The Droid Fonts Story

By Steve Matteson

Type Director, Ascender Corp.

This project begain in the fall of 2006. Ascender started working with the Android team at Google on creating a new set of User Interface fonts tuned specifically to the Android platform.

Early on, Google recognized the need for controlling the font data so they could optimize it for its rendering environment. Further, they understood they needed the ability to add to character sets as needed, tweak the output for device screens and resolutions and have control over file size for the limited space available on phones.

We started working with Google engineers, designers and product managers to specify their font needs. We of course talked about linguistic coverage, type styles and how to fine tune the fonts with specific hinting methods. In parallel with this discussion I worked with UI designers to determine the best designs for the environment – ones that held up at small screen sizes and gave the platform an approachable, friendly appearance.

Droid was designed to be friendly and approachable - and fall on the scale between "cute" and "techno"

We began the Droid font project by determining a set of parameters. We figured there was a scale of cute and cuddly to uber-techno. We knew it couldn’t be too far towards either end so finding the sweet spot somewhere in between was the first step.

My first test was a rather bouncy design... somewhat in keeping with the Google logotype’s angled stress. It was going for ‘approachable’ but not too cuddly. It became clear we had to be much closer to center with these fonts – We moved to the middle/left of the scale with this design. Very upright with open forms but not so neutral as a geometric sans serif design.

Steve Matteson's sketches of Drorid Sans during the design process

One of the main reasons for going the ‘neutral’ route is that since these fonts were part of a widely distributed SDK we didn’t want to have anyone ‘put off’ by type with too much personality. We wanted the type to be very useful, comfortable to read and not in any way distracting. We had a good idea we were on the right track with this design so then tried some weight tests to see how much contrast was necessary between the regular and the bold weight. 

A test of Droid Sans regular and bold in a User Interface

Only two weights were required: Regular and Bold. The italics would be synthesized by Android in order to save storage space. At screen resolutions the horrors of obliqued letters - particularly in a sans serif - is quite a bit less noticeable designed the fonts with an eye on how they would render in various Android screens.

I worked back and forth with their UI team to make sure there was enough contrast between regular and bold weights to aid in establishing a hierarchy in the interface. I made sure that detailing in each design was working well at these limited resolutions.

Droid Sans Mono - a fixed width font

The monospace was designed so that developers would be able to see their code in tabular settings and so that any monospace content off the web would be displayed properly. We did one weight of the mono – the 3 other styles (italic, bold and bold italic) are currently made algorithmically by the font renderer. Again to save on download time and disk space.

For the serif Droid fonts we agreed that it must be very compatible to Droid sans. And this meant that the design must be far from the ultra formality and delicateness of Times New Roman. The class of serif typefaces referred to as ‘legibility’ designs are a great model for types on devices - the very things that make them legible in newsprint make them work well on device screens.

sketches of Droid Serif by Steve Matteson

Upright stress, somewhat low contrast, sturdy serifs and open shapes were all worked into the Droid fonts. I stuck very closely to my original sketches.

 Droid Serif - true italic vs. oblique

We agreed a sloped or ‘obliqued’ roman (shown on the middle line) would not be the best typographic solution for a serif font family so I developed a cursive style italic.Long exit strokes, a cursive shaped a and e, and the long f all promote contrast to Droid’s upright. Four weights were created so there wouldn’t be any synthesized styles. Obviously a cursive style italic cannot be made algorithmically. The Droid fonts have extensive language coverage 

All of the fonts initially support the WGL-4 character set. This extensive character set includes Western Europe, Eastern/Central Europe, Baltic, Cyrillic, Greek and Turkish support.

Finally, we also worked with a partner in China to produce a customized Chinese, Japanese and Korean font based on the Droid Sans Regular design. The font contains over 43k glyphs. This font is currently a ‘fall back’ solution for these Asian scripts as it does not have localized ideographs.

The Droid Sans "fallback font" - uses Simplified Chinese for the CJK

What this means is that these three languages (four if you distinguish between simplified and traditional Chinese) share the same code point for certain ideographs but they have different design preferences for the shape of that ideograph. This particular font was specified to default to simplified Chinese ideographs.

Ascender is continuing to work on extending the character sets, language support, and typographic features of the Droid fonts. In addition we are working on new weights and styles of the original Droid fonts.

In summary, the goal of the Droid font project was to create a family of fonts which held up at small screen sizes and give the Android platform an approachable, friendly appearance.

We are pleased with the positive reception of the initial Droid fonts by Google and members of the Open Handset Alliance, and by Android developers and users.

And we look forward to seeing the Droid fonts being deployed in innovative new devices in the coming years, as well as the continued enhancements to the Droid font family!

Story last updated 28 January 2009.