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Typography is more than an afterthought in app design

By Evan Wade / November 4, 2013

If you’ve ever seen a “professional” email written in Comic Sans, you understand the importance of a smart font selection. The same is true in the world of app design. Typography plays a role in everything from basic layouts to dynamic text size, which is why picking a proper look for your copy is crucial.

Form versus Function

What does your app do? It’s a straightforward question, but the answer can help determine what you want your fonts to accomplish. An app with lots of written content will have different typographical needs than one relying mostly on icons or images.

Senior Visual Designer Eric Celedonia says text-heavy apps should always try to keep their typography as simple as possible, especially when it comes to body text. Trying to “get fancy” in areas with large amounts of written content can lead to unreadable copy, unhappy users and an altogether unpleasant experience.

Instead, your body copy should be chosen for legibility. An infographic published by Web Designer Depot explains why simpler and bolder sans-serif fonts, like Arial, Verdana and the ever-present Helvetica, work better on digital screens.

You can be a little more creative with headlines, titles, and other large text, Celedonia says. Choosing a font that’s “appropriate for the style you are trying to achieve” is key here. Using a variation of the same font featured in your logo, for instance, can help create an attractive and consistent theme throughout your entire program.

What’s most important is that your chosen fonts work just as well together as they do on their own. Several online resources, like Typotheque’s Font Combinator, exist for the sole purpose of finding the perfect typography family for any project. Give it a look if you’re having trouble locating the right typeface for your app. Celedonia also recommends “looking to print for inspiration.”

Dynamic text size and your app

With dynamic text size, a new addition to iOS 7, users are able to dictate font size from the settings menu and see the difference across all apps that support the feature. It’s a relatively small addition, compared to some of the changes Apple made to their mobile suite this year, but some users and designers will find it invaluable.

“The biggest challenge with dynamic type is that some fonts don’t look good at all sizes without some adjustments in character weight, kerning and so on,” says Consulting Architect, Conrad Stoll. “iOS 7 makes [the necessary adjustments] fairly easy to do, but it’s still a very manual process that requires close collaboration between designers and developers to make sure they achieve exactly the right feel that they are looking for.”

Fortunately, dynamic font support is optional in iOS 7, so there’s no need to throw out the current design for an app in progress. The iOS Developer Library offers tons of documentation on the feature, if you’re still not sure whether dynamic text size is appropriate for your App Store offerings.

A serious decision

Typography may be the unsung hero of app design, but that doesn’t mean you should throw it to the wayside. “Overall, I think typography is one of the under-appreciated parts of mobile app development,” Stoll says. “It’s easy for us to assume that text is just text and that fonts don’t matter. But it makes sense to spend the extra time and really focus on making that text look good.”

Knowing what to do falls somewhere between art and science. There may not be a hard and fast rule for every situation, but you better believe the blogosphere will let you know if you’ve made a bad decision.