When Industries Collide
When two industries collide interesting things happen. People who have been into design and typography appreciate the value of fonts but tend to know about them from print on paper and not about the implications of phone technology.
Those in the mobile phone world know lots about display technologies but little about the value of fonts. Traditionally they have been about making the phone display as legible as possible and little thought has been given to the design.
Technology however has now caught up with design. Mobile phones have a screen resolution that allows the font to do more than just represent the letters.
They can now tell an emotional message.
When you read something the font has done a lot of its job before you start reading. Just as you form an opinion on the taste of a meal by looking at it, chefs are taught "the first taste is with your eyes" you form an opinion on what you are about to read by how it is laid out and the font before you read it.
We spoke to Matthew Menz, head of user experience for Motorola in Europe about how he, and Motorola use fonts in and on their phones. He sees the important role that the font plays in building the brand: "A single custom font has been created across the portfolio of products to provide brand continuity. Several aspects affect the screen design from x-height variations, to available weights & impacts to text translations.", but you need to remember that Motorola is an international company and so the font has to be reflected in places where non-Latin fonts are used "Consistent typographical treatment is crucial", says Matt, and it's not just on the screen that this matters "Screen and physical presentation differ to ensure optimal legibility in each context. The distinction provides the necessary flexibility as it is applied to multiple languages."
Building a phone is a series of trade-offs and cost is an important issue all the way through. Fonts take up memory and memory costs money. When every cent matters a smaller font is better, but how does Motorola strike a balance between memory footprint, legibility and conveying brand? "Very carefully." says Matt, they do it differently for phones at different prices, "The balance between these factors are always in review as the tradeoffs are unique across the portfolio.". One of those cost issues is processor power, there are special challenges are posed by low end devices which don't support Scalable Vector Graphics (which make a font look nice at different sizes or alpha blending which lets fonts overlay other graphics with different levels of transparency. To deal with this on cheaper phones Matt says that "Multiple font optimisations are necessary to accommodate the variations in device support. Memory management is key for resource constrained devices."
As well as the internal pressures of legibility, brand, emotion and memory footprint, some carriers want to specify fonts. Matt is a little enigmatic on this "Support for multiple fonts and font customisation within a single device continues to be a topic of discussion across the industry." It's a new field and something that is just starting to play out. Even newer is the ability for users wanting to use different fonts. Matt agrees it's an important direction. "Providing typographical diversity is important, both in core OS rendering & application specific areas like the browser. The ability to support this is directly related to device enablers. The more powerful devices will continue to be as the leaders in this area and these benefits will cascade to the more resource constrained products over time."
It's good to see that mobile phone designers are thinking about fonts. A mobile phone is an emotional device – in Sweden the nickname for a phone is the same as the word for teddy bear. Better use of fonts can only make you feel warmer to your phone. Even if it is a text message from your boss.
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