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Do Fonts Actually Matter?

On Android's ever-changing quest to find a working typeface for all of its devices.
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(Photo: Tsahi Levent-Levi/Flickr)

(Photo: Tsahi Levent-Levi/Flickr)

Google recently announced a new version of its superfont, Roboto, designed to work on any Android device, from the tiniest watch to the largest tablet. Developing this font, it turns out, is harder than you might think. The original Roboto, released in 2012, was panned (and not because that's a terrible name for a font). Stephen Coles called it a four-headed Frankenfont, which is as bad as it sounds, while Joshua Topolsky said it was "clean and modern, but not overly futuristic—not a science fiction font."

Kevin Roose explains the challenge this way: "In many ways, designing a system font for Android is like trying to pick an outfit that will look equally good at the beach and a black-tie dinner. Unlike Apple—which only has to make its system typefaces look good on the iPhone, iPad, and a handful of laptops and desktops—Android’s open-source nature means that its default typeface will invariably be seen in hundreds of sizes, at thousands of resolutions, and on a million different apps."

The ability to change fonts might be the newest frontier, and it makes some sense given that the purpose of fonts is first and foremost to be legible, but the frequent updating alters everything.

The new Roboto is better, altering some of the letters to make them rounder and making the dots "friendlier," a process that took over a year and a half.

Roose again: "Right now, there are more than a billion regular Android users, and each of their devices looks slightly different. With its material design push, Google wants to create a visual lingua franca, to make sure that every time you tap, swipe, or open an element on an Android phone, it behaves the same way. It's an attempt to impose a small amount of order on a fragmented mishmash of devices, most of which Google has no immediate control over."

Google, of course, brought this conundrum on itself with the very idea of the open-source Android platform. The more successful it was going to be, the more chaotic and fragmented the space would become in terms of the devices that ran the operating system, meaning you'd have small devices and large ones and everything in between—and you'd need a font that functioned equally well on all of them and, ah, the mind explodes with possibilities.

But here's an interesting quote from Matias Duarte, Google’s vice president of design, in reference to the new Roboto: "The old model for releasing metal typefaces doesn’t make sense for an operating system that is constantly improving." In the past, a font came out and stayed the same for all time. Now, however, Google is free to tweak its hated font into something more passable and, perhaps, even liked. That's a brave new font world.

This malleability is interesting in a world increasingly focused on fonts. The average person knows more about fonts than ever before, a result of both word-processing programs that come pre-loaded with hundreds of different ones and the growing emphasis on design. Having a working knowledge of fonts, being conversant in serif versus sans serif, or seeing the documentary Helvetica is a cool little cocktail party thing.

It's also basically useless, very much cursory knowledge with the potential to be rendered moot by the newest font update. We can know facts about Times New Roman or Arial, how the letters relate to each other or, as proved by Errol Morris and Dan Gilbert, that Comic Sans is a silly font, but fonts designed for the Internet—ones that can and will be changed—aren't subject to these same standards. The ability to change fonts might be the newest frontier, and it makes some sense given that the purpose of fonts is first and foremost to be legible, but the frequent updating alters everything.

Instead of being a timeless classic, or even trying to be, Roboto is a constant work in progress. But then again, your Android tablet probably won't last very long either.