Apple Watch typeface San Francisco has been rolled out across devices through the iOS9 update
Apple Watch typeface San Francisco has been rolled out across devices through the iOS9 update
A view from Nadine Chahine

Engaging the growing wearable audience one 'glance' at a time

Smaller screens on wearables means brands must rethink how they create interactive, legible and engaging content, and why glances could become valuable commodities, says Nadine Chahine, UK type director and legibility expert at Monotype.

Fitness bands and activity trackers first gave rise to the digital wearables market – and now smartwatches are starting to take the lead in terms of adoption. Business Intelligence (BI) estimates that the global wearables market will grow 35% over the next five years, reaching 148m shipped units annually by 2019 – up from 33m units shipped this year. BI expects the smartwatch segment to grow from 59% of total wearable device shipments this year to 70% by 2019.

That’s a lot of really small screens positioned at arm’s length from view, vying for the world’s glances. Glances that are looking at things like the time, an email, a text, an Instagram page or the latest stock update. It’s conceivable we’ll be checking our smartwatch hundreds of times a day, much like our smartphones, which rack up some 150 of our glances every day, according to research published by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Going small to meet the lifestyle needs of tech-savvy consumers will undoubtedly give brands and advertisers a new way to engage consumers. Every new screen represents a way for advertisers to reach consumers with a message. But all these screens also bring new challenges for marketers keen to tap into the opportunity. People must be able to quickly and accurately read what they see in mere milliseconds – no matter how small the screen. Anything less is a failure. Legibility – with quick glances in mind – is key to winning in the wearables space. So, before brands and advertisers embark on the next big frontier of reaching consumers, they need to consider just how that message will appear.

Highly legible type

Advertisers need to ensure that legibility is never compromised. The text needs to be as easy to read as possible, even at the smallest sizes. The Apple Watch, for example, uses a typeface called San Francisco, which was designed by Apple to help maximise legibility on the watch’s small display. At large sizes, the font’s slightly condensed letters take up less horizontal space. At small sizes, letters are spaced more loosely and shaped more openly, so people can read in split-second glances. Since introducing this font for the Watch, Apple has recently made it available across all of its devices to help with readability, through its iOS 9 software update.

Other tech leaders like Microsoft and Google have also championed legibility. For example, the Open Sans font, created for Google, was designed to be highly legible in a wide range of applications. A hugely popular open source font, Open Sans garners tens of billions of views on Google Fonts on a weekly basis.

Adjustable text settings

It sounds obvious, but the writing and images that a brand uses need to be easy on the eyes, have impact and, of course, be legible. Designers need to understand a client’s ultimate objective and recognise that one size does not fit all. For smartwatches, the distance from the eyes to the wrist is governed by the length of the forearm, so the size of the text in relation to the distance from the eyes is important. With that in mind, adjustable text settings are advised so that consumers can modify their text size to ensure a comfortable, accurate read. For example, older people may want text to appear bigger than younger consumers require.

Brand personality

An advertiser must keep in mind that the type needs to reflect the brand’s personality. Is it corporate or quirky? Is it curves or straight lines, bold letters or something more subtle? Although it’s critical for the type to be legible on small screens, it still needs to speak with the brand’s voice. Southwest Airlines unveiled a rebrand last year featuring a customised, brand-identity typeface – Southwest Sans – that’s warm in tone and aims to speak with an authentic, human voice. The new typeface was also designed with open forms and simplified shapes to make it easier to take in words at a glance.

Choice of words

Brands must also give careful consideration to their choice of words when advertising and communicating any messages on a small screen. Consumers expect the message of an ad to be apparent at a glance, with little or no work on their part. Lengthier words take longer to read. By using short, effective words, a brand can shave off seconds from the time it takes to communicate. If a word appears frequently, the reader will understand it faster. The challenge for every advertiser is how to grab that competitive edge, using the right words, while staying true to the brand’s personality and tone of voice.

A glance into the future…

So what does all this mean? We’re likely to see glances become more valued and recognised as a precious commodity. Maybe through sensor technology that monitors eye movements, digital screens could draw glances to specific areas of advertising, where advertisers might bid a higher price for the reader’s attention. Conceptually, this is quite similar to the methods used to sell digital advertising today. It’s important that advertisers and brands become well-equipped to make the best typographic decisions to successfully balance aesthetic appeal and performance – and make the most of consumers’ darting attention.

Marketers need to ensure, glance by glance, that the power of a brand – along with the consumer’s thirst for information – cuts through the ever-increasing volume of information. In this way, glances may very well become the new currency of the age.