Font swap in iBooks

By Glenn Fleishman

Apple is a cipher, and its reasons for making changes often a mystery. A couple of days ago, the company updated its iBooks software for iOS devices to version 1.5, and added a de-skeuomorphizing full-screen mode (making the page similar to a Kindle display), a night-time reading color theme, and nicer covers for free, public-domain books. The release notes mention four new fonts, all superb choices, but avoid the fact that three less-loved fonts were removed.

iBooks shipped for the iPad in 2010 with five font choices: Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Verdana. When the small-screen version for the iPod touch and iPhone appeared, so did Georgia in iBooks 1.1. Few of these choices made sense as screen-reading fonts, even when Apple's densified its small screens with "retina" displays with four times the pixels in the same area.

Yes, I'm a font snob. And if you go down into my basement, you'll find a shelf full of monographs on Hermann Zapf, Jan Tschichold, and other others. But I'm not a snob about only choosing fonts from particular designers. Rather, choosing the right font for the right task. Apple seemingly tasked an intern working on a degree in graphic design for offset printing to pick the random assortment in iBooks. It's not that they are bad; on the contrary. They are mostly maladroit. Faces read on a screen need to have the right proportions and nature to work within the constraints and particulars of that medium.

Cochin (adapted and expanded upon by Matthew Carter) is too decorative for this purpose. It has a beautiful and slightly eccentric italic that I love, and have used on projects in print, but which is illegible at otherwise readable sizes on screen. Times New Roman (attributed to Stanley Morison) is crabbed, and meant to work on cheap paper at small sizes. It's only a modern standby because of the historical accident of Apple choosing it for early LaserWriter printers. Verdana (Carter) is a solid Web font, but wider than appropriate for portrait views, and not intended for this sort of reading. Baskerville (a classic face) was absurd on screen: it's a subtle collection of thicks, thins, and curves that don't read on a display.

I've always liked reading type in Georgia, however, which, like Verdana, was designed by Carter for Microsoft as part of the first Web-native screen font set. (Carter started with bitmaps and then drew outlines for both faces. He then worked closely with an expert in hinting, the art of fitting curves to bitmaps, to ensure a pixel-perfect fit.) Palatino (Hermann Zapf) is also acceptable in this version; it was also an early LaserWriter font, so it brings back some happy memories. It's regular enough to work.

The release of iBooks 1.5 offers an interesting swap out. My three least favorite fonts for reading on screen were removed: Baskerville, Cochin, and Verdana have been erased from the list. Only the dread Times New Roman remains alongside Georgia and Palatino. Added into the mix are four other faces: Athelas, Charter, Iowan, and Seravek. Only one of these I was familiar with. (Charter is from Carter, so he lost Verdana and Cochin which puts him down only one, if you're keeping score. I kid, as of the four faces in past and current iBooks, he might receive royalties only on Cochin, and then potentially just as a one-time payment.)

Since you're reading Boing Boing, I don't have to tell you that Athelas is named after what the common folk in Middle Earth called "kingsfoil," a healing herb when crushed and attended to by a true king of NĂºmenor. Anyway. It's a gorgeous and relatively recently designed face, the winner of a couple of significant awards in 2006 and 2008, and holds up well onscreen, despite its elegance in print.1

Charter is 25 years old, and one of the early non-Adobe faces that was designed to work on relatively low-resolution laser printers. The 300 ppi density of a laser printer is coincidentally close to the current highest screen densities on smartphones from many makers. Perhaps not a coincidence. Charter "sits big on the body," as we snobs like to say, which means that its x height (the vertical dimension from baseline to the top of a lowercase x) is quite close to the full capital height. This makes a face seem larger at any given numeric size (measured in the archaic unit of points, 72 to an inch) than comparable fonts that have more balance between capitals and lowercase. Bitstream (a type foundry co-founded by Carter) donated the face in 1992 to the X Consortium.

Iowan, a 1990 Bitstream foundry face designed by a sign painter and letterer, has never been on my radar. My friend John D. Berry explains in a 2001 essay perhaps why that's so. Iowan was released at a time when type sophistication was on the rise in the desktop-publishing world, and the font wasn't fully fleshed out until 2000 with old-style (also called upper-and-lowercase) figures, and other doodads that print designers like to create harmonious designs. It seems an odd choice for a screen face, but I have to say it works. It's also big on the body, and has both thick-enough strokes and enough visual interest (the slanting strokes on the tops of the lowercase serifs) to make it easy to read over long passages.

I like Seravek, the only sans serif added, because it's quirky. It has that nifty uplift on the lower-case L, which provides a little extra horizontal space than a traditional straight vertical, useful in screen reading. It has something in common with Gill Sans, although shed of the thins and thicks and super-quirks in Gill. It's new enough, released in 2007, to work in print and on high-resolution displays as well.

Of course, the ultimate solution to fonts in ebook readers and ereading software is to allow embeddable and downloadable fonts. Let readers choose the fonts they want to use from the sets of free options from Google, Microsoft, and others, and let publishers include as an option the typefaces that they believe best suit a book's design.

Licensing is part of the problem. If a print designer distributes a PDF with embedded fonts, most font licenses (for for-fee fonts) encompass this use, because the font is an integral part of the PDF. The EPUB format documents used in most ebook readers and apps (except Amazon, which uses MOBI, and is soon moving to some HTML5-like solution) is an XML specification, and is more akin to a Web page.

Many services now offer live Web fonts referenced into a Web page using a combination of JavaScript and CSS. One could expect this to happen with ebooks, as well, allowing the return of more sophisticated typography to this medium. As someone who has worked professionally through at least three revolutions in type and typesetting (optical, DTP, and Web/ebook), I wait impatiently each time for technology to catch up with the book arts. (Correction: iBooks does allow fonts to be packaged and referenced, but it's a little convoluted, and licensing remains an issue in any case.)

At least in making these font trades in iBooks 1.5, Apple has somehow empowered some group within the company to make more appropriate decisions regarding type. If we're lucky, that power will spread further, and we can regain a richer typographic history in modern clothes.

Posted Dec. 11, 2011

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