than the other two would have probably worked as well.

Instead, I criticized the first Mac for not having cursor keys.

I did sneer at the multicolored iMac, but hey, when you are trying to revive a company that was moribund and cash-strapped at the time, doing something that's easy and will work makes sense. The Macintosh brought the GUI out into the open, and it was a good idea, since that's how everyone uses computers now. Because Apple brought the Macintosh out before the hardware was ready to provide a GUI without compromising the ability of the computer to do real work... it was first, and controlled key patents. So I can't hold the limitations of 128 K of RAM and a 68000 processor against Steve Jobs.

That you couldn't open it up and upgrade to 512 K of RAM bought from Radio Shack, on the other hand, and scads of similar limitations in Apple products since then, I do hold against him. Monopoly pricing is not in the consumer's interest.

JamesM's picture

Steve Jobs certainly had his idiosyncrasies. Another one was not wanting the noise of a fan in his computers. I had an early iMac die after a few years and was told by the Apple repair guy that a circuit board had overheated, which he called a common iMac problem.

But as Steve said once, "If you don't like it, don't buy it." There were always plenty of less expensive Windows computers available.

But I remember how depressed I was years ago when Steve was running Pixar and Next, and an Apple employee I knew told me that Apple was probably going to go bankrupt. In spite of all the idiosyncrasies, I really like Macs.

dberlow's picture

On mice buttons, really...? Mountains of evidence, point to one finger smart phonic touchscreen bops, as the user input of choice, and a one button mouse is the retroactive compromise to not having a touch screen. I'm not saying' nothin' else works for nobody, and I used 'em all — just that the mounting evidence for the choices to be on the screen and not on the device, is rather overwhelming. That this form-over-function philosophy, has in fact been there since day one, is rather normal for the Mac.

Now, if touchscreen-pokers want to tickle to some product manager's fondness for a two finger interface, just for input, never mind gesturing, I'd like to see it first, and then decide. Windows, would need such a thing to disrodentize it's OS, right? How's that coming along?

"But as Steve said once, "If you don't like it, don't buy it." "

And privately, I'm sure he and others have known if you don't like it, and won't buy it, who cares why. And even if you don't like it and do buy it, we're no longer talking about even a week's pay.

hrant's picture

The one-button mouse is simply a great day-one example. They've been slowly piling up since then, and in the last few years the relegation of functionality to the back burner has become quite blatant, not least in our favorite thing right here: typography.

Humans can handle much more than Apple wants to give them. It's that people spend more when they know less.


JamesM's picture

Hrant, anyone who wants a multi-button mouse can use a 3rd party one or Apple's optional multi-button mouse.

Early personal computers were used mainly by people who liked technology (remember those all-text screens and cryptic error messages?). Jobs knew that one day computers would be used by everyone and he worked towards making the interface easier.

But an easier interface involves tradeoffs, and each user needs to pick the computer they feel best suits their needs.

The tremendous growth of tablets (which has caused a decline in PC sales) is an example of the public's desire for easy interfaces, especially for non-business use (email, websites, games, etc).

dberlow's picture

"The one-button mouse is simply a great day-one example. "

You mean a silly example of unthought out and grossly general nonsense with no serious intellectual backup, I agree.

"They've been slowly piling up since then, and in the last few years the relegation of functionality to the back burner has become quite..."

Whomever has Whatever piling up Wherever, it's not affecting any user I've ever heard of.

"...not least in our favorite thing right here: typography."

I think that too is a silly example. The Mac OS is the only OS with an OS-wide 'typography" menu.

"Humans can handle much more than Apple wants to give them."

I was unaware Apple was trying to give anyone anything.

"It's that people spend more when they know less."

Do try harder.

hrant's picture

If Thomas can't make a dent in your polished-titanium extra-tight-fitting Apple-branded blinders on TypeClosets, I certainly can do nothing here.

But it still seems fun to point out these runway-model mouse prototypes:


JamesM's picture

Forget prototypes, the Apple "hockey puck" mouse was standard issue for several years. It was terrible.

But we could also point to goofs from other companies. Google "Microsoft's Worst Mistakes" (or substitute the name of your favorite PC company).

hrant's picture

True, plus prototypes aren't really fair game – it was just too fun not to point out.

BTW, my favorite mouse was this:
It doesn't look it, but it was super comfortable.


Bert Vanderveen's picture

I am willing to bet that within a year all of Apple’s OS’s will use a custom Apple font (with the metrics of the Yosemite-Helvetica Neue, of course).

Any takers?

riccard0's picture

I tend to agree with Bert. But one wonders what took so long. Unless they're waiting for the other weights of Unica... ;)

Jack Jennings's picture

I'm tempted to just revert back to Lucida with Jens' trick, at least until I can upgrade to a high density display… Lucida looses some of it's charm at higher resolutions, though Helvetica is no great improvement.

All in all, very sad to see Lucida go…

dberlow's picture

"I certainly can do nothing here."

Agreed. ;p

"Any takers?"

I'll put up a unicode complete, bouma-enhanced, notanically versed, font family w/italic, all registered Latin features, an apache license and an eula that finds the foundry guilty of any and all malfontine behavior without monetary limit until the end of time.

What is your stake?

Bert Vanderveen's picture

@Art - My licence of Typotheque’s Brioni (my favourite tf of the last couple of years).

dberlow's picture

"My licence of Typotheque’s Brioni..."

And what else?

For all those craving a comparison of the original Macintosh mouse and the original Helvetica bold a.

hrant's picture



Bert Vanderveen's picture

Have to take a look in the attic and make an inventory of my Apple antiques…

Thomas Phinney's picture

The hockey puck mouse. I had repressed all my memories of that horror!

JamesM's picture

Yeah, it was a lousy mouse.

Jobs had returned to Apple — which was in deep financial trouble — and the mouse was designed to coordinate with the first iMac, which Jobs wanted to be a futuristic, head-turning design.

And the iMac did turn out to be a big success that helped save Apple.

But it was a crummy mouse.

Sye's picture

Personally, I liked that mouse.

Queneau's picture

It was such an iMac which I bought when I entered art school in 2000. The first thing I did was replace the mouse with a simple 2-button logitech thing. I don't think I ever really used the other mouse, especially because the round shape did not give a good feel in which direction it was pointing.

But then again, I can not understand people actually using the trackpad of their laptop, exept perhaps when they are travelling...

Thomas Phinney's picture

The original iMac was very cool. But that mouse was stinky. I couldn't tell which way was up a lot of the time, and it was confusing to use.

Back on original topic: Scene does look like a reasonable typeface for the purpose, although I would perhaps prefer a somewhat more open “e.”

dberlow's picture

Sorry, that was the second Mac mouse. The first one had a big huge button sticking way up in the air.

Maybe people should merge there favorite glyphs from every font, and don't even stop at one language, grab your faves from each, and use that for their OS.

Thomas Phinney's picture

I think Monitor might be an excellent choice for UI.

Queneau's picture

4 weights can be downloaded for free on their website (with registration)

brampitoyo's picture

There are some interesting quotes from this year’s WWDC:

Session 204: What’s New in Cocoa

It’s [Helvetica Neue] been optimized for OS X with metrics similar to Lucida Grande.

Session 102: Platforms State of the Union

So, we hand-tweaked the metrics of the new system font so that they are very, very close to the metrics of the old Lucida Grande font, with a result that strings have almost the same size and usually fit in the space that you've allocated in your UI so far.

The most informative bit is found on Session 209: Adapting Your App to the New UI of OS X Yosemite. The segment comparing Lucida Grande and Helvetica Neue starts at 32:45. Download the video here.

hrant's picture

Interesting indeed. Why come very close and not match?


dezcom's picture

Thanks, Bram!

Si_Daniels's picture

"Why come very close and not match?"

The license agreement with B&H may prohibit licensees from producing clone fonts - or alternately there may be a Helvetica character or two that would look odd on Lucida's metrics.


effee's picture

With yosemite we are witnessing the decline of apple. everything that was good about mavericks has been changed and for the worse. i expect it will get worse still with the next os iteration. rip, apple.

Proginoskes's picture

It's not as easy as Jens's font-renaming.

I found an interesting bug/side-effect: When you try to change something that requires you to enter your password, the font that is used in that window is "garbage".

GrubStreet's picture

I think a wider adaptation of Retina screens is the reason Apple dares to use Helvetica. Surely they would have type experts in house who are decent enough to know that Helvetica isn’t a good choice, but they still have gone with it. From my experience with the Retina Macbook Pro, Helvetica on this screen has been incredibly crisp – enough to avoid visual confusion.

And of course I know that other typefaces would be as crisp. I’m just saying that Retina may be the only reason they had the gut to use it.

hrant's picture

I don't think it has anything to do with guts. And it might be telling that the two known type experts they employ have stopped showing up to type conferences in any official capacity. To have guts, first you need to care.


GrubStreet's picture

If that is the case, Apple has made a huge, huge mishap. Retina screens do help, but only to a limited extent.
But considering that they have been seeking for a “senior type designer” (from their recruitment site) and have released a custom typeface for Apple Watch, they might be still caring for typography...?

P.S. I’m wondering who those two experts are, if you are at the liberty to reveal.

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