Thursday, April 18, 2024

Legibility and San Francisco

Niko Kitsakis (tweet):

Why is San Francisco not the best typeface for a user interface? After all, Apple has gone through quite some trouble designing it in-house. Do a search on the matter and you will find articles and videos for deve lo pers, where the people from Apple explain their thinking. They talk about optical sizes, different use-cases, space efficiency, expressiveness and so forth. It all sounds very professional.


Apple’s San Francisco falls into the same category as the Japanese sword: It might, from a technical standpoint, be a very well designed typeface, but it’s the wrong kind of typeface to begin with. Apple’s typeface lacks two things that any typeface (to a different extend) needs: Personality and purpose.


If you compare San Francisco (or SF Pro as Apple also calls it) to FF Unit, you’ll see that the numeral “1” and the shapes of the first three letters of the word “Iliad” are much more distinct from one another in FF Unit than the same characters (or glyphs) are in in SF Pro. This was done on purpose, of course: Typefaces like FF Unit were de signed with legibility in mind, and one of the things a type designer does in that case, is ensuring that visually similar letters have shapes that make them more distinct from one another.


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Important context:

You see, there is a prob­lem that I call the “Japanese Sword Fallacy”: The Japanese made the best swords in the world, far better ones than anyone else. They were lighter, yet sturdier than their western counter­parts, sharp like a razor and so forth. The problem is, that even the worst 9mm Pistol is the much better weapon, for you can just shoot the sword-wielding Samurai from across the street.

I find it weird that I cant use San Fransisco in Keynote.

> Apple’s typeface lacks two things that any typeface (to a different extend) needs: Personality and purpose.

I think this is a matter of taste. And so I disagree strongly with that statement. Regarding personality: someone might say the same about Helvetica and the same would pretty much resonate. And regarding purpose: there is a very concrete purpose, be neutral in a user interface and let the content be in the center of attention. Also, want to be more fun and lighthearted? Use the rounded version.

If your l looks identical to your I, then your font is unsuitable for anything where people may have to differentiate between the two.

(Those letters are a lowercase L and a capital i)

This is kind of ridiculous. SF Pro has as "High Legibility" variant that specifically deals with these issues. Meant to be used when it matters. In body copy it isn't likely to. It's great to have both options.

@Kelly That’s of no use when Apple’s software is coded to use the regular variant.

@Kelly @Michael
Exactly Michael. I also mentioned that exact thing in my text and in the second comparison picture between SF Pro and Unit. I wonder how @Kelly didn’t see that. That being said, the high legibility variant of SF pro is not as well designed I think. The capital i for example is almost comically wide. That would be interesting for a display typeface but not for texts.

It is optimised for legibility at small scale, not general legibility. Atkinson Hyperlegible is an amazing project to look at in this context.

What is “It is optimised for legibility at small scale, not general legibility.”? SF Pro? Not if you listen to what Apple says about it. According to them, it’s supposed to be legible in any use case. And that’s simply not the case. FF Unit, Fira (almost all typefaces by Erik Spiekermann really) are MUCH more legible than SF Pro.

@Niko Kitsakis

I fully agree with you. I said that SF Pro is optimised for small scale, and not general legibility. I listen to what I see. Apple is moving within a very narrow design window and yes, those other typefaces are more legible.

SF is like, amazing how many letters fit in the viewport, and I find that it works well in that regard. Letters are nicely spaced and decernible..Great esthetics, too, unless, well, you understand esthetics to have something to do with perception in practice and not just design beauty.

I have a hunch there’s a reason books were printed in larger letters than instruction manuals. Reading as a cultural technique is facing challenges.

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