We read more than ever. More specifically, we read more digitally than ever. Message apps, social media, playlists — text is omnipresent and indispensable. It delivers information and is at the same time the most important layout element for designers.

This is what inspired me and my colleagues to attend the presentation Fonts and Typography for Apps, part of the Tech Open Air on 14 July in Berlin. Armed with free beer and pretzels, I sit expectantly in the third row as the host appears on stage. His name is Jürgen Siebert, Marketing Director at Monotype and Editor-in-Chief of Fontblog, part of the company since 2014. The typography expert introduces the speaker of the evening, Frank Rausch, who is user interface designer at Raureif and a professor of digital typography at the Fachhochschule Potsdam. Rausch brings a passion for detail to his work with fonts. You can sense it when he talks about the “friendly curves” of Rooney or the “anthroposophical touch” of FF Amman.

Legibility requires the right adjustments

Typography is omnipresent and indispensable. Rausch does not have to work too hard to convince the crowd, which is largely made up of designers and developers. “Typography makes data processable for humans,” he says. It should be legible, professional and appropriate, of course. Which is why he says, “good typography should be a top priority”. Things get interesting when Rausch goes into greater detail about what defines good typography. Open shapes and large corpus sizes add to the distinctiveness – and thus the legibility – of the letters. The right line length, too, ensures a comfortable reading flow; 60 to 70 letters per line is a good benchmark. Unfortunately, he does not provide any more specific recommendations on this evening.

Typefaces in a digital context

Rausch has dedicated himself to the digital use of typography, which is opening up completely new areas of potential. In the analogue age, the typographer used specific content. In contrast, the digital design process uses code in order to define sets of rules for various types of content. Using Viki, an app he developed himself, Rausch shows how this can work; the digital encyclopaedia pulls data from Wikipedia and presents it in an optimised layout. “The whole typography is in a piece of code. You design a system,” explains Rausch. Search results, for example, appear as article previews with teasers in which the search term is highlighted. The formatting of tables has been adjusted for mobile devices ranging from the Apple Watch to the iPad Pro. The app also takes into account user-specific settings for font sizes on each device. Improved readability and a high density of information thus facilitate an efficient and enjoyable reading experience. Rausch’s prediction is that “algorithms will replace manual typography.” Rausch sees possibilities for adapting content automatically in detailed typography, too – in other words, the design of subtle typographical details. This would allow many everyday errors to be fixed very easily with code. For example, replacing straight quotation marks with curly ones, hyphens with dashes, adding a hair space before the colon here, a curvy apostrophe there – our post-typewriter era offers all of these possibilities according to Rausch, finally allowing experienced typographers to sleep again at night while offering improvements the casual reader will notice as well.

Personalised range of contrasts

As far as I was concerned, Rausch saved the best for last: the personalised reading experience. This does not mean selecting between normal, large or extra-large font sizes, but taking full advantage of the possibilities of context-sensitive devices. The sensors in modern smartphones detect brightness, temperature, humidity, distance from the user, position, direction, speed and acceleration or force of gravity. This set of tools means that we can already answer questions like, How far is the monitor from my eyes? Am I currently moving? Is it bright or dark? Quiet or loud? Where am I and how are my surroundings changing? Is it raining, for example? When an algorithm factors these questions into the presentation of text, the user’s reading experience can be improved significantly by adjusting contrast, colours, font size and spacing. “Good typography should be a top priority,” as Frank Rausch said at the beginning. During the subsequent Q&A session, one audience member asked how you make this apparent to the customer. “It is expert work,” says host Jürgen Siebert, throwing himself into the breach. “If it’s done well, it has an effect.” So algorithms on the one hand, expert work on the other. But with all these developments, it remains to be seen how much there will be for the experts to do.

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