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Android 4's Roboto font: It's for humans, too

Google's Matias Duarte says Android's new system font should help loosen up its techie image. Too bad about the name.

A view of Roboto, Android 4.0's new system font.
A view of Roboto, Android 4.0's new system font.
Matias Duarte/Google

Android's move from Droid to Roboto may sound like Google is just replacing one techie typeface to another.

But nerdy names notwithstanding, the font used in the new Ice Cream Sandwich version of Google's mobile operating system is designed to be more human as well as more practical.

"Our new typeface had to be...friendly and approachable to make Android appealing, and a little bit more human," Matias Duarte, who's in charge of Android design work at Google, said yesterday in a Google+ post.

Google clearly is pained by those who would position Android as aesthetically graceless at best and utilitarian-ugly at worst. As part of the Ice Cream Sandwich marketing crescendo, the company has sent forth Duarte as the design guru trying to prove Android is a match for iOS when it comes to beauty, ease of use, and practicality.

The stakes are high: Google not only wants Android to appeal to mainstream users, it wants them to have a more emotional fondness for their phones. Android should be something customers grow attached to. Right now, thanks in part to Verizon's sci-fi ads and Google's own techie streak, Android has a, well, robotic feel to it.

As an art, typography is not as approachable as Impressionist paintings or photography. It takes a lot of patience to fiddle with Bezier curves long enough to create a new look for letter forms. But even though more people have heard of Van Gogh and Rembrandt than Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly, typographers have a lot of real influence. These days, we're spending more and more time staring at letters on screens.

So I give credit to Google for trying to think carefully about Android's new main font (and to Google Web Fonts, a collection of 291 typefaces that may be used freely on the Web).

Duarte displays a strong pragmatic streak describing Roboto:

We wanted to take maximum advantage of ultra high density screens like that of Galaxy Nexus, yet still be crisp and legible on lower resolution displays like that of Nexus S...
Roboto's straight-sided capitals and distinctive racetrack-shaped rounded letters turned out to be perfect for our needs in a system font. It is space efficient and and holds its own for the short terse messages that are so common in UI. It has a high degree of compatibility with legacy designs created for Droid, because in almost all cases the same size Roboto sets in the same amount of space. Yet because of Roboto's more structured forms we can actually set it smaller and with tighter line spacing, allowing us to put more information on the screen without inducing claustrophobia.

High-resolution screens were a particular concern for Google. There, "Droid struggled to achieve both the openness and information density we wanted in Ice Cream Sandwich," Duarte said.

Unfortunately, on the aesthetic side, there are those who might object that Roboto is too Helvetica-ish. And alas, I'm in the camp that finds Helvetica to be "very generic, plain vanilla, and boring."

So at least in my case, Duarte will have his work cut out him as he tries to use Roboto to serve this Android 4.0 goal: "Emotionally we wanted Ice Cream Sandwich to enchant you, to be attractive and eye-catching."

I hereby pledge to reserve judgment until I see it on a phone or tablet--and, when Google is done with fine-tuning letter hinting, on my computer too. I do like the fact that the lower-case e is opened up in a way that makes it seem less formal and more approachable--a dash of Myriad's casualness to relieve the otherwise more straitlaced feel.

But there's one thing I've passed judgement on already, unfortunately: the name.

If Google wants us to think warm and fuzzy thoughts about Android, it should have gone with something that wasn't cold and metallic.