System Fonts: Why We Live in Helvetica Soup
Sixty years ago, nearly all typography was both designed and printed through manual processes. Today, while plenty of typography gets printed or extruded into the physical world, designers produce nearly all of it digitally, and much of its consumption takes place on high-resolution displays, with devices capable of showing any and every typographic possibility with negligible overhead. The most common fonts we read every day on those displays are system fonts: how operating systems natively display buttons, menus, and text. Though computers have revolutionized how typography is both made and consumed, we recycle, or at least keep returning to, the same ideals: namely, derivatives of Helvetica, chasing an ideal of modernist Swiss beauty from before any of these devices existed.
The original Macintosh, in 1984, had a coarse-grained, two-color display, capable of displaying only black and white. For the Macintosh Operating System, revolutionary for displaying information graphically instead of with a purely textual command line, Apple wanted high-end typography from the start, and to depart from the purely monospaced aesthetic of every competitor. The primitive CRT displays would garble existing sans-serifs, long popular in physical designs. This led artist Susan Kare to create two custom typefaces for the Mac, Chicago and Geneva (Kindy), that would “embrace the aesthetic of the pixel” (Brideau 171), using the technical constraint as a distinctive pixel style that became immediately recognizable as the Mac.
Once the Macintosh could display a third color, grey, it started down a path toward offering the smooth curves and detail long that printed typography had long enjoyed. The first step in this direction was anti-aliasing, starting in 1987, which illuminates subpixels neighboring the stroke of a letter to create smoother curves. The technique, like all technologies, had trade-offs: while “antialiasing eliminates the jagged look of letters on the computer screen, it also diminishes their legibility by decreasing edge contrast” (Staples 26). With full-color and increasing resolution in displays, smaller subpixels made this effect less noticeable. In 2001, with Mac OS X 10.0, Apple switched the system to Lucida Grande, no longer attempting to show off the pixels but using a smooth sans-serif designed for screens. While Helvetica could have been an obvious choice, Lucida had a few adaptations for better legibility on low-resolution displays; the designers wrote that “the weight of Lucida Grande regular was intended to compensate for ‘erosion’ on illuminated screen backgrounds” (Bigelow & Holmes).
The introduction of the Retina display, on the iPhone 4 in 2010, took the next major step for Apple’s platforms in displaying typography. It quadrupled the pixel density of the phone’s display, showing a new level of detail in letterforms and allowing the legibility of smaller, lighter font sizes and weights. Three years later, the first beta of iOS 7, which wholly redesigned the operating system, used Helvetica Neue Light as its default font, reflecting the widespread adoption of the Retina display. The Retina display started making its way to the Macintosh line in 2012, and in 2014 Apple switched the OS X operating system from Lucida Grande to Helvetica Neue, citing how the font “looks great on high-definition displays” (Kastrenakes). (Inevitably, users on non-Retina displays decried the reduced legibility of the update.) The switch appeared to be a move the design team had looked forward to while held back by cruder display technologies.
For a second change in two years, in 2015, Apple updated all its operating systems, and later its brand, to use a new, in-house font, San Francisco. It marked Apple’s first in-house font since the 1990s. The designers of San Francisco said the family’s goal was to “render clear and legible interfaces consistently” (Vincenzo) and to remain “inconspicuous and beautiful” (Cavedoni). Since its introduction, Apple has extended the San Francisco superfamily with a wide range of variants for more compact and wider letterforms for stylistic variation in specialized applications. Nearly every typographic surface area Apple touches now uses San Francisco, from signage at their headquarters to billboards to the fine print on the bottom of the box of a stylus.
As Apple tweaked its typography choices, each step beyond Lucida Grande presented a subtle enough change many users likely never noticed. Each sans-serif stayed within a few percentage points’ width variation from monoline, or composed of near-equal-width strokes (Bigelow & Holmes), chasing the ideal of Swiss beauty Helvetica brought mainstream.
Another take on updating Helvetica for digital interfaces comes with the font Inter. Figma, now one of the most popular tools for designers in the technology industry, had its web interface set in Roboto, Google’s Helvetica-derivative system sans-serif. Swedish designer Rasmus Andersson, previously the first designer at Spotify, grew unhappy with aspects of Roboto in the dense control panels, and began drawing Inter. Within a few years of its 2016 release, Inter had quickly become one of the most popular typefaces for technology companies, as the interface and/or brand font for Figma, GitHub, Mozilla, Unity, Vercel, Clearbit, Linear, and dozens more. It became a mainstream choice for graphic designers, receiving 500 million monthly downloads from its website (Andersson) and 2.48 billion from Google Fonts in the last week (Andersson, “Inter - Google Fonts”). Since Andersson continues releasing updated versions for free download through open source platform GitHub, the largest users are not included in those statistics. Its open source nature has contributed to its widespread usage, since similar fonts such as Helvetica require expensive paid licensing, and Apple’s San Francisco is exclusive to its platforms.
The Inter project mission is stated as creating “the best possible utilitarian solution for [screen-based user interfaces], much in the same way 60 years ago Helvetica was designed for physical medium” (Andersson, “Inter Font Family”). Inter arrived unabashedly inspired by the “neoclassical” Swiss-style sans-serifs before and contemporaneous; a younger Andersson attended the premiere of Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica documentary in Stockholm (DeAmicis). San Francisco and Inter are visually near-identical to the untrained eye, with stark curves, legible x-height, and no excess ornamentation. The interface of the Mac application Andersson uses to design Inter, Glyphs, is set in San Francisco, and the two families have evolved and expanded alongside one another. In turn, Figma’s incorporation of Inter for its interface and default font choice on new design projects undoubtedly influences designers, presenting its look not only as the default but a paragon of clarity and legibility in digital design.
System fonts on digital devices present text we read constantly, often without registering we are seeing typography, or reading at all. They blend in, forming the essential interface elements of the billions of devices’ digital spaces many of us spend more time looking at than physical ones. With San Francisco on Apple platforms, Inter on the web, Google’s Roboto on Android, and Microsoft’s Segoe UI on Windows, the system typography we consume constantly yet passively has converged on a centralized look. Each typeface updates Helvetica for the characteristics of its new context and brand, but an average user would be hard-pressed to identify the specific differences. These system fonts speak silently, their seemingly-neutral voices presenting the buttons and menus we read and click to accomplish tasks critical to participating in society. Typographically, they articulate a clear lineage from Helvetica’s origins, and create a nearly singular vision of the ultimate typeface for everyday. The shared inspiration was not a coincidence: the lead designers of every single one of these typefaces, all white men, all grew up in the age of omnipresent Helvetica.
Yet these system font projects present goals far beyond those of the original Helvetica. Andersson states on the Inter website “the idea of Inter is to design and craft a workhorse of a typeface that is accessible to everyone in the world.” He continues: “my dream is to provide the world with something that can help communication, independently of social or economic status” (Andersson). Crafting a typeface “accessible to everyone” sounds like a noble pursuit, but it is not a new one. Apple’s San Francisco is similarly designed for “people from all around the world who read and write different scripts and languages” (Vincenzo). Historian Katherine Brideau argues the expectation that Western typographers can design fonts to “achieve universality through type” (65) “has a certain hubris and brute functionality to it” (66). “The assumption is that typography’s conquering army can be a universalizing response to the tower of Babel—that is, that type can overcome the complexity introduced by the multiplicity of human languages”, she says (65). And while projects to “inconspicuously” render all human language have undeniably massive scope, with the global internet, computers have to render the writings of people all over the world. The “universality” is an unavoidable aspect of system fonts.
Though no large-scale measurements exist, these system fonts may be the most-read typefaces in the world each day. While Helvetica became popular far before Apple started working on computers or Andersson needed an updated version for his design tool, as soon as displays had sufficient resolution, these proprietors of typographic minimalism were eager to implement Helvetica and its derivatives everywhere they could. They collectively argue Helvetica style remains the best, or at least highest-legibility, typographic idea the West has seen in a century; that while it should be tweaked and updated for the latest context—and universalized—the basic structures remain unsurpassed.
From the outside, it might appear typographers have failed to come up with any new foundations for system fonts since the original Macintosh’s. With the capability to display any typographic idea onscreen, why make these lightly-differentiated Helvetica derivatives? In chasing the “inconspicuous and beautiful,” did our system fonts stop adapting to their context, becoming Helvetica soup? The context in which Susan Kare designed Chicago, where turning on an Apple computer display was a rare, special experience, has shifted. The latest Apple Watch and iPhone models exist not merely at a desk, but everywhere their owners go, constantly shining their typographic screens; tapping them opens unending streams of yet more text from the world over. San Francisco, Inter, and the like did adapt to their context: now one of ubiquitous, ultra-high-resolution displays surrounding us, where it would be inappropriate to make the character-packed statement Chicago did.
A long-running survey book of graphic design history writes that “the new generation of graphic designers must be encouraged to define the new aesthetics of electronic media rather than allowing technology to define them” (Meggs and Purvis 621). Compared to the rugged outlines of the fonts designers played with on the original Macintosh models, new designers opening Figma on a Mac today implicitly receive a different lesson about typography, with every label on their screens in tame Inter and San Francisco. Kare leveraged the constraints and abilities of the technology she had to create an aesthetic that has remained distinctive even decades later. As computers went from displaying content created by the single user at a desk to needing to present the world’s internet anywhere, system fonts went from niche design to cultural foundation. It turned out “the best possible utilitarian solution” was making them inconspicuous, attempting to make them “accessible to everyone” by letting them recede into neutrality. The improvements system fonts today make over Helvetica may not look drastic, but the designs have endured for a reason.
Andersson, Rasmus. “Inter - Google Fonts.” Google Fonts, Google, https://fonts.google.com/specimen/Inter/about.
Andersson, Rasmus. “Inter Font Family.” Rsms, https://rsms.me/inter/.
Bigelow, Charles, and Kris Holmes. “What's the Difference between Lucida Grande and Helvetica Neue?” Lucida Fonts, Bigelow & Holmes Inc., 29 Aug. 2018, https://lucidafonts.com/blogs/bigelow-holmes-blog/whats-the-difference-between-lucida-grande-and-helvetica-neue.
Brideau, Kate. The Typographic Medium, MIT Press, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nyulibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=6735556.
Cavedoni, Antonio. “Introducing the New System Fonts - WWDC15 - Videos.” Apple Developer, 2015, https://developer.apple.com/videos/play/wwdc2015/804/.
DeAmicis, Carmel. “The Birth of Inter.” Figma, 8 Aug. 2019, https://www.figma.com/blog/the-birth-of-inter/.
Kastrenakes, Jacob. “Apple Changes OS X System Font for the First Time in Yosemite.” The Verge, 2 June 2014, https://www.theverge.com/2014/6/2/5773838/apple-os-x-yosemite-changes-system-font-for-first-time.
Kindy, David. “How Susan Kare Designed User-Friendly Icons for the First Macintosh.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian, 9 Oct. 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-susan-kare-designed-user-friendly-icons-for-first-macintosh-180973286/.
Meggs, Philip B., and Alston W. Purvis. Meggs' History of Graphic Design, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nyulibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4505417.
Staples, Loretta. “Typography and the Screen: A Technical Chronology of Digital Typography, 1984-1997.” Design Issues, vol. 16, no. 3, Oct. 2000, pp. 19–34. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.1511813&site=eds-live.
Vincenzo. “Meet the expanded San Francisco font family - WWDC22 - Videos.” Apple Developer, 2022, https://developer.apple.com/videos/play/wwdc2022/110381/.