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Why Google is the latter-day Darth Vader of fonts


ll evidence in our digital era leads to the fact that Google tries to dominate, in its own way, the world of typography. First with Google fonts and now with the creation of custom typefaces in cooperation with Adobe, Google seems to solve all of our problems regarding typography, yet how much effort does it put to solve its own issues? Here we present you four essential facts worth noticing about the notorious relationship between typography and Google. Each one of them is interesting and praiseworthy.

#1. What rebooting Roboto really means
A couple of months ago, the design community, and not only, was shocked by the presentation of Google’s new design guidelines, under the ambiguous name Material Design. By reading the following arguments we were not just impressed, but a little bit concerned as well:  “...Design: is the art of considered creation. Our goal is to satisfy the diverse spectrum of human needs. As those needs evolve, so too must our designs, practices, and philosophies. We challenged ourselves to create a visual language for our users that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science. This is Material Design.” So, it might be clear to us that Material Design is the new evolution of the digital era but what happens with the existing “material” such as the Roboto typeface? The old story is that Roboto typeface has its roots back in 2011 when it was born and raised in the Google house supervised by Christian Robertson. Now, in 2014, Google redesigned the typeface in order to serve even more effectively the magnificent world of Android. This new typeface claims a friendlier look and has been created to work more effectively on any kind of device and screen -from watches and cars to giant screens. The changes can be easily seen on letters such as R and K, while the square over the “i” and “j” is replaced with a dot. Despite that, Roboto’s design looks quite inconsistent.

Google’s attempt to differentiate Roboto from other classic ‘neutral’ typefaces has resulted an unattractive mix of open and closed shapes that seem as if they belong to different typefaces. The people at Google may have done an amazing job to test its performance with an exhaustive number of various media, but on the other hand it does not seem to appeal to designers as much as we would have expected based on its pompous claim in Material Design.

#2. The plan to dominate is not that well planned after all
With the global font Noto, Google+Adobe, these massive global giants decided to join forces in order to produce one common typeface in an attempt to rule all the existing typefaces. Google’s and Adobe’s new typeface covers all scripts and existing languages and it's in your Font Book in one click, as the download is for free usage for both print and web cases. Noto (its Google name) or Source Han (its Adobe name), call it as you wish, is considered to be one of the richest typefaces according to its variety of content. The interesting fact is that this typeface has different designs for the same letters to match better with the different languages. For example, the Latin in the Japanese and Chinese version is different from the Latin in the European version. Very thoughtful, thanks Google!  However, there is always the other side of the coin. So, on one hand Google offers a variety that can function effectively both on European and Chinese language, but on the other hand the unity of the scripts is lost. At first sight, even an untrained eye can spot differences on letters “I” and “J” between Chinese and European, but can’t clearly understand why.

By looking closely, the differences become apparent in all Latin letters. Eventually, this difference is extended to Greek and Cyrillic as well. Why is that? We need urgently some enlightment from Google please! What was the rationale behind this decision? A typeface designer’s task must be –among other things– to find a way to design all the different languages that belong to the same type family in a unified manner rather than creating something different for each one of them. You can have a taste of these differences by looking at letters such as “a”, “b”, “g”, “m”, etc. The story becomes more interesting when you look at the font credits.

Latin in Noto Sans vs Latin in Noto Sans JP

The Noto Sans version for European, Arabic, Hebrew, etc. was designed by Monotype, whilst the Japanese and Chinese by Adobe. Go figure! Both are experts on type design, both have done a tremendous job but why not stick with one design for Latin, especially since both versions have the same name Noto Sans? Finally, while Cyrillic on both versions has been rather well executed, Greek seems to lack the qualities of a successful contemporary design. Greek has always been a problem with non-native designers who –in most cases– resort to outdated sources for advice and inspiration. As a result, none of these designs make it in the Greek market and the ones which do is mostly not out of choice but rather out of necessity. In the near future we plan a Greek Type Design 101 post in our Details section, in order to solve this issue once and for all, so stay tuned!

#3. Font rendering is required. Not optional.
Chrome and Windows have always been a pain in the ass when it comes to typefaces and we believe that all designers would agree on that. A bug has existed since the beginning of its history that has been recently corrected thanks to DirectWrite, a flag which was installed in Google Chrome (more like an optional beta in version .35, but a permanent feature in version .37 and on), which makes the font rendering work much better or as good as Mozilla’s and Internet Explorer’s.

#4. Learning what kerning means is basic typography. Yes. It. Is.
There is something we are glad to notice, not in a malevolent way but because we’ve spent a lot of time resolving similar problems. So, when it comes to a giant such as Google it feels only natural to ask: “Where the hell is the proper kerning dear Google?” There is a problem with kerning in Google Chrome, and this problem is obvious on typefaces that do not include a code in their css. Even the Arial typeface, the main typeface for the Google results, appears problematic and may our screenshots be our witness. Try to search for Youtube on Google Chrome and if you have a sharp eye for detail, you’ll notice the problem in the letter pair “Yo”.

Let’s make one thing straight here, of course we love Google’s humorous approach to kerning. When you search for “kerning” on the Google search engine, the spacing between each letter of the word “kerning” is increased by 1 pixel in all your search results (you should try it! It’s fun!), but this seems to be for now its only concern regarding kerning on Chrome.