You’re probably sick of the Arial font, even if you don’t know it. As the default Gmail font—known as “sans-serif” in the Gmail interface—it’s the medium through which you’ve received years of spam, bills, entreaties from needy family members, and demands from bosses and colleagues.
Now the reign of Arial may be coming to a close. Earlier this week, The Verge and Android Authority reported that they’d obtained internal Google emails about an impending Gmail redesign. The Gmail product, despite (or perhaps because of) its popularity and ubiquity, hasn’t been redesigned since 2011, eons in internet years. The expected facelift appears to include a number of functional changes, including a “snooze” feature,that will temporarily remove a selected email from your inbox and then return later, and more unified integration with Google Calendar.
But for font nerds, the big news is about the display. The Gmail interface font (menu items, for example) will change from Arial to Product Sans, while the default font for email and messages will change from Arial to Roboto. Both Product Sans and Roboto are fonts created by Google, and, if the leaked redesign comes to fruition, they’ll be a welcome change.
Product Sans is a Futura-like font that Google designed in 2015 for branding purposes; you may recognize it from the current Google logo, which replaced the old, serif-font logo also in 2015. Roboto resembles Arial or Helvetica; Google has been iterating on the font since 2011. It’s 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 will be a relatively light design touch for things like headers and menus, but Roboto will impact the majority of words that hundreds of millions of people read every day. So it’s worth thinking about how our digital experiences of Gmail will change now that Arial’s out and Roboto’s in.
Both Arial and Roboto are modern-feeling, sans-serif fonts, and, letter by letter, they are fairly similar. Roboto does have a few small changes at the individual character level. The upper-case “Q” (Arial on the left, Roboto on the right) is probably the biggest change:
Another noticeable change is to the line in the dollar sign:
Other character-level changes include switching out a square dot on the lower-case “i” and “j,” as well as the question mark, with a circular dot:
But really the biggest difference is in character spacing. Roboto’s characters are thinner than Arial, leaving more white space between each letter:
Character spacing may seem trivial , but it makes a huge difference in the feel of long blocks of text. I’m an editor who works primarily in Google Docs, where Arial is also the default font, and the first thing I do when I receive a new document is change the font I find Arial cramped and claustrophobic; I have a rotating set of fonts I use instead, including Roboto, a few others with even wider natural tracking, like my current favorite, Nunito. Below, from top to bottom, are Arial, Roboto, and Nunito:
For most people, the difference between Arial and Roboto will show up most acutely on smartphones. Google’s Gmail decision is indicative of a broader shift by technology platform companies away from the familiar fonts of the desktop age—Arial and Helvetica prime among them—and toward new fonts designed specifically for mobile.
Google was actually 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 didn’t look quite right when phone screen definition began to improve rapidly. Roboto was Google’s next effort; the first iteration of Roboto was released in 2011, and over the next few years, the company tweaked it until it landed, in 2015, on the version widely in use across its Android mobile operating systems.
Meanwhile, Apple released its own mobile-friendly sans-serif font, San Francisco, in 2014. By now, Helvetica Neue and Lucida Grande have been more or less entirely replaced by San Francisco as the default on Apple’s macOS and iOS. Apple, just like Google, went towards a taller, skinnier font with more breathing room (Helvetica Neue on the top, San Francisco on the bottom):
Not everyone likes these mobile-first fonts. They tend to be a bit curvier—both Google and Apple have called their fonts “friendlier”—than their predecessors, which some designers say makes them harder to read. Design critics have specifically derided Roboto as an Arial rip-off, and initial public reaction to San Francisco was decidedly negative (though designers seemed to be at least okay with it). I for one welcome the invasion of airier, lighter-weight type.
Whatever your opinion, you will feel these Valley-designed operating system fonts on some level. Unlike your choice to use Garamond on your resume, or the new coffee shop’s decision to have their sign done up in Bodoni, Google’s selection of Arial has been washing over you every day, multiple times a day, for years. Now it’s time to bathe in Roboto.