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  • 04.14.10

What the iPad Is Missing (No, It’s Not a Camera)

With the iPad’s messy type skills, Stephen Coles wonders if Apple cares about typography anymore.

iPad typography

I’m not an iPad naysayer. I forked over $700 on the first day of
pre-ordering and my iPad hasn’t left my side, day or night, since it
arrived. I’m with those who see the device and its new
approach to computing as an exciting step forward, especially for media
delivery. The possibilities for reviving the magazine and newspaper
industries are exciting and real.

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Yet it’s exactly that part of media consumption, reading,
that reveals what’s missing on the iPad: good typography.

Signs that type took a backseat in the iPad’s development were clear
back in January when Steve Jobs demoed the device, revealing just four uninspired and
uninformed font options
in iBooks. Apple also went with full justification
without hyphenation, learning nothing from the Kindle’s
spacing woes
. These decisions were small or unnoticeable to the
millions of future iPad buyers watching the announcement. But they stuck
out like a sore thumb to typographers, whose job it is to make small,
unnoticeable decisions that make text easier and more enjoyable to read.
For those of us who hoped that a device meant for reading would be
designed for reading, with all the typographic details well-considered
and implemented, the announcement was disappointing.

Disappointing, but not surprising. Apple has made some puzzling
decisions over the last few years that leave one wondering if they
really care about typography as much as they did in the 1980s when the
Mac launched the desktop publishing revolution. As recently as 2005,
Steve Jobs made typography a central theme of his commencement
address
to Stanford grads, but his actions as the almighty head of
Apple haven’t followed suit.

Lucida GrandeThe
string of odd missteps began with the release of Mac OS
X. Amid a bunch bundled fonts, most of which are not worth mentioning,
the system came with Lucida Grande, an
excellent screen-optimized version of Kris Holmes’ Lucida
Sans
. The clean, readable face, contemporary but fairly neutral,
was used throughout the OS X interface and
embraced by Web designers (along with its Windows equivalent Lucida Sans
Unicode) as their go-to family for small text. Yet, to this day, there
is no Lucida Grande italic. I can’t explain why, and neither has anyone
at Apple. This is the short and simple reason why sites like Facebook
don’t use italic. If you design with Lucida your options for emphasis
and hierarchy are limited to size and weight. Meanwhile, Microsoft–the
company that traditionally eats Apple’s dust in design–worked with
some of the world’s best type designers to develop the ClearType fonts, six
complete families designed specifically for the screen.

A lack of Lucida italic could be considered a mild irritant, but
Apple’s typographic neglect in OS X ran
deeper. The system came with a font manager that was, until recently,
the least reliable software bundled with a Mac. Even now it has has a
reputation that contradicts Apple’s high customer satisfaction. Tweets
about “Font Book” are often accompanied with the words “sucks” and “hate.”

Then came the iPhone, its fantastic display with a high pixel-density
enabled legible type at small sizes. But Apple essentially erased that
potential by choosing Helvetica
as the iPhone’s system font. Sure, Helvetica is a graphic designer’s
favorite, but its closed forms and tight spacing hinder reading,
especially when small. It was a classic style-over-substance decision.
The even more egregious spit in the face of readability was forcing
Marker Felt
users of the Notes app. More often than not, Apple’s
recent decisions about type either ignore its importance or value form
over function.

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The iPad represents a new opportunity to reverse this trend. A device
designed for media consumption could validate Apple’s dedication to
design by emphasizing design’s most basic element: typography. But so
far, it flops. Here’s what’s missing:

Typography on iPad

1. Missing in iBooks: Ragged Right Alignment and Hyphenation
This is Typography 101. You don’t need to be a full-time glyph geek to
know what full justification without hyphenation does to spacing and
readability. Of course, resizable text can’t benefit from all the
careful spacing and line break adjustments traditionally made by a book
designer, but the least an automated system can do is prevent wordspace
rivers wide enough to sail a tanker through. This was one of the more
obvious ways in which Apple could have one-upped the Kindle and they
dropped the ball.

2. Missing in iBooks: Orphan/Widow Prevention, Proper
Handling of Tables and Line Breaks

Liz
Castro
is documenting
how iBooks potentially mangles tables, ignores page breaks, and
mishandles text wrapping around images. It’s possible that some of these
issues can be addressed by the ePub author, but it sounds like iBooks
could be more intelligent with documents that weren’t designed to
display in such a narrow column widths.

3. Missing in iBooks: “Embeddable” Fonts
ePub
supports
downloadable OpenType and
TrueType fonts via @font-face, but the iBooks app does not. As one
commenter
rightly condemns:

The lack of support for embedded fonts is a catastrophic
failure. It’s a massive black mark against Apple for anyone who’s
interested in seeing publishers improve the standard of ePubs.

4. Missing in iBooks: Font Options that Work for Books
Typography on the iPadIf you’re not
going to let the publisher/book designer select the book’s typeface–and Sam
Wieck explains
why that alone is wrought with problems–the user’s
options better be good. Unfortunately Apple offers just five: Baskerville
(Monotype), Cochin,
Palatino,
Times
New Roman
, and Verdana.
Of these, I’d say Palatino is the only legitimate choice for reading a
book on a screen. Some cuts of Baskerville work well in print, but its
weight is far too uneven for text in pixels. Cochin reeks of a decision
made by someone gawking at pretty letters rather than diving into pages
of text. The Web learned long ago that Times New Roman doesn’t work for
text type on-screen. And Verdana? Maybe for an IKEA
catalog…

What would I offer instead? Minion,
FF Scala, Dante,
Garamond
have all proven
themselves in print. And the more sturdy of these
alternative typefaces for book design
would perform better than
Apple’s selection.

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This is only conjecture, but it feels like Apple decided to save some
cash on font licensing by relying on the same old Linotype fonts
they’ve bundled with their machines for years. If that’s the case, why
not go with Hoefler
Text
which is already installed on the iPad? And the strangest
omission of them all: Georgia,
the father of all screen serifs and far better than any of the iBooks
options.

Unlike Apple, Amazon clearly did their research here. PMN Caecilia isn’t well known outside the
typorati, but it’s one of the more readable typefaces ever designed and
its low stroke contrast and slab serifs serve the Kindle very well.

Typography on iPad

5. Missing in iPhone/iPad OS: a
Legible, Flexible UI Font

Helvetica wasn’t a failure on the iPhone because the display’s high
pixel density kept the letterforms clear. But the PPI
on the iPad is significantly lower. I haven’t seen much that borders on
illegibility, but relying on Helv limits the range of font sizes an app
developer can use. Go below 12px and things get muddy (the numbers at
the bottom of this Calendar view, for example). Our friend Lucida, on
the other hand, which shines at small sizes, isn’t included on the iPad.

6. Missing in Pages: Accessible Text Options
Typography on iPadI’m impressed with
how easy it is to make a nice looking document in Pages. But you better
like its templates and default styles, because customizing the type is a
bit of a chore. Font selection is buried behind a few taps and a
scroll, and changing the font size requires a tedious tap for each
single point up or down. It’s all surprisingly un-Mac-like.

7. Missing in Mobile Safari: True @font-face Support
Contrary to some reports, the iPad does support CSS
font linking via @font-face, but it’s limited to SVG. There are many reasons why SVG isn’t a legitimate font format–stability and
selectability, for example–but the most important is that a majority
of font makers have already settled on WOFF or services like Typekit
as their format of choice. This blasts developers back to those dark
ages (a few months ago) when there were very few professional fonts available
for embedding
. Typekit is working
on a solution
, but its not ready for prime time.

So, Webfonts are out. Fortunately there’s a much longer list
of fonts installed on the iPad
compared to the iPhone/iPod Touch,
but very few of them are very interesting or practical for modern Web
and app design.

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Typography on iPad

8. Missing in Notes: Font Options
The Notes app on the iPad is still stuck in silly Marker Felt land!

On April 8, Apple held an event to preview iPhone OS 4, the next version of the operating system that runs the iPhone, iPad Touch, and iPad. I prayed to Lord Jobs that there would be nuggets of typographic improvement in that announcement. My prayers were unanswered. Of course, it could be that the small details–though important to typographers and, typically, to Apple–aren’t really stage presentation material. I hold out hope that some of the “100+ New User Features” and “1500 new APIs” in iPhone OS 4 do address some of the issues above. With so many manufacturers, publishers, designers, and developers following Apple’s lead, the state of typography in a world of digital media may depend on it.

Republished with permission from The FontFeed.

Read Stephen Coles’ blog Typography
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

Stephen Coles is a designer and writer based in San Francisco. His obsession with type and lettering wreaks havoc in his daily life where he is routinely tripped by fire hydrants while admiring vintage signs. Fortunately, his freakishness found a home at FontShop where he writes about their collection and advises clients on typeface choices. When he’s not waxing poetic about new fonts, Stephen publishes the blogs Typographica and The Mid-Century Modernist. He is currently dating FF Tisa after breaking off a long and passionate affair with Motter Femina.

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