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 Númenor. 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

On Twitter: Boing Boing & Glenn Fleishman.
Read more in Typography, Gadgets, & Books.

48 Responses to “Font swap in iBooks”

  1. Great post, Glenn, thanks. iBooks does indeed allow custom font embedding, via the web-standard @font-face CSS rule, in addition to these default options. In fact, iBooks’ support for modern CSS styling and other web standard technologies is the most advanced out of all reading systems (Kindle, Nook, etc), and Apple has consistently been the most standards-compliant in this regard.

    • Thanks for the correction. Oddly, I haven’t seen any specified-font books in iBooks yet. Licensing also remains an issue. If you read Adobe’s terms, FAQs, and discussions on their forums, for instance, it’s entirely unclear whether you need to pay separate licensing fees (or who).

      • They’re out there, but tend to be by smaller publishers, since the big six publishers mostly outsource ebook production. Conversion houses usually have boilerplate style sheets that do not include embedded fonts, since they’re shooting for the least amount of work for the lowest common denominator (which is currently Adobe Digital Editions, which does not support font embedding)

        You’re entirely correct about licensing issues—in fact, most licenses, as read, do not allow for use online (since you’re effectively copying a font file onto a client computer form a server every time you load a webpage, which is disallowed by the license for use in print).

        The solution has been that major type foundries have been supporting web font services like TypeKit (which Adobe actually bought earlier this year—many of the excellent Adobe Type Collection specimens are now available for use on TypeKit).

        This doesn’t, of course, solve the ebook problem, since ebooks have no network access, which is essential for services like TypeKit to work properly. What I’ve been doing is availing myself of the perfectly serviceable fonts at, which are all open source, and which, in addition to an online service, are also available as downloads for using on desktop publishing software (and inclusion in ebook files, natch).

        • This is a lovely explanation. It feels like there’s a gerbil in the wheel there trying to get out. I understand foundries don’t want to overlicense (provide free extensions to licenses without being able to recoup the lost revenue through, say, volume), and publishers probably don’t want to get stuck in per-book licensing agreements, since they don’t have to pay that for PDF or for print books, for that matter.

        • balagilles says:

          […] the big six publishers mostly outsource ebook production.

          I wonder where they outsource production… Probably in a country where nobody has even heard of accented letters or diacritics. In almost all the Agatha Christie books published by Barnes and Noble on iBooks, for instance, Poirot often speaks French and I see something like:

          C¸a alors, c`est e¯patant!

          instead of:

          Ça alors, c’est épatant !

        • franktisellano says:

          Check out the chapter headings in the Steve Jobs biography. I’m no expert, but they look like they’re set in either Didot or Bodoni.

  2. muddi900 says:

    I went to school for engineering, not typography/caligraphy. Ebooks should come with the typeset by publishers, not the users.

    • taintofevil says:

      It would be great if publishers put thought into the typesetting of ebooks, but for the most part they don’t.  Add in the possibility of direct releases by authors who may write well but not be designers, and being able to choose a different typeface seems desirable.

    • Rob says:

      There are different fonts for helping people with dyslexia, plus increased sizes for people with vision issues.

      How exactly should it be typeset?

      • The nice thing about font embedding in e-reading systems is that it can be over-ridden by the user. In iBooks, for example, a book with an embedded font will initially display as the publisher intends it (and while taintovevil is not entirely wrong—most publisher do have a long way to go with regards to general quality, let alone typesetting, of ebooks—some of us actually do approach ebook creation as a craft), but a user can override that and use system fonts (as well as re-size the font size to suit). Now, it’s up to e-reading system makers (Apple, Kindle, etc) to supply fonts that are friendly to the visually-impaired, and there, I agree, there is plenty of improvement to be had.

        • johndberry says:

          Pablo’s point is exactly right: an e-book needs to be designed with good defaults, including the choice of font, since most people will stick with the defaults and never change them. But since readers who want to can change the size or the font for their own reading, you have to design not just for one final form of the page, but for a flexible and dynamic “page” that won’t break when these changes get made. That’s what makes designing e-books so interesting (and so essential).

  3. RyanMcFitz says:

    I’m glad to hear they’ve got the subtleties of elegant typefaces addressed.  I hope that will free up some time so they can fix the fact that every time I try to look at a PDF, it immediately crashes to the home screen.

    • KvH says:

      I have 20+ PDFs in iBooks from many sources. None crash, on either the iPhone or iPad on open. Are you sure it’s not the source?

      • RyanMcFitz says:

        Nope.  Had a few reinstalls, but prob seems well-documented among users.  PDFs of all sizes (usually large) will bork it.

        Count yourself among the blessed.  In the meantime, I rely on Kindle & Stanza.

  4. jaime kaplan says:

    can I change the font in the ibooks notes feature (comic sans is my least fav. font).

  5. atimoshenko says:

    Love the layout of the article itself!

  6. How curious that none of those fonts seem to contain quotation marks or apostrophes.

    • Sadly, these are rich fonts, but the typesetting in the EPUB file used by the publisher lacks good typographic sophistication.

      • What a sad state of affairs that using basic punctuation correctly has come to be thought of as “typographic sophistication”. I wonder how long it will be before the use of capital letters is thought by the masses to be “elitist”.

        • nixiebunny says:

          Tee hee. He means that there are three quotation marks in the character set: opening, closing and generic. This document uses generic, ASCII 0×22, instead of the others, whose codes I cannot remember because my brain also lacks typographical sophistication.

          • retepslluerb says:

            Well, one doesn’t really need to know the codes as they are accessible from the keyboard by hitting the appropriate alt-key.

        • Oh, I don’t mean to be high-falutin’. We’re in the middle of the transition of a new form of typesetting again. I roll my eyes, as I’ve seen it all before. It starts badly, with type that’s not intended for the medium and bad kerning, tracking, leading, and the rest. It gets a little better, and you start seeing sprouts of the previous generations poke their heads through. Then you enter a period of “sophistication,” by which I mean, “things look almost as good as they did in 1863,” and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

          Until the next “revolution.”

    • Jonathan Van Matre says:

      The fonts have these features. The sample document is not making use of them.

  7. quickbrownfox says:

    That’s good to know. I too was wondering why such otherwise-pretty typefaces would lack proper quotation marks.

    • I was joking; Monday morning snark. Tis a rare typeface that does not contain a full compliment of standard punctuation. Typically only the crappiest five dollar fonts lack such basics. Ligatures and extensive symbol sets might only be found in fonts from decent foundries, but seeing inch marks used in place of quotation marks can safely be assumed to be a shortcoming of the person running the keyboard, not the typeface.

  8. sussed says:

    I always though that the iBook had some real trouble with kerning and word spacing particularly in sizes of 10 point or greater.  (I’m dyslexic so this these kind of issues really stand our for me as my eye will ‘stutter’ on words with poor kerning and big spaces between words)
    I havent seen the changes brought on by this update yet.  Anyone know if their were any tweaks made in these areas with this new version?Great article btw.

  9. “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.”

    Terrible, terrible, terrible idea.

  10. foobar says:

    I really don’t want publishers to have the option to fiddle with fonts in ebooks. Some will take the time (and money) to do a good job, but the vast majority will not and any value gained from the former will be offset many times over by the latter.

    The device maker should set good defaults, and give the user the option to override them if they wish. Publishers should be handcuffed because they will muck it up.

  11. Joe Wicentowski says:

    For anyone who can’t tell from context what font is shown for each image (captions would help!), here they are in order: 1.
    Athelas 2. Charter 3. Iowan 4. Seravek. 

    Glenn – would you consider doing a piece exploring the new “pop-up footnotes” in 1.5?  I haven’t seen anyone cover that at all — even a screenshot.  Thanks.

  12. chasingtheflow says:

    Thanks for the awesome read. I’ve recently lamented the lack of a knowing critique of the ebook font situation. However, I cannot help but be left wondering what font did you settle on for your iPad? iPhone? I’d also be interested to hear @twitter-7445912:disqus ’s opinion.

  13. gdieken says:

    Here’s a video of  Iowan designer John Downer at work as a sign painter: . I recall John saying while he was working on the roman face that it was inspired by the lettering of a local stone carver.

    • That’s fascinating. Semi-related, I was on tap to write about the stonecutting work of John Everett Benson on the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in D.C. for U&lc (edited by John Berry!) when that publication ceased appearing in print.

  14. As an aside – if we’re all going to be snobs about our chosen passions, then your “Middle Earth” should be spelled “Middle-earth”.

    You’re welcome. :)

  15. dbarton says:

    Can you please explain what it means for type to be “crabbed”?

    P.S. I wish the rest of the web could be laid out like this page. So clean and neat. Almost makes you want to respect the opinions of others…

  16. name less says:

    So, you mean Athelas IS elegant in print, despite your misuse of the word “despite”?

  17. Jerrold Maddox says:

    I often read long articles in Clearly from Evernote – it uses PT Serif, a free font – and looks very much like your site, both a pleasure to read.

  18. lacertacz says:

    Charter in iBooks can not display unicode characters (letters with diacritics) – it substitutes them with some ugly bigger sans-serif letters. Useless, broken.

  19. lacertacz says:

    A photo can show it better than words:

  20. Well, Charter can show SOME accented characters, but not all. It includes some but not all of the Latin Extended-A range. From the looks of that sample, it follows the “Mac OS Roman” standard set. Let Apple know it’s not enough!

  21. Henk Gianotten says:

    There are no official standards for character sets in use. Adobe tried to establish a Std and Pro standard for OpenType fonts but only the name seems to be standardized. The content of Pro fonts may differ a lot. Microsoft tried to standardize on WGL. It would be an improvement if Apple would standardize on the character sets of their iBook fonts and would communicate on that subject in their documentation. 

  22. Nice piece. Thanks for updating those of us who care but can’t always investigate ourselves.

    Typographic sophistication needs software sophistication for ibooks and epub. So far we have not been very impressed. Justified type is always pathetic and italic is another weak point. Addressing these basic hinting and spacing issues are essential to make the experience all it could be in print.

  23. MightyLeader says:

    Regarding embedded fonts, the Jobs biography uses one, it comes up in the list as ‘Original’.
     I thought it a nice touch to retain the same typography as the physical title.

  24. YouWorkForThem just launched Mobile App and eBook Font licensing last month, the first vendor to do this on such a large scale (over 8,000 fonts):

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