Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
There’s been a lot of hoopla lately about two recent typographic improvements to major e-reading environments, Kindle’s new Bookerly typeface and the Literata font for Google Play Books.
Commentators have tossed around celebratory remarks like, “the Kindle finally gets typography that doesn’t suck” and “e-readers rejoice!” But many of us in the cheap seats—that is to say, the production business—have been snorting and expressing our deep skepticism about these typographical “innovations.”
Still, I wanted to check my own curmudgeonly reaction with someone whose eye for type is more sophisticated than mine. Charles Nix is a senior designer at Monotype, and in 2014 he gave a wonderful talk at ebookcraft in which he referred to a new phenomenon called “Ebook Stockholm Syndrome.”
In a marketplace where design and typographic finesse have been largely absent from a depressingly high percentage of what goes on sale, and where well-designed ebooks swim against a mighty stream of poorly QA-ed titles, many readers have come to expect their ebooks to resemble what I’ve heard referred to as “Web sites from 1998” (David Blatner, at PePcon 2013).
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So maybe the bar has been set low, but do Google’s Literata and Amazon’s Bookerly really up the typography game in a revolutionary way?
“The ebook environment challenges the fundamentals of legibility,” Nix says, which it then becomes the task of capable designers to correct.
As mobile e-reading continues to rise, challenges are only growing more acute. Particularly on e-ink e-readers and many smartphones (including phablets like the popular iPhone 6), the available line length is relatively short. “No amount of finessing will make justified type work well on a short measure [line length]. There just aren’t enough characters on the line to play the game of distributing space and hyphenating words,” Nix explains. Yet on the Kindle, where full justification is the default, smooth, agreeable typography is, well, just not possible—new font or otherwise.
Nix suggests that offering a new typeface choice “is a band-aid” solution to these bigger constraints. And default justification combined with poor hyphenation dictionaries (I’ve seen “o’cl-ock” hyphenated just like that recently!) are just two of the most obvious the culprits.
Alternatively, Nix says, setting the type “flush left/ragged right by default and more or less eliminating hyphenation on words less than seven characters long (and then with a minimum of three characters before or after a hyphen) would more directly address the problem of poor text setting” on many e-reading devices. (Have a look at this Fast Company article touting the innovation of Bookerly, and you’ll notice one of the screenshots—presumably supplied by Amazon—shows four hyphens in a row.)
And as for the goal of placing a well-aligned drop cap at the start of each chapter, Nix adds, “Proper alignment of drop caps is a fifteenth (possibly sixteenth) century problem. I have just as much use for a fool-proof recipe for royal icing!”
I recently had occasion to open my mother’s e-reader to see what she was reading, and I nearly threw it across the room like a hot potato because I was so surprised by the state of it. She had blown up the size of the text—certainly part of her reader’s bill of rights—but this caused terrible gappy holes to appear.
As Nix rightly points out and my mother’s e-reader attests, “justifying on a short measure is the worst of both worlds: terrible word spacing and bad breaks coupled with staccato bursts of words (thought fragments)”—like an accidental e e cummings poem.
But apart from these typographical infelicities borne of shoddy decision-making under hardware constraints, there’s the more broadly problematic idea that one font will work well for every single kind of ebook.
This notion really just throws book design out the window by dispensing with any halfway nuanced appreciation of the content—something that should make any author or publisher recoil as well. Just as all print books are not typeset in the same font, so their digital counterparts should be afforded the same basic considerations.
It is wonderful that Amazon and Google are putting effort and energy into digital typography, and their newest Bookerly and Literata additions are most welcome. Really. But we do need a splash of cold water on the plaudits they’re receiving for doing so. There is still a lot of work to do.