Typography has been an integral part of the way we engage with text, whether it be on screen or in print, and Apple have realised it’s value like no one else engaged in personal computers since the1970’s. From their grassroots beginnings through to being the most profitable company in the world today, their values when it comes to interacting with copy have remained the same. Though technology has played a large part in Apple’s font choices, the minimalist text formatting and historically relevant font choices thanks to Steve Jobs’ beginnings in Calligraphy have remained. This essay will explore how Apple Inc. has utilised typography from 1975 through to present day, as well as the inspiration taken from print design values and in turn the ability to utilise this through evolving screen technologies.
The beginning of Apple’s dedication to typography was Steve Jobs’ time at Reed college studying calligraphy. Though only a legitimate student at the institution for six months, Jobs continued to attend classes, learning about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was through this understanding of typography’s unique freedoms-within-constraint that Jobs has been able to recognise that within those seemingly rigid parameters there’s room for seemingly endless variations.
Although the ubiquity of Helvetica in our shared mind-space defines it as the minimalist typeface de-rigeur, this was not always the case. The limitations of early computer monitor technology meant clean print typography was unfeasible, and many of them contained Belwe Bold and a combination of Goudy Heavyface Condensed for titling purposes, creating a distinct visual punch to their ads that only goes to highlight the stale typographic environment that we find today. Interestingly, both typefaces were developed in the early twentieth century, Belwe by a German typewriter and Goudy by an American. This historical clash was again at odds with the fact that Apple’s company logo at the time was Motter Tektura, a font that is far removed from the rounded Bauhaus inspired values used up to that point.
With the advent of the Macintosh computer, came Apple’s first in-house font — Apple Garamond. The Garamond family of typefaces are renowned for being eternally legible, and the company sought to take ITC Garamond condensed and push the limits of these letterforms. This was the beginnings of Apple taking inspiration from print design values and instilling them in their digital interfaces, and saw them favour fonts that were effortlessly accessible even over very advanced visual effects like the deceptively real-looking handmade paper texture.
The use of Helvetica came with the advent of the iPod and commercial success of Mac computers, and in turn singled a move from skeuomorphism to flat clean design values. Indeed, Apple’s mobile products will be the first electronic devices that will by default consider a quality of type that hasn’t been given so much attention since the age of letterpress. This expectation of perfection bought with it a need to move away from the real world textures that had become stale in the eyes of an ever increasingly design conscious public.
When considering the reasons for this shift, Apple’s high definition Retina Display has played a large role in the move from skeuomorphism to flat design as for the first time ever, computer displays were approaching the quality of printed paper. Gaudy fonts and skeuomorphic elements were no longer a requirement when high-dpi screens make it possible to use even faces that haven’t been optimised for screen use, and this bought Apple’s journey full circle. Jobs’ studies in calligraphy lead to values in their implementation of font that was at times at odds with the technology at their disposal, however increasing display resolutions and maturing user interfaces through time allowed the aforementioned values to return to the forefront of Apple’s user interfaces.
Clean font choices and flat design have been a hallmark of Apple’s design language since the introduction of iOS 7, and whilst they are often considered a leader in all associated arenas there are some noted influences that can be found throughout the redesign. The largest of which would be Microsoft and their Metro user interface. Microsoft’s mobile division has struggled to gain the market share that Apple and Google’s Android platforms enjoy, and implemented a flat design using minimalist design cues. Aurich Lawson aptly notes that this the relationship between competitors’ typographical tendencies is an evolving, organic one and that they’re back and forth, they’re circular. They tend to converge. This references typography and mobile operating systems as a community, much like any art movement, in which artists take inspiration from one another to push the medium to new heights as opposed to ‘stealing’ from one another.
Not unlike the Apple Garamond font, Apple have created a new font for the Apple Watch product line — San Fransicso. San Fransico (or SF, as it is referred to within iOS and Mac OS) also draws influence from FF DIN, a sans-serif typeface famous for its excellent visibility at small sizes. Apple have always adhered to a philosophy of conformity across their products, and although the initial typographical statement was in aid of letting the letters breathe on a 42mm display, SF is now featured throughout all Apple operating systems.
A movement in itself, the use of fonts in digital design has evolved from adapting to the limits of technology, to embracing clean and minimalist values that adhere to classic print typographical conventions. This is something that Apple are acutely aware of, as has been evidenced in this essay. From founding father Jobs’ early beginnings studying the craft to a global influence on the world of design, typography has both benefited from, and served to establish Apple as not only innovators in technology — but font aficionados.