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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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