In the beginning, there was Apple. When Steve & Co. were obsessing about how to make computers feel as beautiful as possible, typography was singled out for special attention. They wanted type on the screen to look just as perfect as it could in print—a grand plan to make computer interfaces into crafted objects every bit as beautifully considered as a hand-cut letter or a perfectly proportioned chair. And they won. Today we see more care being piled onto pixels than ever.
But there remains a gap. While so many typefaces have been designed to render beautifully, very few have been designed to perform beautifully. Which is why Google has spent the last year and half sweating over a sweeping overhaul of its UI font, Roboto. This new version is designed to scale across an entire universe of products, from smart-watches to TV’s. It is the star in Google’s ambitious plan to redesign its entire product ecosystem—a visual and interactive language they’re calling Material Design. “UI’s 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.”
Friendliness Serves a Function
But the new Roboto is a workhorse, not a show horse. The face itself isn’t designed to grab attention, but rather, to perform well in many contexts. It sports a rounder, friendlier look. Dots in the i and j have changed from rectangles to circles; letters like the B, C, and D now sport softer curves; and the stark angles of some letters, like the R, have been straightened. With this more casual vibe, the hope is to create a face that won’t be jarring when seen blown up huge on a 65-inch TV seen from three feet away, or a tiny screen on your wrist.
Thus, Google’s type team, led by Christian Robertson, labored to anticipate the weird juxtapositions created across platforms. For example, they’ve made sure that bold and regular letterforms sport similar widths, and introduced monowidth numerals, because those textures inevitably get thrown together and contrasted when you’re swiping between screens or clicking between tabs.
“When you design type, all of that work is going to be used by another designer, in contexts and ways that’s hard to imagine,” says Robertson. So they’ve created more weights and styles, judging them together and laying out rigorous usage guidelines, so that the shear number of combinations ensures that interface designers will be able to do everything they need to do without creating chaos.
No Rest for the Weary
Testing all of those font styles against each other was itself probably the most complex part of the process. Each one was viewed on a pile of devices rigged to simulate hundreds of different screen resolutions. And that’s just for tablets, PCs, and phones. In addition, the team tested Roboto for the car, using LCD shutters that testers wear like sunglasses, and which force the wearer to look at a UI in only glance-able fragments—just like you would in a car sporting Android.
“Not only did we have a number of designers, but we had producers and assistants layered on top of those,” says Duarte. “It was bigger than any design project we’ve ever had.” And all for a font. But that’s perhaps not surprising, as type has become one of the hardest working elements in today’s interfaces, which have been stripped of ornamentation in order to create breathing room for the increasingly complex functions they have to perform. The work, of course, isn’t done. You can expect Roboto to keep evolving as Google’s offerings on TV’s and wearables mature—but by building some rationality into the entire system, the hope is to buy as much time as possible before the next big thing arrives.