Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Why Beautiful Typography is Pixel-Indpendent.

Khoi Vinh a typographer/designer who works for the New York Times has recently delivered some fascinating comments on design for books and magazines and the iPad and the new iPhone. Here is a quote from yesterday's blog:


Creating a beautiful display and patting yourself on the back for having good typography is disingenuous, I think. It’s a little like saying a high-definition television set makes for better television shows; an absurd claim at best.

That metaphor is imperfect, of course, because television manufacturers have nothing to do with the content that appears on their devices or with its production. But that, supposedly, is the unique value that Apple claims to offer: they build the whole widget. Not just the hardware and not just the software, but the divine unification of the two into transcendent commercial products.

Steve Jobs’ vision for Apple, repeated in yesterday’s keynote address, posits that the company operates at the intersection between technology and the liberal arts. I think it’s reasonable to regard fine typography as falling within that mandate, but unfortunately, they are falling short of that promise. Building a great display for typography without building great typographic tools is a dereliction of duty. (Khoi Vinh at Subtraction)

There is a lot more in the post and much intelligent opinion in the comments.

While I can understand the typographers frustration at the way that Apple seems to have made some very funny (ie poor) decisions about typography and book design, and one sympathizes with Khoi in his shudder when Apple marketeers expostulate on screen about 'perfect' type, when what we see on screen is a 'typographic calamity'. Yes this is all very odd, and very odd indeed is Apple's decision to embrace the ePUB standard for iBooks and then implement it poorly (that calamitous page would be much better with a ragged right margin). This is odd because the iPad is showing that books really do not need to be as typographically simple and neutered as the ePUB standard encourages or presupposes them to be. But it is important to understand what is going on here. Apple really is just building a platform, they are not, contra Khoi, building the whole widget, or even the whole enchillada, and we notice that Apple are trying to encourage app designers and publishers to work with them. It may be that the most interesting things to do with books that Apple announced at WWDC was its decision to allow iBooks to incorporate PDF files directly (albeit in a different 'shelf'). With the new higher specification screens that Apple is producing the whole motivation for eBooks and the ePUB standard (reflowable text, translation of tables to ASCII, etc) is being undermined. Apple is belatedly recognizing this and acknowledging that many types of books (and most newspapers and magazines) will be very poorly translated to iOS if we need to rely on a file-text format such as ePUB, or even WebKit as a rendering engine. PDF is making a come-back.

The plain fact is that designers and typographers who work for digital media MUST NOT DESIGN their books, magazines, newspapers etc for display on the latest widget. They must design for 'resolution independent' display. Designers should surely notice that we now have 326 ppi Retina Display outputs, but they should then dismiss the fact, retinal displays are here today and gone tomorrow, and designers should be fixing books that will look as good as possible on any of the myriad displays that will be in the market next year, when Apple or one of its competitors will announce 'Leica Display' with 652 ppi. That means treating books and magazines as virtual editions which will be read on scores of different platforms, with many different screen resolutions. PDF files will not be the solution to this challenge, but the fact that they are being pushed back into the user's line of vision is an indication that the way the document looks and hangs together (in abstract, in the clouds, in the database) is still a key consideration. The form in which we virtualise books and documents must capture all the ways in which we might want to read, look at or use them. When we have that right we can deliver the document in as many different resolutions and platforms as we need. When books are virtualised appropriately they do not need to be rendered as typographic calamities.

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