The right font - Mobile World Live

The right font

25 NOV 2009

The mobile phone is fantastically personal. It’s easy for us to forget that, and to think of them as ‘devices’ – or, if we are old, ‘terminals’ – but from the moment someone gets their new phone it starts to become special. Unique. Unlike anything else. Your phone.

At the most basic level you start adding contact numbers, then wallpapers and ringtones (do you really want a Hannah Montana wallpaper?). The Swedish slang for a mobile phone is the same as for teddy bear. It is an emotional device. The latest generation of phones that encompass social networking have your whole life flashing before you on the screen. Twitter feeds and Facebook posts from your friends, often about you. If you lose your phone you suddenly realise how much a part of you it is. It’s not just iPhone users who become panicked when their device goes flat.

So why are we ambivalent about fonts? A font is fantastically emotional. When you read something the font sends a subliminal message. An online retailer in the UK has been running advertisements which say you should go into their high street rivals, seek advice on which brown goods to buy and then buy online, cheaper, at the advertiser’s site. The posters use fonts close to those of the high street retailers they are targeting. When you first look at the poster your mind sees it in the context of the high street store, not the online one.

A font serves the same purpose as the soundtrack in a movie. Think of the tune in The Great Escape, it’s more like that of a cowboy film than a war movie. It’s telling you something which is unwritten; this is going to be a romp. In the same way a font can add fun or gravitas to what is written. It says something about what you are about to read before you read it, but like the movie soundtrack does so in a subtle way. If it’s right you don’t notice it, get it wrong and it sticks out. No-one would send out wedding invitations in Jokerman or the most despised font on the planet: Dom Casual.

Yet phones miss out on this completely. Fonts are chosen on the basis of legibility and memory footprint. When you run an application on a phone it uses the system font. If there is any element of branding it is that of the handset manufacturer. Even those phones that are built for, or by subdivisions of, mobile phone networks, don’t use the fonts which are part of the corporate identity. Not even on the keypads. There has been some fantastic work done on applications which help build brands such as the famous Pizza Hut application for the iPhone which is claimed to have increased sales by US$1 million, but why should it be done in the brand chosen by the handset manufacturer?

It’s because technology has forgotten the value of fonts. When the Mac introduced desktop publishing everyone went overboard. School newsletters had more fonts than the school did pupils and we learnt the rule “no more than three fonts to a page.” 

So when the web came along and we only had eighteen fonts we thought that was plenty. We never thought about the emotion of those eighteen. Or that while we might only want one font, the choice of which one it was sent a message.

Five hundred years after the printing press, technology started running backwards. The craft that was typography started to die. You can blame it on the technology – Microsoft used to specify the display manufacturer for Windows Mobile phones so that their font looked good – but we’ve always had technology problems. Fonts were invented to cope with the limitations of spacing imposed by hot metal, or the ink spreading when wet on absorbent paper. In the 1960s photosetting revolutionised typography. New technology isn’t a new thing.

The falling out of love with fonts is a backlash to the liberation of desktop publishing. While there is progress in the form of software like FlipFont for Series 60, and the Blackberry has the option to choose from a number of fonts, they are the exception rather than the rule.

The pull of consumers wanting more personalisation and the push of marketeers conveying brand should see more of this. Let’s hope so at least.

 

Simon Rockman, Special to MBB. Simon heads up the GSMA’s Mobile Money Information eXchange.

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