For the first time in 20 years apple introduced a new typeface with the release of the Apple Watch in 2014; San Francisco, a neo-grotesque sans-serif typeface. The typeface has since been introduced into all other iOS platforms, replacing Helvetica, with the update of OS X El Capitan and iOS 9. Considering that most designers use mac platforms, the change in typeface has an immediate impact that designers can appreciate. I’m sure anyone who updated their phones or computers picked up on the new typeface quickly, I was pleased with the change and was interested in learning more about how and why they used the new fonts.
San Francisco was first designed for use with the Apple watch, with its small screen, this typeface had to be designed to be read at an extremely small size. Before switching to San Francisco, Apple had previously used Helvetica, which had been also switched from Lucida Grande years before. But why would Apple abandon one of the most popular typefaces in the world? The problem stems from how Helvetica loses legibility in smaller sizes. This would especially be an issue with the apple watch and its small screen or retina displays with extremely small text on large screens.
Helvetica becomes blurred at small sizes
San Francisco Fonts have been designed from the ground up to be highly legible, with the typeface actually having different fonts for each iOS platform for maximum readability. Broken into “SF” for OSX, iOS, and tvOS, and “SF Compact” for watch OS, One of the main differences is its use of vertical lines.
By using vertical lines on letters like o and e with Compact, the margins between letters are increased, increasing legibility at small sizes. In addition to this, the fonts are separated into two further families: Text and Display. Display is designed for text viewed at a larger size, while “text” is meant to be seen at smaller sizes.
Now, the slight differences between the fonts may not seem all that groundbreaking at first, the wider apertures and margins seem like subtle changes. San Francisco, however, was actively designed to be dynamic for a digital display. When the typeface size is reduced below 19pt, the OS automatically switches the font to “text” from “display” and vice versa.
This comes as a big change and advantage to designers, as now they have to worry less about whether a small font will be legible, knowing that the operating system will change the font automatically. In addition to the improvement of legibility, San Francisco also comes with some quality of life changes such as creating fractions automatically, alternate 6 and 9’s, and vertically centered colons.
What advantages does this typeface have?
Helvetica may be one of the most famous typefaces in the world, however, it was designed in 1957 when there were no digital interfaces. While it may be a classic typeface, it can only be adapted into the digital display to a certain degree. San Francisco is a typeface designed specifically for the digital age, with the ability to adapt and change dynamically, this shows an evolution in the use of typefaces taking advantage of digital platforms.
An additional benefit of this reader friendly typeface comes in the form of assisting legibility in those with dyslexia or other language-based reading limitations. Upwards of 20% of people have a hard time making out letters on screens, which is why the legibility of a typeface is so important. Many “classic” typefaces such as Helvetica may have nice aesthetics but often are also difficult to read, especially but not exclusive to those with trouble reading. SF has more rounded edges, along with a taller X-height and larger margins that allow for an easier to read font, in addition to having a pleasant look.
Although the typeface is only available on apple’s new operating systems, I find the concept of it interesting and think it shows promise of the future. Because apple has such unanimity with its devices, they have the ability to use universal fonts like this, which would be more difficult for the diverse landscape of windows operating systems and android phones. Its usefulness on small screens lends itself well to phone and app design, making it easier for both the designer and the reader. The future of typography could be very different if more typefaces are developed to dynamically change in a digital landscape. We as designers should look at how we can utilize typefaces like these and think about the considerations that are being made to create typefaces for the digital age.