How to change your friend’s OS/X Yosemite system font to Arial

Apple made a lot of visual changes in release 10.10 (“Yosemite”) of Mac OS/X. One of the most obvious was to change the system font, as used throughout the desktop, from Lucida to Helvetica.

Helvetica.

Helvetica.

A lot of people love Helvetica, so presumably they were happy. Others were less satisfied, leading to a little rush of code and articles to help you switch the system font back to Lucida or to some other font that happens to appeal.

But these people are missing the point. The substitution you want to make is not to your own desktop, but to that of your most type-conscious Mac-using Helveticaphile friend. And it is to switch the system font from Helvetica to Arial.

Delightfully, you can do this without needing admin privileges—no password required, all you need is to get control of their keyboard for a couple of minutes.

Here’s how:

1. On your own machine, provided you are also using a Mac, install Yosemite System Font Patcher and its dependencies following the instructions in its README:

$ git clone https://github.com/dtinth/YosemiteSystemFontPatcher
$ brew install fontforge --with-python

2. Retrieve and patch the Arial font files so they report themselves as system fonts:

$ cd YosemiteSystemFontPatcher
$ cp '/Library/Fonts/Arial.ttf' '/Library/Fonts/Arial Bold.ttf' .
$ bin/patch 'System Font Regular' 'Arial.ttf'
$ bin/patch 'System Font Bold' 'Arial Bold.ttf'

3. The above should have created two new font files, in the current directory, called System Arial.ttf and System Arial Bold.ttf. Make these available somewhere you can easily retrieve them on your friend’s machine (shared in the cloud or whatnot).

4. On your friend’s machine, when you see the opportunity, retrieve the System Arial.ttf and System Arial Bold.ttf files and copy them into the $HOME/Library/Fonts directory. You must be logged in as your friend to do this, as it must be their home directory whose font library you are copying into.

And you’re done. The change will only take effect for apps started after the fonts have been installed, or globally from the next login—if you want to make it happen immediately, I’m afraid you’ll have to log your friend out.

Arial.

Arial.

Now, see how long it takes them to notice. For best effect, engage them in conversation about how clean and elegant Helvetica is, with reference to their own desktop.

Did you know? Some people like Helvetica

Helvetica is—as every font geek who enjoys a repulsive turn of phrase must agree—one of the most iconic fonts of our time.

Which is a pretty strange thing. Designed in 1957 by two not very famous type designers as a neutral typeface for the Haas foundry in Switzerland, Helvetica might almost have been drawn to Jan Tschichold’s 1928 prescription for the “New Typography”:

Among all the types that are available, the sans-serif is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time… But all the attempts up to now to produce a type for our time are… too artistic, too artificial… to fulfil what we need today.

I believe that no single designer can produce the typeface we need, which must be free from all personal characteristics: it will be the work of a group… For the time being it seems to me that the “jobbing” sans-serifs… are the most suitable for use today.

Gloomy

Helvetica is a basic, functional, not particularly charming typeface. But it has become the Graphic Designer’s Font. It’s currently the best-selling font from fonts.com. There are wallpapers. There’s a film about it (at least, I assume it’s about it—I haven’t seen it, partly because the title is a bit offputting). There are T-shirts, and I’ve seen people wearing them. It is the system font for iPhone and iPad: the squatting toad that contributes to the nagging sense of gloom that accompanies both devices.

No, I don’t like it a great deal. It’s a font to respect, not to like. Its design is almost perfectly invisible, unless you’re the sort of person made gloomy by almost-invisible fonts. As its basic shape goes, it is pretty much unimprovable.

Corporate image, shoddiness, America

No, the reason I write about Helvetica is not because I dislike the font—at least not as much as Alastair Johnston appears to—but because I read something about corporate branding, namely this post by Dustin Curtis. He writes of American Airlines, who recently redesigned their logo from something using Helvetica to something not-using-Helvetica:

With Helvetica

American Airlines’ previous visual identity … was a beautiful tribute to modern American design. The simplicity of Helvetica, set in red, white, and blue, and positioned next to an iconic eagle, defined the company with a subtle homage to the country it represents.

After forty-six years, one of the finest corporate brands in history has been reduced to patriotic lipstick.

I’m 40 years old and to me, in my youth, the American Airlines logo represented shoddiness. Crap font, cheesy colours, a bit ungainly, thrown together: the essence of America.

I have a bit more appreciation for it now, but let me explain.

I have only once ridden in a Cadillac, the classic American luxury car. This was fifteen-odd years ago, and it was a car of about this type:

It wasn’t very good. It wallowed and pitched along, and although it had every possible feature inside the cabin, details such as switches seemed to have been thrown together from the cheapest bits and bobs to hand. The dashboard looked like an imitation of that from a 1970s Volvo. Actually, it was a car that I can imagine its owners loving—comfy but awkward and homely. But it wasn’t very well done.

American products have been seen like that for a long time globally. In the UK, “Made in Germany” and “Made in Japan” have been badges of quality for decades, but “Made in America” was a badge only applied to products too embarrassing ever to reach these shores at all.

Helvetica was designed in Switzerland, but it’s now an American font. It’s used mostly by American companies, and has been since American Airlines first adopted it. It suggests the qualities of American products. And the very plainness of the font, the ungainly quality in some letters like the “e”, and the implication from its sheer ubiquitousness that it probably wasn’t chosen but simply picked from the bucket, reinforce those qualities.

In other words—a logotype in Helvetica, in two obvious colours, with the word American in it,
is a badge of crap.

Hipness good, for once

The bright spot for Helvetica and its associated American corporate baggage is Apple.

To me, Helvetica brings down iOS: it’s a weak point. But to people who don’t give a crap about fonts, but love using their iPhones and iPads, Helvetica will be a subconscious reinforcer of quality.

Perhaps American Airlines—who had several rather cool logos before they got stuck with the venerated Helvetica one—might have been better making this decision a decade ago. Or else now staying put for a while, just to see.

Next week: “Made in England”, British Leyland, and the shocking legacy of Frutiger in books for children