Regarding Wired’s Puff Piece on Roboto and the Priorities for UI Fonts

Thomas Phinney on this piece by Cliff Kuang for Wired last month hailing Google’s Roboto typeface:

There are seven substantial paragraphs to the article, but both the people quoted are on the Android team. Thus it avoids 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.

This is also why there is so much puffery throughout the article emphasizing how the typeface is designed for performance rather than aesthetics. Such choices do certainly explain most of the changes from v1 to v2 of Roboto, but “performance over aesthetics” is clearly false as a general proposition about the typeface. My big problem with Roboto is that the choice of closed counterforms for many letters and numbers (35CGSacs) is an inherently anti-​​legibility choice. Yes, they had more of these before the revision, and some (5) have been slightly improved, but they need to finish the process of transforming it into a different typeface if they want it to be an outstanding UI typeface.

Roboto is way better than the old Droid Sans typeface, but it’s not great at anything. It’s neither beautiful nor especially legible. “Frankenfont” is exactly right. What’s telling in Wired’s piece is that no one outside Google has anything good to say about it.

That said, to be fair, Apple is doing a much worse thing in choosing Helvetica Neue as their UI typeface, first for iOS and soon 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.

Here I disagree with Phinney. I don’t think Apple has ever promoted Helvetica Neue as being more legible than, say, Lucida Grande. Apple has moved to Helvetica because it’s more attractive, and, with modern display resolutions (especially retina displays), Helvetica is legible enough. One may fairly argue that legibility should always trump aesthetics — but one could argue thus for all font choices, not just UI fonts.

The same was true of Mac OS X 10.0’s pervasive system-wide anti-aliasing. It was less legible but more aesthetically pleasing. In the long run, as displays got better and better, people stopped complaining about it.

Monday, 4 August 2014