Comment: Is Google’s font of the future “nonsense”?

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Published:  July 22, 2014
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Earlier this week, Wired and The New York Times, among others, reported with detail on Google’s development of the “font of the future” — a typeface that works across all of the android applications, across computer screens, tablets, phones, and the even smaller screens soon to be on your wrist.

The articles meticulously reported the changes being made to Goggle’s unpopular (or unnoticed) Roboto, the successor of Droid, which has been “rounded out” over 18 months of work. The previous version of Roboto, described as a clunky combination of parts, bitty, “like a tossed salad“, has had its oddities addressed in its constant updates, heading towards making the type more friendly. But is the utopian sentiment, the “font of the future” claims as honest as other type designers would have it?

Updates to Roboto. Image: Google

Type critic Thomas Phinney had a few bones to pick with the articles on Twitter. We asked him about Google’s pioneering claims.

“I am not a huge Roboto-hater like some folks in the type community,” he wrote. “I just object to uncritically publishing quotes that are blatantly false statements.

“UIs [user interfaces] are crafted from images and type,” Matias Duarte, Android’s head of design tells WIRED. “But the idea of having a typeface that’s thought out as a UI typeface—that’s not been done before.”

“Well, that’s pretty much simply false. Apparently Duarte is unfamiliar both with an obscure operating system called “Windows” and it’s typefaces Segoe UI (introduced in Windows 7) and Tahoma (introduced in Windows 95), both of which were specifically designed/intended for UI usage. Not to mention Chicago, developed for the original Mac OS back in 1984.

A slightly weaker argument could be made for Lucida Grande (the Mac OS X UI font), which is only slightly tweaked from Lucida Sans. Of course, Lucida Sans itself was specifically designed for low-res screens and the like. Designer Chuck Bigelow got a MacArthur “Genius” award for his work on the family.”

The Wired article particularly riled Phinney, which he felt lacked industry review, or acknowledgement of critical feedback.

“There are seven substantial paragraphs to the article, but both the people quoted are on the Android team,” he continued. “That would probably be why there is so much puffery throughout the article emphasising how the typeface is designed for performance rather than aesthetics. Somehow it avoid mentioning the most famous thing anybody has said about Roboto, ever: Stephen “Stewf” Coles calling it a “four-headed Frankenfont” in a strong attack on the design philosophy behind it.

“My only problem with Roboto, besides unsupportable claims that nobody ever developed a custom UI typeface before this, is that the choice of closed counterforms for many letters and numbers (35CGSacs) is an inherently anti-legibility choice. This is stupid bordering on criminal in a user interface typeface. There is a reason that most other typefaces specifically designed for user interfaces have used open counters, and that is because there is massive evidence that tells us these shapes are more legible (see for example the research cited in Sofie Beier’s book on the subject). Legibility should be a paramount concern for a user interface typeface.

“That said, to be fair, Apple is doing an even worse thing in choosing Helvetica Neue as their UI typeface, first for Mac OS and now for the next version of OS X.

“Now, if Google/Android and Apple want to claim that they are making their UI font choices for design reasons, that’s fine. But when they (or Wired) start touting the awesome legibility of their choices, I have to call them out on it. Nonsense.”

Check out Thomas Phinney’s type blog here.

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