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The Scourge of Helvetica Neue Light

§ Design thinking · Typography

I’m no lover of Helvetica but neither do I hate it. I’d be walking around carrying a lot of hate if I did. That said I really do have an aversion to Helvetica Neue Light, or rather an aversion to when Helvetica Neue Light is used without due thought and attention.

When used for really big text, surrounded by plenty of space, Helvetica Neue Light can look quite pleasant. Predictable and derivative, but nice enough. No-one ever got fired for using Helvetica Neue Light, it seems.

Things get more dodgy when the font is used for running text in introductory paragraphs as espoused by Twitter Bootstrap.

Screen shot from Twitter Bootstrap
Helvetica Neue Light as rendered in a Bootstrap example

The thing with Helvetica Neue is that, as well as being a boxier, more uniform digital redrawing of the original Helvetica metal font, the in-built letter spacing is really tight. I mean really tight, such that on regular screens the letters bump into each other. Try setting CLINT EASTWOOD in Helvetica Neue Light and see what happens to the great man’s first name. You have been warned.

Helvetica for interfaces

Here’s where my ire is really provoked: Helvetica Neue Light as an interface font. Wrong. Horrible and wrong.

Let’s get Apple out of the way. Since iOS 7 and soon in OS Yosemite, Apple has been using Helvetica Neue for its user interfaces. The preview of iOS7 used Helvetica Neue Light and Ultra Light, which was received very badly. Consequently the Regular weight is now the default, as it will be in the forthcoming desktop UI. Helvetica is still far from ideal as a UI font, but Apple’s in-built Dynamic Type helps by doing things like tweaking the letter spacing for differently sized text, and on a Retina display it may work fine. But this doesn’t mean that the incumbent Lucida Grande doesn’t remain a better choice from a practical perspective.

Not my TiVo!

I turned on my television yesterday and saw this:

You try reading Helvetica Neue Light in the new TiVo EPG

A profusion of Helvetica Neue Light had invaded my Virgin TiVo box. According to industry observers, or more likely a regurgitated press release, the new TiVo UI has either a more refined, crisper, sharper or even a new, more slender, curvier font.

But what it really has is the very worst of Helvetica Neue Light in all its indistinct, tightly tracked, blurry mess. Yuck, if not actually ouch. This user on a TiVO community forum puts it perfectly:

UI hard to read - need the old font back! The new skinny font with letters jammed close together makes much of the UI unreadable to me from the couch across the room, I’ve never had a problem with it before but now I can barely read show info etc.

Compare with what the UI used to look like:

Virgin Media screen shot
The previous Virgin Media TiVo interface

Perhaps the overall aesthetic needed a refresh, but the DIN-like font used in the UI was much more effective (and on closer inspection turns out to be the Regular weight of Helvetica Neue Condensed). Distinct letter forms (for the most part) and compact dimensions make it a good choice, easily and comfortably readable from across the room.

And from what I can see, not only has Helvetica Neue Light been chosen, but it has been further tightened. Consider how “Billy Elliot” renders close up:

The scourge of Helvetica Neue Light

Now imagine the mess you get from 3 metres away. At best you get “Bllly Elllot”, but in reality all you see is a smudge inbetween some consonants.

Various renderings of 'Billy Elliot' in Helvetica

At the top of the preceding image you can see plain old Helvetica Light with its slightly more compact letter forms (look at the B and the o in particular) and more generous letter spacing. Below that is Helvetica Neue Light, a slightly worse choice with its tighter letter spacing. Then you have Helvetica Neue Light as further tightened in the TiVo user interface, further smudged by my television.

No-one ever got fired for using Helvetica Neue Light? Maybe they should when it gets used like this.