If you haven't heard, Droid is the new typeface that will drive the typography on the Android platform.
Currently, there is some discussion about using Droid for the Ubuntu default. I would be worried if this were the case, and this post will hopefully describe why I feel this way.
The Standard Gripes
I'd start by suggesting that changing a type without having a goal or a reason is probably the starting point. This is all standard part and parcel of my entire gripe with Ubuntu design; no audience and no goal. A simple starting point, but one without a goal. Why should we change the type at all?
This isn't to suggest for a second that I'm content with the typography in Ubuntu. The default type in Ubuntu speaks to the greater whole as being implemented without reason. It is also symptomatic of a franchise that cares extremely little about its art and design presence. Look no further than the default wordmark type for further cues. This is despite the fact that someone has attempted to bring more life into the default title font.
The Problem with Droid
When I first examined Droid, I noticed immediately that the font colour seemed distinctly odd. Knowing that I probably wasn't the only person to notice this, I wondered why this was the case. Droid was developed specifically for the Android platform - Google's foray into the world of phone and PDA operating systems. As such, I suspect the type colour had something to do with the context of the presentation. If your work is to appear on a three inch screen all day, I'd suggest that colour and stroke widths will probably be a factor. For example, consider the following sampling from Droid Sans:
Note how the kerning clogs up at points and creates a rather inconsistent text colour on the whole. This is obviously by design. Again, I would suggest that this choice was made in direct relation to the legibility on smaller screens. Having yet to test Android out, I'd probably guess that a default point size makes Droid Sans work remarkably well. In the above example, however, the kerning feels almost cluttered and irregular. Let's look at another sans type -- MgOpen Cosmetica:
Note the consistency of colour creating a more uniform character of texture at the same point size.
The Law of Clunk In Free Software
I fear Clunk. Clunk is everywhere in our Free Software world. What is clunk? Loosely, I'd describe Clunk as the pursue-at-all-costs anything that is heavy, blocky, and chunk-like. While some would like to try and persuade you that the broad outline / inner line of Tango is there in the name of usability, it certainly isn't usable for me. Square rigid lines or mathematical symmetry is one of Clunk's earmarks. If you can express it with math that an eight year old understands, it is probably fit for the stylized world of Clunk.
Droid isn't quite Clunk. That said, it certainly has elements that, when examined, might make it a distant relative of Clunk. I would also speculate that the Clunk factor is driven, again, by the contextual nature of Droid -- that of the three inch screen domain. Examine the following study of the serifs of Droid:
Note the heavy almost slab-like serif. Note the distinct rigidity of the top shelves. This, in conjunction with Droid's other stylings help to pull the overall feeling into a notion of heavy.
Compare now, with the serifs of MgOpen Canonica:
Of particular relevance here is the tapering of the serif (adnate) mixed with a subtle curve. If we look to the Art Nouveau movement, we have some of the most enduring techniques used time and time again to indicate ideas of elegance. Needless to say, willowy tapered lines and curves are a key component of that style. The above example will hopefully illustrate how those subtle cues pull a given face toward the more abstract notions of elegance.
Axis of Interests
Finally, I'd like to draw your attention to another of Droid's traits -- the axis. All of typography has its roots in human calligraphy. As type has evolved, the strokes that define the shapes have shifted through the times. Droid's axis is what one would describe as rationalist. The earmark of a rationalist look is that the axis falls perfectly vertical. Note the following visualization:
This rigid upright nature is again almost certainly related to the context. Alternate axis types might suffer somewhat on a smaller screen, depending of course on the hinting engine.
Ubuntu forwards the catch phrase "Linux for Human Beings" as part of its push. What is interesting is that in reality, no part of the overarching presentation really speaks of humanity. We have suffered through wave after wave of plastic gloss and stilted, poorly crafted swoops and curls. At some point, if Ubuntu were to actually try and execute a design that echoes humanity, we might consider using type as one of the driving forces.
Almost coincidentally, there is also an axis known as humanist. This comes from the fact that a calligraphic pen would have been held at a particular angle and scribed by hand. This yields an axis that is asymmetrical in nature. Once again, let's look at the MgOpen Canonica use of axis:
The difference should be self-explanatory. A little more human and a little more elegant.
All of this isn't intended to be a monologue against Droid. On the contrary, Droid will probably work wonderfully in its given context. This is a discussion as to what happens when something suffers from Design-By-Amoeba. There is no iterative evolution. There is no process to the thought and construction of the presentation. Ultimately, this becomes problematic for all aspects.
This brief examination by a rather dim-witted and terribly incoherent individual is nothing more than an attempt to highlight why Droid may not be quite suitable for a desktop environment. I can fully appreciate why some people might want to shake things up and make changes, and at some point, I sincerely hope change happens in Ubuntu, as Ubuntu truly deserves it.
With the idea of change, I'd also like to stress that change for change's sake is the path of pure folly. "We need beautiful fonts!" In what context? Is a font beautiful unto itself? "We need a dark theme!" Why? What other elements are being brought to the table? Who is the audience? What is the design trying to evoke?
I fear that too much of Ubuntu's attention to art and design is driven by outside forces. Do we care about type or is this yet again symptomatic of the "yes-we-really-do-care-and-now-we-hope-you-think-we-are-cultured" approach?
Thanks for reading and sorry if this bored the heck out of you. Leave a comment if you care, as in the end, I am nothing but the sum of your clicks.