Many people probably are sick of the Arial font, even if they do not know it. As the default Gmail font, known as “sans-serif” in the Gmail interface, it is the medium via which users received years of spam, entreaties from needy family members, bills, and demands from bosses and colleagues.
Now the reign of the Arial may be coming to an end. Earlier this week, it was reported regarding an impending Gmail redesign. The Gmail product, despite its popularity and ubiquity, has not been redesigned since the year 2011. The anticipated facelift seems to encompass a number of functional changes, involving a “snooze” feature that temporarily would eliminate a selected email from the users’ inbox and then return later, and more unified integration with the Google Calendar.
But for the font nerds, the big news is regarding the display. The font of the Gmail interface would alter from Arial to Product Sans whereas the default font for messages and email would alter from Arial to Roboto. Both Roboto and Product Sans are fonts created by Google. If the leaked redesign would come to fruition, they would be a welcome change.
Product Sans is a Futura-like font designed by Google in the year 2015 for branding purposes. This could be realized from the current Google logo that replaced the old, serif-font logo also in the year 2015. Roboto resembles Helvetica or Arial; Google has been iterating on the font since the year 2011. It is now the primary font in the Android operating system and if the Gmail redesign is any indication, likely to become Google’s default across all its platforms.
Product Sans would relatively be a light design touch for things such as menus and headers, but Roboto would impact the majority of words that the hundreds of millions of people read every day. Hence it is worth thinking about how the users’ digital experiences of Gmail would change now that Roboto is in and Arial is out.
Both Roboto and Arial are sans-serif fonts and are letter by letter, fairly similar. Roboto has some small changes at the individual character level. The upper-case “Q” (Arial on the left, Roboto on the right) most probably is the largest change. The other character-level changes involve the switching out a square dot on the lower-case “i” and “j,” as well as the question mark, with a circular dot. But the biggest difference really is in the character spacing. The characters of Roboto are thinner than Arial, leaving more white space in between each letter. The character spacing may appear trivial but it makes a big difference in the feel of the long blocks of text.
For most of the people, the difference between Arial and Roboto would show up most acutely on the smartphones. Gmail decision of Google is indicative of a huge shift by the technology platform companies away from the familiar fonts of the desktop age (Arial and Helvetica prime among them) and towards new fonts designed particularly for mobile.
Google actually was the first to give mobile fonts a go with the Droid family of fonts, released in the late 2000s for its early smartphones. But those fonts did not appear right when the phone screen definition started improving rapidly. Roboto was the next effort of Google. The initial iteration of Roboto was released in the year 2011.