Sam Becker, ECD at agency Brand Union, analyses Twitter’s decision to change its font, the immediate backlash, and why the platform’s typography invites such heavy scrutiny.
For anyone who hasn’t noticed, or isn’t on a Windows desktop machine, Twitter has once again shifted its typographic strategy. But it’s quite different from the infamous, short-lived switch from Helvetica Neue to Gotham in 2014. Back then, there was an online revolt and Twitter wisely decided do an about-face, claiming that they realised that the old typeface was a better choice for “speed and readability.” This time, it seems to only be targeted to the Windows platform and part of a larger strategy of embracing native UI direction.
For some time now, the iOS Twitter app has embraced Apple’s system font, San Francisco. They have done the same on Android with Google’s Roboto. In this respect, Twitter is not alone. The other social giants, Facebook and Instagram, have similar strategies. There are some concrete benefits to going native on a platform. A platform’s system typefaces are typically meticulously drawn and hinted. They’ve been engineered to display ruggedly and perfectly on their targeted hardware. They’re native for a reason.
But, the initial reason this shift got so much attention is that this OS-specific approach is much more rare on the web. Theoretically, webpages are supposed to be as consistent and neutral as possible. When you open a site in a web browser, there’s an expectation that it will look the same whether you’re in Chrome or Safari, on MacOS or Windows. Web developers torture themselves to ensure that the experience they’re crafting is consistent from device to device. If consistency breaks down, it leaves users confused and suspicious.
So, needless to say, the change has once again bent many a Twitter user out of shape – and Twitter users are already known for getting bent out of shape. Even still, it’s hard to blame them. When you experience a digital service like Twitter so frequently, the user interface begins to recede into obscurity, and the content comes forward. If the interface is designed well, you begin to stop noticing menus, logos, colours, borders and typography. What you consume are the ideas, images, videos, and people. Then, one day, out of the blue, everything changes. Instead of noticing the word, you notice the font. This can be shocking, especially given the typeface Twitter chose called Segoe, which is arguably more stylised and less neutral than Google’s Roboto and Apple’s San Francisco.
Also, there are still some conspicuous visual growing pains which add to the chaos. As several Twitter users have pointed out, some of the holdover CSS line-heights have clipped pieces of text and I’ve also noticed that the use of the @ symbol, arguably invented and championed by Twitter, is rendered with an inconsistent baseline.
More broadly, though, all of the backlash makes you wonder about the power of type. For such an esoteric craft, why does typography have that kind of effect on people? In this case, maybe it’s because Twitter is the only mainstream text-dominant social network. While this seems to be changing, it is still a platform defined and organised by its character-count. It is also a service consumed obsessively. If you’re into Twitter, you’re into Twitter. So when it changes at all, those changes are felt on a deep, personal level. It’s reassuring in a way. Even in an increasingly virtual world, people still have a strong, emotional connection to typography. Only time will tell how quickly this change will be absorbed, or rejected, by the Twittersphere.
Sam Becker is the executive creative director at branding agency Brand Union, where he works across technology, media, healthcare, law and consumer products including projects with AT&T, Dell, Shazam and Tyson Foods. His work has been recognised by the Art Directors Club and the Type Directors Club, and he is a winner of the inaugural IBM Watson Hackathon.