Art or Science?
Simon Rockman met with Bryan Rieger from yiibu.com to find out how he works to make mobiles beautiful.
Brian has a problem. He's a developer and a designer. Now to most people that seems eminently sensible. You design a mobile application and then you build it, but the mobile world seems to think you should be a developer or designer. So he and his wife Stephanie broke from constraints and set up Yiibu which will craft mobile applications for companies. Free to design, develop or both.
Where he sticks with conventions is in not talking about his clients with whom he has signed non disclosure agreements so while you may have used his stuff he can't lay claim to it.
Working for a number of clients over a number of devices means he often wants a commonality of experience. That can be difficult. "Specify something as eight pixels high on a two in screen with a 120 by 120 resolution and it looks fine, ask for eight pixels on an iPhone and you won't be able to see it". Brian laments how far behind mobile is. "In the web world you can specify ems or percentages", but mobile is yet to catch up. There is some spotty adolescent progress. "Android has Device Independent Pixels which is equivalent to about 160 DPI". But that's just size, trying to change the font is even harder, Brian would like to be able to embed fonts. "We do it now to some extent with pixel fonts, you can use flash and SVG but they are not yet well enough supported."
He continues on the thread of inconsistency, talking about how fonts look on a PC. "When you mock something up using Photoshop or illustrator you have Adobe's fantastic font rendering. Even Nokia Series 60 Sans looks awesome. It has perfect kerning and hinting. Even with Adobe's Device Central you have the amazing font rendering technology. Unfortunately phones don't. Use any phone manufacturer's font rendering engine on a three inch screen and it looks nothing like it did on the PC."
[pullquote]Designers don't bother looking anymore it's been terrible for so long.[/pullquote]Brian has become pragmatic about doing creative things with fonts on phones. "Budgets are not usually there to do clever hacks with fonts". Brand will be conveyed using logos while the body copy will be in a system font. This might be more comfortable for users, but few phones have anything where emotion has been a consideration. Even the Blackberry which has 14 fonts only has two you'd actually want to use. "Designers don't bother looking anymore it's been terrible for so long". This is a man who clearly struggles to craft beautiful designs on mobile. He worries about fonts and enjoys making them do his bidding on non-mobile platforms.
He's also worried about the lack of consistency at lots of other levels. "Where the font lives depends on the platform, with Java it has to be within the JVM or the phone OS, with Symbian it might be possible with QT, I need not just a font but its outline version, bold and italic. It needs to provide me with something more romantic". As he switches from a developer talking about QT framework to a designer calling for a romantic font I start to get unnerved and understand how being the two can be seen as being quite so different. It's the clash of art and science.