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Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

By Glenn Fleishman

Monday, January 2, 2012Prefer dark text?

I can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Screw the letter B,’” type designer Matthew Carter told me last year when I interviewed him for the Economist, just after he had received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship. Carter, arguably the leading living creator and adapter of fonts in the Western world, was talking about the limits of pushing legibility and readability.

I thought of his comment when a recent furor erupted over the new “house” font for Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), called Roboto. Roboto is a bespoke sans-serif font, created by a Google employee and used throughout Android’s user interface (UI) as part of the larger user experience (UX) overhaul. The intent is to make Android more intuitive, cohesive, and fluid, and work better on a variety of screen sizes, especially tablets.

Roboto was almost immediately branded a Frankenfont, a multi-headed hydra, and many other names by font purists and tyros alike, because of what seems to be a borrowing of identifiable features of several well-known fonts, including Helvetica. Stephen Coles at Typographica singled out characters he felt quite similar in form from Helvetica, Myriad, Universe, FF DIN, and Ronnia.


I was swept up in this as well. I glanced at the font, looked at various comparisons, and thought: What a shame that the opportunity to create something new and distinctive was lost. Roboto seemed to draw largely from the same well that Helvetica came from. Which was an odd choice, given that Apple had opted first for Helvetica for its iOS devices, and later (in iOS 4 for Retina Display devices) for Helvetica Neue, a set of improvements on the original.

But the longer I looked at Roboto, the less it seemed to me as nearly derivative, despite commonalities with other fonts. The designer, Christian Robertson, wasn't working in a vacuum. His design, directed by UX chief Matias Duarte, has to react to the constraints and abilities of Android hardware—at all the various screen sizes it will be available—and expand on the ways in which the previous system font, Droid Sans (created by Ascender's Steve Matteson), met UI and developer needs.


Carter said last year, "All industrial designers, and I consider myself one, work within constraints. Architects have to build roofs that keep the rain out and so on. It's particularly severe in the case of type designers, because what we work with had its form essentially frozen way before there was even typography. The Latin alphabet hasn't changed in a very long time," said Carter. (Carter declined to comment on Roboto in particular, but gave me permission to quote generally from last year's interview.)

Duarte echoed this in an interview conducted a few weeks ago. He said, about constraints around developing interfaces and fonts for new media, that "The important thing is each of the new technologies creates new boundaries for new types of expression. There are new tradeoffs. For everything that is lost, there are new possibilities."


The Feel of a Hand in an Iron Glove

Roboto is a sans serif—more technically a grotesk face with straight sides. Duarte has a neat essay on Google+ in which he sketches out the history of major type styles and defines Roboto's position within it. It's a good read and not necessary to repeat here at the same length.

Google supplied me with the full family (so far) of 16 faces to examine: a regular and oblique (the sans serif name for a slanted type that's not drawn differently, as with italics) of Light, Thin, Condensed, Bold Condensed, Regular, Medium, Bold, and Black. This warms the cockles of my typographer's heart, because with many different weights of a typeface, you can use differentiation to signify importance or meaning without having to rely solely on placement, size, or other faces. (The sign of a bad design is typically the use of many different sizes and faces. Find a great design, and you'll find remarkable restraint. The exceptions, which are legion, break that rule and prove it at the same time.)

The versions the firm supplied have hinting, or cues applied to the mathematical outline of each symbol or glyph that improve the conversion of the curve into a bitmap. It's unclear how much hinting is used by Android's font rasterizer, as Robertson noted in a comment on the Frankenfont blog post at Typographica that Roboto won't look at good in "older Windows browsers" because of a lack of certain kinds of TrueType hinting. Rasterization can be a CPU time sink, although TrueType (as opposed to PostScript) was designed to optimize that rendering.


What you notice first is that the uppercase is much more compact than the Helveticas. Helvetica tries to explore the full roundness of capital letters, with more than a suggestion of a circle. Roboto is ovoid, and trimmer around the middle. Are the flatter verticals in the C, D, O, G, and Q, and rounded corners supposed to suggest the proportions of a mobile phone? That's entirely too literal a reading, I'm sure.

Some of the bloodymindedness of Helvetica is gone, too. The G in Helvetica that reminds me of Peter Griffin's face from The Family Guy is no Kirk Douglas in Roboto, where it has a pert little chin instead of that giant block. The Q's violent diagonal slash in Helvetica is just little stroke akimbo in Roboto.

The lowercase also appears more condensed in the regular weight compared to the same weight of the Helveticas—but there's a trick. I was comparing the fonts continuously side by side, and something bothered me. Then I realized: they have nearly the identical average metrics when set in lines of copy rather than looked at overlaid on one another. That is, for a given length of upper-and-lowercase text at the same point size, Roboto occupies almost exactly the same horizontal space as Helvetica Neue.


The reason is the additional spacing around the letters. It is slight, but it adds up, and the face is designed to have a little openness when viewing on screen. But that openness can't equate to a repetitive blandness. A typeface may not produce an even rhythm or the eye finds nothing to grasp onto, and the face may appear legible but be unreadable.

As Duarte notes in a Google+ post about the font,

One of the potential drawbacks of a grotesk font is that the structured evenness of the type can make it more difficult to read. We started by softening up the lower case letters, and then experimented with opening up some of the glyphs to get a more diverse rhythm. We found that by adding a little more diversity to the lower case the font become more readable.

The designers did this by varying the angles in the lowercase at which strokes end on curved letters, not on the purely vertical strokes. This may seem subtle, but examine a few fonts close up, and you'll see these differentiations immediately. Helvetica, for instance, squares off horizontal all the terminal ends of vertical curves in a, c, e, s, and so on. The horizontal curves end in perpendicular squared ends in the t, f, r, and the little tail on the a.

Robertson writes about this in a comment added to the Typographica post by Stephen Coles, cited earlier:

It has been the hard and fast rule for sans serif types that the a, c, e, g and s must agree as to their angle of exit. Interestingly, this is not the case for serif types, and certainly isn't true for any kind of handwriting. It is common for the lower case ‘e’ to be more open than the 'a' for example. If there is a single story 'g' it will often remain open, or even curve back the other way (up until it forms a two story g).

That's what makes Roboto stand out. I don't find it entirely successful, but as Gypsy Rose Lee is asserted to have said in the eponymous musical about her, "You've gotta have a gimmick." Roboto isn't a humanist san serif, like Optima (a font I adore, by Hermann Zapf), with tapered thicknesses in straight strokes. But it still manages to reference handwriting, and to have the homunculi in our brains pull the right levers, even though it's below the level of perception for the non-typophiliac.

This lets Roboto have the evenness and spacing needed for onscreen rasterization, while preserving a tiny bit of the feel of the hand that makes a typeface seem created by human beings, not automatons. Duarte said in our talk that Roboto tries to preserve the physical feel of a hand writing letters. It's there; subtle, but there. It's why I like the font after living with it. I worry that as fewer people write well or write at all by hand, that that sense of the motion of a stroke disappears entirely.

Genuine Artificial Personality

Roboto has to establish a new personality for Android, one that's a distinct break with the past as Google puts all its efforts behind the unified single-platform-fits-all 4.0. Droid Sans was distinctive, but perhaps too playful and not as suited towards the more extensive and elaborate use of type in Android 4.0. A new font signals from the top that the experience will be different. (Whether that experience is better or worse is a different matter.)

For fonts designed for screen reading, "there's always a contradictory set of requirements," type guru John Berry said in an interview. John is a friend, colleague, and mentor, and the former editor of influential type journal U&lc. He spent the last several years, until recently, in Microsoft's font group. "One is you want it to be completely plain, generic, get out of the way; and the other is you want it to be distinctive. And they are directly in conflict with one another."

Roboto pricks at your sense of the familiar at first, but then, like a person you see passing in a crowd that you believe is a friend, and then on fully facing realize is a stranger, the font asserts its own identity. Duarte describes picking up an Android 4.0 phone and seeing Roboto as: "There he is, that old friend—that new friend, really—without having such a strong character that it really hampers the ability to communicate." It's a tricky balance to achieve.

This is what made Apple's choice of Helvetica, and later Helvetica Neue, particularly odd for iOS: it is one of the best-known faces in the world, and produces an implicit recognition that has nothing to do with Apple nor the device. The choice of using an off-the-rack font can't be pecuniary, because development costs are relatively cheap, whether the type family is designed by the ubiquitous Matteson of Ascender (who has had his hands all over screen-oriented fonts in recent years) or an in-house staffer.

That's relative to all the rest of the costs that go into an operating system, or even just the massive time sink of the user-interface design component. For a perfection freak like Steve Jobs, the fact that he didn't demand a perfect font for the task defies my limited understanding of him. Maybe he thought Helvetica was perfect. He's wrong, but maybe he thought that. (The existence and use of Helvetica Neue in later devices is the refutation.)

This reminds me of a story my design teacher Alvin Eisenman told in the 1980s, when I was studying graphic design as an undergrad at Yale. Alvin said he and other designers were approached in the 1950s by Reader's Digest to develop a new face for the magazine. (Alvin was responsible for training oceans of designers, including many influential type designers and typographers.)

He couldn't specify new kinds of paper or ink, and the design had to be conservative in the consumption of ink. Any tiny cost decision in production was multiplied by a factor of tens of millions of copies. But the magazine was willing to have large quantities of test type, cut in metal for machine setting, to get the right fit. Google has clearly chosen the Reader's Digest route; Apple tied its star to all of the connotations that arise from Helvetica. (Apple once also did terrible things to ITC Garamond.)

In Your Hands

Android 4.0 has to run on a variety of device resolutions, from the low 100s of ppi to well over 300 ppi. It needed a face that holds up at the lowest density, but also looks terrific the more pixels you throw at it in the same visual territory. The face has to almost have hidden richness, so that it is bland and readable at low density, and interesting (but not too much so) at higher density.

Further, Duarte noted, and you can see when you compare Android 2.x with 4.0, that the decision was made to use type rather than other elements, like symbols and icons. Images don't resize well unless they're vector art, which requires more time and effort to make work at varying sizes, and more computational power to render. Type is a simpler problem, already optimized, and which can be just as meaningful when small or large.

The first natively installed 4.0 phone, the designed-for-Google Galaxy Nexus, finally shipped December 14th, but 4.0 updates for older devices and other new hardware built for 4.0 may not appear until months into 2012. Those with some moxie can download and install Ice Cream Sandwich on existing hardware, too.

The proof will be in the device. All my talk in this article doesn't bring you much closer to knowing how Roboto on an Android phone, ereader, or tablet will hold up. The best type disappears as it fulfills its purpose. Google had a change to signal, and Duarte said, "We wanted it to be something designers could talk about." Roboto has surely achieved that goal.

(Thanks to Grant Paul for Android 4.0 screen captures!)

On Twitter: Boing Boing & Glenn Fleishman.
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83 Responses to “Domo Arigato, Mr Roboto”

  1. Mushimatosis says:

    I like some of the letters for Roboto, my concern is that even though they have the same x value, it doesn’t look like a unified typeface to me, the straight and diagonal endigs conflict too much, at least to me.

  2. At the end of the day, they have homogenized the characters in Roboto to an extent but they still look like they have been influenced by too many different families.

  3. justaddh3o says:

    I appreciate a rare Android article on boingboing but even for a discussion of typeface I find this a bit pretentious. The adjectives are trying too hard.

    Also, what about Roboto numbers?

    • A discussion about typefaces will, by its nature, seem pretentious to those who aren’t obsessed by them. Connoisseurship takes many forms!

      As for numbers, Roboto’s aligning figures (no old-style ones yet!) are plain, open where strokes end, and narrower than Helvetica and H. Neue.

  4. NorhillJohn says:

    I can’t believe you actually called it a “bespoke” font. 

  5. Tweedle says:

    This article comes off as apologia for Google. I do not find Roboto more readable, I find it more jarring. Duarte and others can smooth talk you, and you us all you want: it remains an overwhelmingly powerful belief on my part that the primary (and virtually sole) constraint placed on Google was: produce a new font for our use, with as many strengths of the major sans serif fonts as possible, while avoiding any copyright or other IP issues since it needs to be open source. Free of IP and open sourceable is generally not a good, leading constraint by which to craft a thoughtful font.

    The argument that Apple cheaps out on fonts belies this: it almost certainly is more expensive to license existing fonts for major system usage than it is to hire a designer to design around the IP of existing fonts. Moreover, Apple’s historic use of a condensed Garamond (admittedly their own), Myriad, Lucida Grande, Helvetica, Helvetica Neue, Chicago and others does not bely any cheapness or lack of thought or consideration — it actually demonstrates exemplary utilization of the best and most well-known fonts in the world, made distinctly representative of Apple through thoughtful, considered, and expensive attention to detail.

    • Tweedle says:

      I should clarify by saying that your statement “The choice of using an off-the-rack font can’t be pecuniary…” is clear, but I think it’s clearly a rhetorical trick. This is the equivalent of saying: you find no discernable reasons for Apple’s decisions (even though they are innumerable and well-supported) therefore it seems like it must be financially motivated, even though it’s clearly cheaper to design around a font than to license it, but I will still imply that the decision seems to be down to Apple being cheap, even though it’s clearly evident the opposite is so.

      • Let me put it this way: cost shouldn’t have been a bar to Apple designing its own font, whether they pay $1m per year for licensing Helvetica Neue or $10,000. If in-house cost was $100,000 and licensing was $10,000, Apple would still have designed its own font if the firm thought that was the right aesthetic and business decision to do so.

        I find it inexplicable not because of cost, but because Apple took on all the baggage of Helvetica. The font has been battle tested and revised into Neue, but it’s still a font that’s so familiar, one would think Apple would want to cast off the associations. Jobs had no sentimentality, otherwise. (Cf., Stanford’s cache of the 1997 Apple throwoffs intended for an in-house museum.)

        • Tweedle says:

          Again, I find this an argument from out of the mouth’s of Google: you aren’t caring about the font unless you design it yourself. Why? and quite simply: Bullshitake! 

          Did I know Garamond before Think Different? Yes. Did it iconographically become Apple and perfectly suit their need? Absolutely.

          Did I know Myriad before iTunes (or was it first used with the iMac?)? Absolutely. Did it iconographically become Apple and perfectly suit their need? Absolutely.

          And on and on. The question can simply be rephrased as: can all that you are trying to convey in a font choice be served by a pre-existing font and can that pre-existing font still be used distinctively as to become your own? And, of course, the answer to that question has been yes and YES over and over again throughout history.

    • I read quite a lot of Roboto in preparing this article, although not on an Android phone. I don’t think the font is the monster it was made out to be. Open-source considerations aren’t really an issue here: the protections afforded unique type designs are weak enough in most countries that a font with a close heritage to a pre-existing one would have been defensible. (A new font is just as at risk because of the notion of it being derivative, too.)

      I don’t have corporate font-licensing documents to hand, so I can’t speak to specific contracts. However, based on my knowledge of a few years ago, when companies did license such fonts for mass use in software and elsewhere, the cost isn’t calculated as a royalty on each copy sold (except in low volume). There flat rates or other negotiated fees. The salary of a full-time type designer and other support staff may be the same as the licensing fee on an ongoing basis.

      The condensed Garamond was hideous. Admit it. They didn’t redo it. They squeezed it. Terrible stuff. Should have been redrawn.

      Jobs had a blind spot, despite his professed love of typography.

      • Tweedle says:

        Again, your first two paragraphs seem wholly unsupported, halfhearted, and undocumented. (Are you really arguing that weak IP enforcement in some countries would have allowed Google to rip off copyrights in all countries? “The salary of a full-time type designer and other support staff may be the same as the licensing fee on an ongoing basis,” but in fact is probably is not even if you are assuming it’s Google and they had to pay 5x normal salaries in order to attract the designer in the first place. Etc…)

        No, I will not admit it. Apple Garamond was less condensed than ITC Garamond Condensed and became one of the most recognizable and widely appreciated advertising campaigns ever.

        This article has a massive blindspot, easily discernable in the diddling around Roboto’s rip-offs and regurgitation of Google’s statements while declaiming Helvetica and Helvetica Neue in single statements with no supporting argument.

        • No, I’m arguing that the lack of certain kinds of (possibly unreasonable) IP protection mean that Google doesn’t have to be as concerned about either legitimate or spurious claims of derivation.

          Apple Garamond was atrocious. We will have agree to disagree on that. (I can’t agree to that.)

          Declaiming what about H and H.N.?

          • Tweedle says:

            “IP protection mean that Google doesn’t have to be as concerned about either legitimate or spurious claims of derivation.”

            I don’t see how that’s a supportable belief at all as long as Google wants to serve both the world market and countries that do have legally binding protections for fonts.

            I find this: “Maybe he thought Helvetica was perfect. He’s wrong, but maybe he thought that. (The existence and use of Helvetica Neue in later devices is the refutation.)” and this: “Apple tied its star to all of the connotations that arise from Helvetica.” far too curt, unexamined, and unsupported to be stated so matter of factly in the midst of all the rationalization of why Roboto is good. Yes, I know these historical arguments, but I also know the PROS as well as the cons. You provide neither while merely suggesting that they are probably poor choices.

      • Tweedle says:

        And also, sorry, Glenn, but the following completely obliterates your entire argument:

        “I read quite a lot of Roboto in preparing this article, although not on an Android phone. ”

        Really? Really? You are going on and on about the special use case and needs of fonts within their application setting and you didn’t examine Roboto in its specific-use setting at all? Sorry, but that is truly pathetic.

        • It’s in the article; not hidden at all. I was looking at the font from a variety of angles, and looked at its use both in screen captures (at size) from people with early ICS devices or who had installed ICS themselves (because Android is kneejerkingly open), and on other devices at different resolutions.

          The font is intended to be used at many screen sizes, densities, and devices. Should I have used it only on a single 4-and-change-inch Android smartphone? Seems like a silly argument.

          Kind colleagues sent me piles of screen captures to look at, to get a feel for how it’s used throughout the system.

          The full range of weights isn’t yet available in ICS, as I understand it, and I was able to look at all 16 in the current family, not just the few available in the UI (unless I misunderstand Google’s explanation about what’s in the phone at the moment).

          • billstewart says:

            How readable is it on small screens?  I’m not a font purist – if Comic Sans let me read texts without putting on my reading glasses, I’d be fine with that :-)

            Also, do you know how open Google will be about font licensing?  Will I be able to download Roboto onto my Windows machine, or write web pages that say “This Android app looks like this” and have them render properly on a viewer’s screen or my printer?

      • alxr says:

        There’s an old video from Jobs’s time at NeXT, giving a tour of NeXTSTEP. He opens up the nascent, and composes an email, noting that NeXT technology allowed him to send it in ‘[his] favourite font: Stencil’. Tongue-in-cheek? Maybe, but he played it veeery straight if it was.

        (See also: Marker Felt in older versions of the iOS Notes app. Its replacement, Noteworthy, is delightful though.)

    • Hacker For Hire says:

      It would seem your problem has to do more with your frustration that Apple is losing market share against the dominance of Android than the Roboto font. 

      Your ad hominem argument is pathetic and desperate at best.

    • Engrudget says:

      I discovered so much for myself in this article, including tons of neat information about fonts generally, and the writing itself wasn’t too bad, either.  

      But the real kicker is that I have finally found something on the Internet that I was simply unprepared for: an intelligent Apple fanboy.  Still angry and deluded, but stupid he aint’.  I mean it, Tweedle, your comments are interesting and funny.  Congrats.

      • Tim Faulkner says:

        (This is tweedled; apparently Rob finds mentioning that Glenn is repeating Google’s story twice out of 8 posts uncomposed, mad, or offensive or something.)

        Although I am a lifelong Apple user (like Glenn, I think), I don’t consider myself a fanboy. I rail against Apple just as often as many, including Glenn, have to live in Windows 75% of the time, and move back and forth from iOS and Android almost equally. I’m confused by what people think is angry: I just think there is no support of Glenn’s thesis. Which is why I posted: I often respect and enjoy Glenn’s writing (now there’s an intelligent Apple fanboy! JK). Yet I see NO support of his argument for Roboto except a parroting of Google’s message, Google’s own statements, and then general quotations from well-regarded typographers — but none of the comments directly address Roboto (or barely)!

        And then the piece ends with an odd digression: “I have no idea what Apple is thinking, they are doing it wrong in comparison to Google…” (a very crude paraphrase) when they are doing exactly what they’ve done for more than 30 years! And with the same excellence!

        But this odd Apple comparison, that is completely digressive, doesn’t also have a measured comparison to the Droid family fonts (which were more professionally and consistently executed, were original while fulfilling their role, not clearly derivative of Helvetica with a bad mishmash of other fonts included, had proper hinting, had proper support of diacriticals and non-latin alphabets, etc —  again, also no comment on the massive mistakes and holes in the Roboto font at release, what Google would like to call “bugs” — in a font?). No comparison to Microsoft’s Segoe. No comparison to other system fonts in other OSes. Just this really odd, and equally unsupported dig at Apple, to further trump up the argument that Roboto is somehow nice and successful presumably.

        None of this seems to fit what I would expect from Glenn after years of reading his work.

        I apologize to Glenn and everyone at BoingBoing if I genuinely believe something is amiss with such an unfounded article when, apparently, most readers at least agree with me that Roboto does not look “good.” If it was somehow offensive to not understand Glenn’s honest opinion, I apologize. I really hoped I contributed and spurred the conversation. And glad everyone enjoyed the “bespoke” joke — seems to me that Glenn’s immediate appreciation and enjoyment of it somewhat runs counter to many of his claims in this post, but I’m also sure he just has a very, very good sense of humor.

        • I’m not sure this many words is needed. I try to write so that when I express an opinion, a reader can follow as much of what led me to it, so that a reader may see where I diverge. I believe Apple is poorly served by using Helvetica and Helvetica Neue because the face wasn’t designed for the screen (even at 300 dpi). It’s part of Apple’s haphazard approach to font selection, such as with iBooks until the latest release. iBooks swapped out (as I wrote earlier on Boing Boing) some ridiculous choices for interesting, unexpected new ones.

          Roboto isn’t perfect, of course, and nor did I express undying love for it. Rather, I think it a good attempt to meet the huge array of devices which must display it, create a unique identity (to my eye, it doesn’t feel Helvetique at all), and be consistent. I’m not sure why that appears to be either an apology for nor defense of Google. I would not have designed the font precisely in this way, but I appreciate the thinking that went into it, and it has some success at its goals.

          Apple, by contrast, picked the most recognizable face in the world, seemingly without the same thoughtfulness. If Jobs looked through 1,000 UI designs with different fonts, I’ve yet to hear that, but perhaps he did. I expect he said, “Helvetica. Clean. Swiss. It works. We know it. Move on.”

          My only bone with you, Tim, is that you are rebutting my particular line of reasoning with incredulity, and my subjective opinion (which is my own!) with “no, you’re wrong.” I don’t mean to misread you, and you’ve contributed quite a bit to the thread. I don’t see anything different here with how I approach Roboto to how I approach any critique of aesthetics. In particular, I was remarking on my own journey from knee-jerk agreement to living with Roboto, to appreciating its particular eccentricity for what it is.

          • Tim Faulkner says:

            Thanks, Glenn. We are likely at the state where we agree to disagree. 

            However, I certainly do not begrudge you your opinion. However, I see no reason why I can’t say your opinion is wrong. Yes, font appreciation is subjective, but it’s also objective to say that Roboto is a Helvetica derivative (the straight-sided, oblong forms are just shy of Helvetica’s circular forms to the extent that it looks like the biggest challenge was squaring off Helvetica’s corners while preserving some sense of the roundness, several of the key glyphs are directly Helvetica or retain Helvetica’s cues, etc…) and a sloppy one at that (again, I didn’t mention it yesterday, but why no mention of the diacritical “bugs” and very much underdeveloped non-latin and other glyphs, poor hinting on initial release, etc?). Why the disconnect between so much design talk from Google around Roboto when it is so clearly much more poorly thought out, constructed, and under-developed than their prior work on the font family they named after their mobile system? I think it’s really odd that now no clear logic to how terminals are chosen (I can understand some fluidity, but it just seems mostly haphazard — or rather, primarily motivated by subjective preference for individual forms without considering how letters will appear close to each other, and then just claim the discord makes it more readable) is a good thing — although this certainly approaches the most subjective and valid aspect of Roboto’s Franken-nature. But more importantly, selecting several forms from one font and several forms from another font and several forms from another font so you can literally compose three words in a row that look like they are each in a different font — this is somehow a good thing for readability? We can stretch subjectivity so far. Also, I think it is unprovable (because of Apple’s secrecy) but objective to say that using Helvetica is not thoughtless on Apple’s part. Certainly is more reasonable based on past experience than to claim that, because of your subjective personal opinion, it is so. I think it’s odd and misinformed to act as if Apple hasn’t always adopted already well-established fonts for their usage and/or that they haven’t done so with success — i.e. very much continuing their thoughtfulness towards typography. I think it’s odd and unsupportable to deride using Helvetica while acclaiming a Helvetica derivative. Etc.

            But, of course, if this is your opinion, you are certainly welcome to it, as I am to mine. But I also happen to think your opinion is not very well-supported by objectively observable realities and hence my dismay that you hold such an opinion. But, again, certainly you have a right to it.

          • Tim Faulkner says:

            I would also add, Glenn, that JohnDoey certainly presents one very good reason for Apple to choose Helvetica. There are many others I can think of. And even if we disagree on how derivative Roboto is of Helvetica, I think (but don’t want to presume) that we can agree it’s closer to Helvetica than Droid Sans. So maybe the most thoughtful question we can ask is: why are mobile OSes in general moving towards Helvetica (and Frutiger in the case of Segoe on Windows Phone), or even more generally neutral sans serif fonts, despite not being appropriate choice(s) for system font(s) for the past 30 years of computing? I think this is a more constructive thought experiment.

            (In fact, I can even imagine Jobs saying 30 years ago: someday I want the system font to be Helvetica, I know we can’t now, but someday… Even if there is some Apple Folklore story that I can’t recall that refutes it; it is still quite imaginable.)

            And, again, despite disagreement, I can appreciate your decision to defend Roboto in the face of much criticism. It is useful even if wrong (JK, maybe).

        • Funny: I don’t feel like I’m defending Roboto here at all.

  6. ObamaPacman says:

    Of course Google doesn’t copy. Not at all. Tell Oracle about it.

    • reverend_house says:

      Have you seen how Oracle’s claim is falling apart? Snideness only works as a conversational gambit when used accurately. Unfortunately for you…

      • ObamaPacman says:

        Perhaps you don’t understand how the patent system works:

        • Hacker For Hire says:

          Why don’t you link to a real site like Groklaw that documents in detail how the Oracle lawsuit is falling apart rather than to a Microsoft shill that has no legal education / accreditation whatsoever?

          You fail and hard.

  7. CP-S says:

    I really liked this article, although I spotted 2 typos:

    This warms the cockles of my typographer’s heart, because with many different weights weights of a typefaceThe versions the firm supplied have hinting…applied to the mathematical outline of each symbol or _glyph_

  8. Hacker For Hire says:

    Great article Glenn.  It takes good writing to make a story about a font interesting and you did it.

  9. Chad von Nau says:

    Thanks for this article. I think a lot of the negativity about Roboto comes from anti-Google/Android sentiment. I’ve never used a device with Roboto on it, but my initial impression from images I’ve seen is that it is a finely crafted font. I would love to hear Carter’s and other heavyweight type designers’ direct opinions.

  10. TaymonBeal says:

    The links in the third paragraph are broken. I think there’s some kind of malformed JavaScript in there or something.

  11. Lprd2007 says:

    I prefer Segoe UI

  12. Andrew Sturgess says:

    Glenn, interesting article. A few things – 

    1. I assume that Carter had no comment about Roboto because he does not think it is any great achievement in type (it’s not, it’s just a new sans) and because it’s range of use is extremely slim – on one operating system’s relatively small screens. Historically, a great font is also a versatile font, and this font is already tailored to a niche. 

    2. If I had to give an educated guess, I would say that Apple used Helvetica on iOS because they knew only a company with their history of excellence in design could pull it off. Designers at Windows, and then Google, have tried for many years now to create a truly compelling ecosystem of design for their respective companies. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they have done. The new font may be compelling, but it’s use across the board on the OS is just not stellar, nor is the over all fit and finish of any Windows OS or Google OS to date. Both the Windows and Google OS have moments where the lack of understanding of excellent design becomes obvious. With Apple OS, that happens very rarely. The look is consistently clean and almost never cluttered or fussy. Compelling is one good attribute to be sure, but not the only one. 

    3. I like my Android phone a lot. It’s Android 2.2. I really enjoy how Droid Sans looks for web results, and reading. I don’t think there was anything really “wrong” with Droid Sans as a system font, nor is there such a thing as a “perfect font” for a system. Google is missing the golden egg of design, which is harmony. They should be focusing on everything BUT the font in their UI because, frankly, the look and feel of Android is fragmented. The consistency in quality of app icons is terrible – because they haven’t set a standard. Good design is consistent, and efficient, and *great* design in computer UI goes completely unnoticed.

    This is the first windows-y move I’ve seen for Android, and it’s dissappointing. I would love to see more attention payed to the overall UI of Android. I would love a super fast Android with a very handsome handset (The LGs are very well done, I think) and an HDMI out. What I don’t love is shitty icons and great features that seem more like bells and whistles because of the way Google sometimes treats them in the UX. It’s clear that the iOS vs Android battle has already become, sadly, quite bi-partisan (at least from Google’s manufacturers’ pretty strong “not an iPhone” campaigns).  Roboto is just a sans. Write an article when Android get serious about design consistency. 

    • Please don’t make such an egregious assumption regarding Mathew Carter. Mr. Carter told me he has a policy of not commenting on other contemporary faces, as he doesn’t think there’s any value in him doing so. Any type designer will tell you that he is an extremely collegial and supportive person.

    • Hacker For Hire says:

      Don’t you think it would be wise to use a product with Android 4.0 installed on it before commenting on the UI design or how Roboto looks or performs on it?   There is nothing more annoying then reading a drive by UI dissertation that was researched by looking at screen shots on the Internet.

      Also, how is the lack of a response from Mathew Carter even relevant in all of this?  To assume the lack of a comment is an indication of what he thinks of the font is not only ridiculous, but extremely ignorant.

      As for Roboto’s use being “extremely slim” well it’s an open source font that is licensed under the Apache license that is free to use by anyone and any OS.  This is in contrast to the closed source and restrictive licenses used by Google’s competitors.

      • Andrew Sturgess says:


        It only takes a split second to recognize a poor icon design. Before touching it, or seeing it in action, I can already tell you there are improvements to be made. 

        I don’t think my assumptions (yes, i did say it was an assumption) are ignorant. I’m very knowledgable about typography, and also about the politics of art and design. A lot of people keep their mouths shut about competitors and colleagues because they don’t want to offend and come off as arrogant pricks, like I am coming off. A lot of people play nice, and I was unaware of Carter’s gag order before making my statement. I still think it’s silly to put Carter’s name on this article though, without any commentary from him whatsoever about the typeface in subject. 

        It’s not such a great font. My opinion. probably also Carter’s, if you got him to talk, which you won’t. Purely an educated guess, but I’d be willing to make a bet. 

        • “silly to put Carter’s name on this article”: It’s not on this article; he’s quoted at the lead. He has some wonderfully apposite things to say on my thesis in this article, that there are only so many ways you can make things different that still adhere to the basic design necessity.

          “probably also Carter’s”: I’m not sure why you insist in trying to have a hypothetical Matthew Carter provide you with backup.

    • Richard Hobson says:

      Regarding point 3 that you make.

      One of the key points of Android 4.0 is unification.

      Harmony and consistency are what the 4.0 interface has been striving towards. To say the font used in 4.0 is not part of that process is a bad move. It is integral to the process. True it’s only one part, but it can’t be discounted. The font influences almost every part of the new UI in 4.0, from the new icons, to the thickness and type of lines used to define the particulars of this new interface. It’s not perfect, and it has a number of rough edges. Frankly not everyone likes the direction they chose to take, but it is definitely the most unified Android version to date.

      If you are trying to unify designs across any type of UI you need to think very carefully about the font or fonts that you use. The font helps bring all the other elements together. A very simple example. If a menu’s color or gradient causes the font you’ve picked to fade or blend you’ve failed. Not every font works with every interface and building around a font or at the very least with a font in mind is preferred to trying to fit font’s to a UI after the fact.

      App icon design is done by the people creating the App not Google, nor Apple for that matter, and in either of their interfaces all they can do is mitigate the damages on the rest of the user interface that a bad choice by the app developer has. They can’t completely mask it. If your talking about interface icons for menu’s etc, 4.0 does in fact do a lot to standardize these icons, but just like in iOS the standard is not strictly enforced.

      As for some of your other “points” I cannot speak to them as they either step outside the realms of  my concerns or are to laden with subjective opinion and my personal opinions regarding them would be the same. :)

      • Andrew Sturgess says:

        “It’s not perfect, and it has a number of rough edges. ” Yeah, it could be better — so why isn’t it?

      • Andrew Sturgess says:

        I know that 3rd party app makers design their app logos. A lot of them look really bad because Google hasn’t set what I would call a “design standard” for the look and feel of the icons, as Apple has done with the radiused square design in iOS. Though Apple doesn’t require 3rd parties to emulate the Apple standard, it is often emulated and done well. 

        My point is that Google should make their own icons as consistent and readable as possible, in hopes that 3rd party developers will *want* to follow suit. 

        This happened with the iMac when Apple set a standard for product design with the branded colors and translucent materials. Many 3rd party developers followed suit and produces peripherals that really looked great and felt like they were part of a “suite” of Mac stuff. The standard Apple set merely suggested that it be followed, and it was to great success. 

        This is all “Appley” stuff though and I can see why Google wouldn’t even want to set a standard… but I do think they need to raise the bar a bit, if for nothing else than software behind it deserves it! I really do like the Android platform.

    • JM Solé says:

      “Historically, a great font is also a versatile font, and this font is already tailored to a niche.” I wouldn’t necessarily say it like that. Like any great product design, a great font is one that works best for the purpose it has been designed. In that sense, Comic Sans is as great a font as Georgia or Victorian Woodtype or the Romain du Roi model or any newspaper font, &c. What happens historically (as in “this font has been used for hundreds of years”) is not completely related to quality. There’s plenty of whimsical reasons for the popularity of a font. Of course, there’s a range to this, and some fonts completely deserve their popularity.

  13. Palomino says:

    Blocked letters does the same for eye movement, it blocks it. This font allows the eye to move fluidly across the word, like cursive writing. It’s not pretentious to write about this, it’s an appreciation for the hidden world most of you aren’t aware of; welcome to the world of Nuance. Nuance is why you buy certain things. Nuance is why you find some things beautiful but you can’t explain why. Nuance is the restaurant you sit in for hours but you only have the language to tell people, “It’s my favorite place”. 

    When your vision starts going like mine, font does matter, a lot, no matter how minimal the changes are. 

    Why talk about fonts?  5 and S,6 and G, O and 0, D and 0, D and O, B and 8,  l and I, 1 and l, 1 and I, and believe it or not, some forms of A get confused with 4. 

    Then again, it really won’t matter until everyone quits calling the 0 an”O”. The zero is not an “O”, it’s a damn zero! You dial “O” for operator but too many people think they have to press #6. Did you know that this became so confusing North American Keypads or mobile phone keypads didn’t even have a letter O? The problem is the word ZERO contains the long version of O, this compounding the confusion. Worse yet, most words that contain only the long O, are written as ough. Oh! (LOL, wait, that O in LOL isn’t pronounced Ough, it’s a short o as in out, foiled again!) One more step into (ooo), is the O in Operator isn’t a long ough either, it’s ahh, as in Opera. 

    I use  “B” words as O sound examples:  Book, Bought, Bough, Bow (and arrow), Board, Bond, Booth, Bog, Above (I know), Boston, and more. 

    The problem is we have been taught that words ending in “e” makes the vowels before it, long. 

    But Operator contains two,  AH-PURR-ATE-ORE. But people add a third, AH-POOR-ATE-ORE. 

    So continue to dial your O for Operator, which is located on the 0 key and let the “uppity” geeks figure out how to make it easier for the rest of us. 


    P.S. My relative lived on a street named Flicker. But it’s in Helvetica capitals: FLICKER. Go ahead, stand back and imagine approaching it from a slight angle or driving by it at 45 mph. Everyone in town called it F***ER street, the L and I easily looked like a capital U. 

  14. DMStone says:

    “Legible but unreadable” is exactly what I found this article. Not the flowery writing so much as the typeface itself. I am reading on a large computer screen which may be a factor, but I found my eye jumping up within blocks of type, one to two lines. Also, my familiarity in typesetting is from newsprint, so reading long documents in sans serif typefaces drives me a bit mad in the first place.

    The comments following the article were a blast, however, and remind me of the discussions I hear from music studio technicians critiquing albums, trying to pick out the perfect mic/distance/volume/processing while finally admit the best they’d ever heard was some sloppily recorded garage album from 40-years-ago.

  15. Richard Hobson says:

    The funniest thing I’ve come to realize from reading all the articles about Roboto is this.

    The ONLY people fighting about how Roboto feels are the font lovers.

    Something all the fans of fonts need to ask themselves is what do the masses think. Do the masses find the font jarring or too full of conflict? Answer that before railing against this one font. In the end, if the font holds up against scrutiny by the unwashed, any contrary opinion of a fonts capabilities falls short of being relevant.

     My position is this. While the font may not be as elegant as some, it didn’t need to be. In playing with this font on my phones both an older Samsung Galaxy S and a Galaxy Nexus it does what it’s supposed to. It proves itself more than adequate across the board. It’s better than Droid on many levels and that’s all that really matters.

    I agree with others that the usage of existing fonts was a valid option, but it’s not the only option. Google took the position that they needed to put their own stamp on the new font used in Android 4.0 and that’s what they did. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just one of the options.

    Glenn: Slightly unrelated. If you diss on things loved by fanboys they tend to get aggressive even when faced with rational thought.

  16. atimoshenko says:

    While only font lovers may discuss fonts, this does not mean that the rest of the world does not care. Bad typography will ‘feel’ wrong even to a person who has never thought about fonts. It’s just that such a person would likely be unable to identify that the reason he/she thinks something doesn’t look ‘right’ is bad typography, and would therefore not join any discussions about it.

    IMHO, Roboto is far from terrible – it’s just consistently a little off. Like Arial.

  17. Someone Else says:

    It can be quite educational to occasionally read an article on a subject about which I have absolutely no interest, and really have difficulty imagining even the possibility of having an interest, but which others find compelling and worthy of intense scrutiny. It’s actually kind of comforting to know that others are working so hard on something that is essentially invisible to me (if the entire internet were suddenly forced to use Comic Sans MS from now on I probably wouldn’t even notice). Besides, I’m pretty sure there are lots of people who feel pretty much the same way about what I do. The glazed looks that I get when I talk about it are a testament to that.

  18. Johann Dirry says:

    what I mostly hate about most Fonts is, that there is no clear distinction between I and l. 

  19. jeff fowler says:

    I like it better than droid sans (but that’s not saying much, DS is hideous), the real problem to a font aficionado is that Google didn’t approach this saying ‘lets create a brand new font for screen use that has multiple weights and is on a par with the best contemporary work out there’. They seemed to say ‘let’s find a way to make us look like iOS, while remaining open source’. Roboto does look like a mashup, it’s a nice effort to be sure and I appreciate the extra letter spacing, but it’s ultimately a missed opportunity and a condemnation of the open source model. I have no doubt Google wouldn’t mind opening the chequebook for Helvetica, Myriad or Univers, but no foundry in their right mind will open source such a great money maker, for any amount. 

    Also saying the only people who care are type nerds is a little trite, like saying the only people who care about cars are car buffs. Millions of people will view this font every day, and the drive to improve such a widely used object benefits everyone, that’s why there is so much discussion about something many would consider trivial. Details count, just ask an apple user.  

  20. Roger Wong says:

    Thanks for the well-written article.

    One technicality that I feel compelled to point out is your usage of the words “font” and “typeface.” They are not interchangeable. A font is technically one style/size of a typeface. The typeface is Roboto. The font is Roboto Bold.

    So this sentence is technically incorrect:
    “Google supplied me with the full family (so far) of 16 faces to examine…”

    It should be:
    “Google supplied me with the full family (so far) of 16 fonts to examine…”

    Since your article is a fairly technical one about typography, this seemed like a detail to get right.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for the comment. But in my experience, and in common usage in the type world, a font is particular cut (whether digital or not), and the typeface refers to any style. Typeface often means an entire set of weights, like the Roboto family, but it’s also used to refer to any style within, like Roboto Bold Condensed. Now, if I referred to the actual digital file as a typeface instead of a font, I would be absolutely wrong. (In ye olden days, of course, the font was a particular size and weight in metal in a drawer or two, like 18-point Baskerville Italic.)

      There’s a great discussion on a post by Alan Haley, a font guru, about this from 2002.

  21. interesting article thanks

  22. grovberg says:

    Worthless Personal Opinion:

    I like it in the screen shots, less so as rendered by Safari on a Mac. I wonder how much that accounts for the differences in opinion. People tend to react instinctually to a font, and then go back and try to reverse-engineer reasons for it.

  23. Richard Earney says:

    I used a Nexus Galaxy for a few days alongside my iPhone 4S. The glaring issue with Roboto was revealed when visiting the site on both phones. On the Nexus – with its bigger screen it was far less readable than the 4S; the comparison between Roboto and Helvetica Neue. There are few other phones capable of running ICS at the moment, so how this font eventually spreads to lower end devices will be fascinating to see – actually it won’t happen!

    • Dan Gayle says:

      Android phones don’t get updated, because the cell phone companies would rather you upgrade to a new one. This fact is well documented.

      So you are correct, it simply isn’t going to happen.

  24. SunFlyShoo says:

    Nearly pure black background with white text.  I could not read the entire article from eye pain!

  25. Click Prefer Dark Text? below the headline.

  26. JohnDoey says:

    Apple chose Helvetica so that iOS would fade into the background. So that iOS would specifically not have its own identity. The content provides the identity. Helvetica is like white paper. A non-color. A non-identity. When you view content on Windows or Android it gets covered in Wondows and Android like a stain.

    The proof that this was the right approach from Apple is to compare the amount of conversation about iOS versus Android system fonts. Hardly anybody ever talks about the iOS system font, although they do say iOS looks good and gets out of the way of content. Android system fonts is like a whole subculture, an ongoing drama. It’s like Android is trying to choose blue paper or red paper and arguing about it, and Apple just chose white paper and nobody even notices the paper, they just see the content.

    Also, I think designing typefaces around crappy displays and renderers is a completely BS approach with no worth at all. They are inflicting crap on people. We already have 300 dpi displays and more are coming this year. Ten years from now, Arial and Roboto will still be inflicted on people.

    • I honestly had not thought about it that way, because iOS is so idiosyncratically crisp and clear in other ways. It disappears, but in a particular fashion. The font sends a message

  27. Khad Young says:

    Just one question: why did you use an iPad for the page background?

  28. Bozzified says:

    Don’t know about all these font “experts” here but Roboto is fantastic font. it looks so good on the devices it’s MUCH nicer than bland Helvetica.

    And I don’t think Roboto has anything visually that similar to Helvetica. It’s closer to Univers than Helvetica. 

    Either way it’s great looking commercial font that is absolutely perfect for the devices it was meant to be used on. 

    Stop whining and hating. Not every font has to be a work of art. it has to be usable and nice to look at and Roboto achieves both.

    • Dan Gayle says:

      Bland Helvetica is bland. That’s why it’s Helvetica. That’s why it was created in the first place, to not draw attention to itself. It was specifically created with the idea of function over form. That’s what the Swiss typography was all about. The message, not the presentation.

  29. Dan Gayle says:

    This comment:
    “Images don’t resize well unless they’re vector art, which requires more time and effort to make work at varying sizes, and more computational power to render. Type is a simpler problem, already optimized, and which can be just as meaningful when small or large.”

    Computer typefaces ARE vector artwork, so I call shenanigans on this entire statement. That’s one reason why they scale so well, along with the fact that good typefaces take significant amounts of time and energy and thought and experience on the part of the type designer to make work at all, let alone at various sizes.

    The images of which you speak could easily be encoded as font software. That’s how a lot of icons and things are done in print, and is increasingly a way that icons are used on the web in the form of embedded typefaces. Still vector art, but at least with a delivery mechanism that is stable and a known entity.

    • Don’t be bloody minded. Of course, the type in question is vector art, but it’s not generic vector art. TrueType and OpenType (and PostScript) use Beziér curves that are rendered in a highly optimized fashion. Rendering of arbitrary vector art, especially with color and shading, can take a lot longer in relative terms.

      And, sure, this depends on the vector-rendering engine employed in Android and whether Google opted to use OpenType-style graphic creation and font embedding and all that. In general, a simple letter renders faster than any icon of sufficient complexity to be interesting as an icon. (Very simple geometric icons would render very fast, I’m sure.)

  30. Great, great article!

    You only really gain the appreciation to Roboto when seeing it on the Android UI, I think they managed to achieved a great symbiosis between the Holo design language and Roboto.

    I really think it shines on the UI, a recent project all in Roboto:  

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