Eric Karjaluoto

Apple Doesn’t Design for Yesterday

Last night, I installed OS X Yosemite. After the marathon-length download, I finally saw it in action. My initial reaction wasn’t unlike that of many others. I’ll sum it up with the phrase, “This got hit by the ugly stick.”

Now, before you go all fanboi on me, please allow me a moment to explain my reaction. First off, It’s OK if I’m not immediately wowed by the updated GUI. Change works this way. Within a few days I’ll likely grow accustomed to this very flat, very Helvetica, environment. This was my experience when iOS was flattened. Although primitive seeming at first, after a few weeks, it felt fine—and its predecessors looked clumsy.

The biggest point of discomfort I have with the new OS X relates to type. Helvetica sets wide and isn’t always well-suited to screens. These shortcomings are glaring in Yosemite. I need to expand Finder window columns so they accommodate the girth of this type family; similarly, type in the menu bar looks crowded and soft. Admittedly, these are First World Problems. That said, I’m not complaining so much as I’m observing.

Apple’s decision to make a wholesale shift from Lucida to Helvetica defies my expectations. Criticize the company as much as you’d like, but it treats user experience with reverence. So, this leaves me wondering: What possible reason is there for this shift? Why make a change that impedes legibility, requires more screen space, and makes the GUI appear fuzzy?

The answer: Tomorrow.

Before I elaborate on this point, though, let me discuss yesterday. Microsoft’s approach with Windows, and backward compatibility in general, is commendable. Users can install new versions of this OS on old machines, sometimes built on a mishmash of components, and still have it work well. This is a remarkable feat of engineering. It also comes with limitations—as it forces Microsoft to operate in the past.

The people at Apple don’t share this focus on interoperability or legacy. They restrict hardware options, so they can build around a smaller number of specs. Old hardware is often left behind (turn on a first-generation iPad, and witness the sluggishness). Meanwhile, dying conventions are proactively euthanized.

When Macs no longer shipped with floppy drives, many felt baffled. This same experience occurred when a disk (CD/DVD) reader no longer came standard. I probably don’t need to remind you how weird it seemed for the iPhone to not have a physical keyboard. Apple continues to remove items that seem necessary from their products and line-up.

In spite of the grumblings of many, I don’t recall many such changes that we didn’t later look upon as the right choice. Floppy disks were too small. The cloud made physical media (CDs and DVDs) unnecessary. Better touch screens allowed a more efficient means of input, which made bulky keyboards unnecessary.

“What about this change to Helvetica?” you ask. It ties to the only significant point in yesterday’s iMac announcement: Retina displays. Just take a look at Helvetica on any high-fidelity screen, and you see a crisp, economical, and adaptable type system.

Sure, Helvetica looks crummy on your standard resolution screen. But, the people at Apple are OK with this temporary trade-off. You’re living in Apple’s past, and, in time, you’ll move forward. When you do, you’ll find a system that works as intended: because Apple skates to where the puck is going to be.

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