By Julie Strawson, Director of Marketing, Europe, Monotype Imaging

From advertising campaigns and user interfaces that build brand to content that tickles the imagination, type is fundamental to the communication process. Type is also pervasive. Its power has been put to use on everything from PCs to cinema screens and pharmaceutical labels to billboards. It seems that its power has been harnessed for virtually every communications device — except, perhaps, the mobile phone.

Fonts on Phones

If you look at the screen on your mobile phone, you probably have crude bitmap fonts staring back at you — unless you’re viewing an Apple® iPhone® device or other “smartphone”. The good news is that, whereas mobile devices were once limited to bitmap fonts, now all the capability of scalable fonts can be brought to many mobile devices.

Designers of interfaces on mobile devices understand the value of fonts, have a traditional graphic or Web design background and are simply not satisfied with simple bitmap fonts. The same is true for a growing number of companies that develop products and services for the mobile space.

Both parties appreciate that hierarchy can be brought to user interfaces; typefaces can bring drama and emotion to games and theme-based applications. For example, type can complement multimedia effects and take the mobile experience to a new level. It is for this reason that designers, device manufacturers and others in the mobile space want to harness the power of fonts.

Why Fonts Now

For years, application engineers were responsible for many of the fonts on mobile devices and bitmap fonts were often developed in house. Later, even when graphic designers were called upon to create branded and theme-based interfaces, they, too, were limited mostly to using bitmapped fonts. This situation is changing due to the adoption of scalable fonts within several industry standards and platforms, and through the advent of technologies that finally allow organisations and users alike to leverage the power of scalable fonts on the mobile phone. For example, Monotype Imaging offers a suite of ESQ® Mobile fonts, including designs such as the Rotis®, Univers® and the ITC Stylus™ text typeface families. Complementing these in the suite are many decorative designs, such as the ITC Benguiat Gothic™, ITC Flora™, Nadianne® and ITC Tetra™ typefaces, intended for use in themed applications and games.

Finding the Right Fonts

The question that then presents itself is “how do I take advantage of this breakthrough?” The best fonts for use in mobile devices, regardless of the application, should have the following attributes:

• Ample lowercase x-height – The x-height is an important factor in typographic legibility and readability – especially where screen real estate and available pixels are limited.

• Open counters – the white space within letters such as ‘o,’ ‘e,’ ‘c,’ etc. – also help define a character and have a positive influence on character recognition.

• Distinctive character shapes – Individual letter shapes can also affect typeface legibility. For example, the two-storied ‘a’ is much more legible than the single-storied design.

• Moderate contrast in character stroke thickness – Typefaces with strong contrast in character stroke weights do not work well on current mobile devices. There are not enough pixels in this limited digital real estate to reproduce the contrast at small sizes.

• Recognizable typeface design traits – Typefaces that can easily be distinguished from one another are also key for use on mobile devices. They help create communication hierarchy, establish brand identity and enhance visual themes.

• Marked contrast between medium and bold weights within the type family – Not all decorative or theme-based typeface designs, however, can be effective on mobile devices. The basic requirements of mobile device functionality still apply.

More Issues

There are still challenges to face in bringing scalable type to this platform. Mobile phones have additional constraints that can have an adverse effect on typographic quality. Limitations on memory, display size and display resolution impose unique requirements on font scaling technologies. The fact that there is a plethora of different phone platforms on which to port software, rather than the handful of platforms that exist for PCs, also poses a significant challenge.

The task of rendering East Asian characters legibly at small sizes is another hurdle that must be overcome in the mobile environment. As these characters are scaled down, spaces between character strokes may disappear. As a result, intricately shaped characters look blotted and lose their identity. There are technologies, however, that compensate for this effect by correctly preserving spatial relationships while removing some strokes without changing the meaning of the character.

Some language scripts, such as Arabic, are read from right to left and support contextual character substitution. Sometimes these scripts must also be combined western European text. This kind of functionality requires a special layout engine.

Teamwork Required

It is encouraging that graphic designers have been brought into the process of interface development. Too often, however, they work in a vacuum and hand their design to software engineers who are then faced with the task of interpreting the interface as best they can within the constraints of the available technology. A better solution is for designers and engineers to work in tandem and to collaborate on the interface design process.

Mainstream typographic fonts have made a successful transition to mobile devices — albeit with help from technology. All the communicative power of type can be put to work to make the mobile experience more compelling, engaging and versatile. While working with fonts may not be as simple as on a PC, this too will evolve as engineers and designers work together. The best is yet to come.

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