A few words about words


Thanks for the response! Guess I’m going to be writing more... :-)

Sorry I can’t respond to each and every question posted, and sorry for using a bit too much typographic jargon in my first post. I think if I can quickly explain some of the lingo it should answer most of the questions. So without further ado, here’s a quick decoder ring for the words we use to talk about type.

Typefaces comes in all different kinds, and the ways a single letter can be rendered and still be legible is astounding. However the most common type used for Western languages can be broadly categorized as script, serif, and sans-serif.

Script is easy, the letters look like they were handwritten and can range from sloppy schoolbook to careful calligraphy. Script faces are an incredibly fertile ground for creative typography.

Serif refers to the little points at the ends of letters. If you look at the Washington side of a US one dollar bill, you can see that the words “The United States of America” all have little points at the ends of the characters. Typefaces where the letters have points or strokes at the ends of the major parts of the letters are called serif fonts. Serif letterforms are much less varied than scripts, but look at the four different versions just on the one dollar bill!

Sans-serif is French for “no-little-pointy-bits-at-the-ends-of-your-letters” (actually without-serifs). The words “This note is legal tender...” on the dollar bill are in a sans-serif face. Roboto is a sans-serif for three reasons: Sans-serifs work better on screens when you do have to go very very small; sans-serifs are perceived as having less of specific style so they work in a wide variety of contexts; sans-serifs are cleaner and simpler so they match the design philosophy of Ice Cream Sandwich.

You might think that there’s only so many different ways to design san-serif fonts. After all if you take a capital letter “L” that is only made of two strokes with no pointy bits what are you going to do? You can’t move the bottom horizontal stroke to the top because then it would become a letter “T”! However even in a capital L there is terrific room for expression in the proportions. The relation between the horizontal stroke and the vertical one and their corresponding thickness make for a wide range of letter forms. When you consider more complex letters like the lowercase “a” you can quickly appreciate the room for expression.

In fact there is so much room for expression that among sans-serif fonts there are also three major groups which share similar characteristics and design philosophies: Grotesk (and Neo-Grotesk), Humanist, and Geometric. Now, there are a lot of different opinions about how to exactly classify any fonts, including sans-serifs, so use the following just as a basic guideline.

Geometric sans-serifs are the easiest to understand. They tend to be uncompromising, constructing their letter forms out of strict geometric primitives: simples lines and circles or partial circles. They avoid much stroke variation, oval curves, or flourishes. They are very pure, sometimes at the cost of overall legibility. In the case of Roboto, our explorations into a geometric skeleton found that purity to be at odds with our desire to closely track to the metrics of our legacy UI.

Humanist san-serifs can be thought of as the polar opposite of geometric. The letters in a humanist font tend to follow the shapes created by the human hand holding a pen nib. These are the typefaces that have the most character, the most variation, and the most expression, while avoiding the ‘superfluous’ decoration of adding serifs. Humanist fonts are often the most legible sans-serifs, but for Ice Cream Sandwich we found that the variety and complexity of a humanist font was at odds with our open layouts.

Grotesk and neo-grotesk san-serifs make up most san-serif typefaces. Grotesk typefaces are the earliest of san-serifs, first designed in the 19th century. The name grotesk actually comes from a criticism by other 19th century type designers - they were basically calling these new san-serif letters “grotesque” as an insult, because sans-serifs mixed and matched styles in a way they thought was so crude and primitive only a caveman could have drawn them! Thankfully type designers are thick skinned; they persisted and san-serifs quickly caught on.

Neo-grotesk is French for “we-made-it-better” (actually new-grotesk) and refers to designs that keep basic grotesk proportions but take a more modern approach to the details. There are minor stylistic convention differences between the two; lowercase “g”s for example tend to be a closed loop in the older style and an open hook in the newer; but for the most part all grotesks represent a kind of middle ground between expressiveness and geometric purity. That’s exactly what we were going for with Roboto.

Now you can understand that when I say, “Roboto is a straight sided grotesk” that I’m drilling down into a really small sub-classification, of a sub-classification.

But wait, there’s more...

Within these stylistic families there is still room for some significant choices. Sometimes a typeface is basically an overhaul of an existing typeface re-made for minor stylistic or technical improvements, while esentially leaving all letterforms and proportions the same, like Helvetica, Arial or Helvetica-Neue. More often typefaces are inspired by others, and represent either subtle or dramatic refinements of a particular set of values. A great example of this kind of subtle evolution is Univers, Frutiger, Avenir and Prelude (that last one’s for you webOS fans), a more dramatic evolution is the famous lineage of Akzidenz-Grotesk to Helvetica.

Roboto is a more dramatic and distinctive grotesk. It merges a lineage of grotesk proportions with a desire to have humanist legibility and a modern pure geometric character. In the same way that the original grotesks challenged the conventions of their day, Roboto takes some stylistic risks to achieve this mix of attributes.

Roboto has more regularity (for overall character) than traditional humanist san-serifs, but a more syncopated rhythm and lowercase letter variation than a traditional grotesk (for legibility). Roboto’s ‘racetrack’ shaped lower case letters (you can see this in the “o” which is a half arc at the top with two straight strokes on the sides and a half arc at the bottom) are uncommon among grotesks and geometric sans-serifs, but they give the impression of a more structured geometric purity.

We had unique needs, and I think Roboto is worthy of them. I hope when you get Ice Cream Sandwich in your hands you’ll find Android just a little easier to read, and a bit more beautiful.

Now after that lecture you should totally be prepared for the next time you’re cornered by a type designer at a cocktail party!

So... what should I talk about next?
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