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FUTURE TYPE: Using the History of Typography to Inform the Future of UI


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Presented at FITC Toronto 2017
More info at

Presented by Michelle Cortese, Refinery29


With the rising popularity of immersive media, we’ll need to rethink UI standards around a new modality. As communication becomes more gestural, conversational, and less typographic, we will need to ensure it does not become abstract. In a world threatened by fake news, ensuring a future of clear, nuanced, and truthful communication will be incredibly important.

This talk unpacks a condensed history of typography and justifies why said history can be used as a jumping off point for designing the future of user interfaces. We will discuss how to reconsider typographic history—and the nuances of phonetic letterforms—when inventing new user interfaces for a future of modular, invisible, and alternate reality devices.


Delve into the history of typography as a means to unpack potential upcoming conventions for the future of UI.

Target Audience

UI-focused designers, developers, and thinkers currently working in emerging media spaces.

Assumed Audience Knowledge

General awareness of tools and standards in the present UI landscape.

Five Things Audience Members Will Learn

The history of the phonetic alphabet
How that history is connected to the modern GUI
Why the connection between the synthesis of the phonetic alphabet and the design of your phone’s GUI is important
How this information can be used to foster design thinking as we try to redesign UI standards around a future of modular, invisible, & alternate reality devices
Specific frameworks to organize and streamline our thinking in regards to the future of UI

Published in: Design
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FUTURE TYPE: Using the History of Typography to Inform the Future of UI

  1. 1.
  2. 2. We’re going to explore Why the history of typography can be used as a jumping off point for designing the future of UI. How to reconsider the nuances of phonetic letterforms and adapt them to gestural, conversational, immersive UI; in preparation for a future of modular, wearable, and alternate reality devices.
  3. 3. yay! I want to walk you through something that is the inspiration behind all of my thinking as a UX/UI designer, technologist, and futurist. Here’s some of my work.
  4. 4. The history of typography as a thought starter for the future of UI. PART
  5. 5. Today’s latin alphabet is actually a 2000+ year old invention of war. Arguably, the best one we ever invented. & That should change the way you look at your iphone.
  6. 6. Eventually, the Greeks dominated, took the alphabet, expanded on it, then were succeeded by the Romans who took the alphabet, expanded on it, etc.
  7. 7. BOOM. You have the Latin alphabet. FUN FACT Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek scripts all descended from Phoenician.
  8. 8. So, it’s v late BC and the Romans need a symbol for Libra Pondo, aka “pound in weight.” So they start drawing a little “l” and a “b” with bar across the tops of both letters. As scribes started writing faster, the symbol morphed into #.
  9. 9. pound In 1968, Bell Labs had a design problem: the keypad on their newly designed touch tone phone looked weird. In response, they added keys to either side of the zero, making the keypad a nice even rectangle.
  10. 10. The hashtag, as we know it, was born one day in 2007. An early Twitter user named Chris Messina, in anticipation of an event called BarCamp, tweeted out: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups?” Spoiler: people were into it. And they continued use it, leading Twitter to eventually fold the feature into their product.
  11. 11. lb → pound → hastag
  12. 12. All those texts on your phone—they’re just representations of sounds. Knowing the lineage of Phoenician letterforms is important (to us practicers of Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin-based languages) because it helps us remember what the purpose of UI text really is.
  13. 13. In a world of fake news, the future of understandable, clear, nuanced, and truthful communication is going to be incredibly important.
  14. 14. How to reconsider nuances of phonetic letterforms for a future of modular, wearable, & alternate reality devices. PART
  15. 15. “As more and more products become completely virtual—from chatbots to 3D projections to immersive environments— we’ll look to a new generation of virtual interaction designers to create experiences driven by conversation, gesture, and light” — FA S T C O D E S I G N
  16. 16. sooo.... It means we are the ones who get to scope the parameters and test the potential interactive standards for the future of UI. And that’s an exciting and freeing sentiment. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR US FUTURISTS, INNOVATORS, TECHNOLOGISTS, AND CREATORS?
  17. 17. And how do we use this information?
  18. 18. It’s a codified communication visualization invented to subvert travel plans. It exists in its current form factor because of a history of accidents and random decisions. Imagine if Apple’s two-finger zoom was a button that just said “ZOOM” on it. It would suck. And how do we use this information? By remembering that text isn’t nature.
  19. 19. Every interaction has a core need resting below it.
  20. 20. but.... What is the present set of communication needs? What new standards can we test? How do we strategize converting the nuances of phonetic letterforms to immersive UI? What complex methods and frameworks do we have today to experiment with? ???
  21. 21. strategy So how do we strategize converting the nuances of phonetic letterforms to immersive UI? What complex methods and frameworks do we have today to experiment with? I’ve broken it down to framing this thinking into two types of next-gen interfaces: OUI & NUI.
  22. 22. Natural User Interface Natural user interfaces focus on doing. Interactions are satisfying physical metaphors. The interaction feels fluid, direct and organic. NUI users feel as though they are directly and physically manipulating digital content. Sans-text graphical interfaces Universally understandable iconography Turning gestures into triggers Physical actions over textual or verbal commands Creating satisfaction through tangibility and presence Considering the body’s natural inclination for communication to convey linguistic complexities Tailoring the scale of the gesture to the intention Creating comfort with organic interfaces Manipulation of the actual physical shape or position of a device to control it Body as button to foster interactive intimacy Flexible displays and malleable sensors for personalization and ergonomics ELEMENTS TO EMPLOY & CONSIDER
  23. 23. S A N S - T E X T G R A P H I C A L I N T E R F A C E S
  24. 24. T U R N I N G G E S T U R E S I N T O T R I G G E R S
  25. 25. C O M F O R T V I A O R G A N I C M A T E R I A L S
  26. 26. Zero User Interface Zero UI describes speech-based, screen-less interfaces that get to the root of our communication. These interfaces are invisible, personal and adaptive. According to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the future of devices will be the end of devices: “We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.” Creating satisfying feedback systems Haptics as a means of confirmation and presence Movement as button/trigger Applying traditional physical buttons/triggers modularly and sparingly Conversationality Broad vocabulary and situational relevance Necessary level of AI needed for interaction in question Machine learning for adaptivity Consistent UI across connected objects Ensuring a consistent voice, mood, and interaction points ELEMENTS TO EMPLOY & CONSIDER
  27. 27. questions ?