Posted by: Steven Harris | March 5, 2009

The Death of Typography

Kindle/iPhoneI’ve been mulling this topic over for some time now. I thought if:book might have scooped me the other day. They were lamenting the ugliness of electronic texts, especially on ebook reading devices like the Kindle, Sony Reader, and iPhone. The hyphen is what is lacking, in their view, to make these texts more pleasing to the eye. I think this is actually part of a larger issue: Most ebook readers are about “the text,” but not about typography. I would think that a printer, typographer, or book designer would have one look at these devices and shudder at the ugliness of the text. There is no design to texts on these devices. Or design has no role in how texts are displayed.

Printing has a 500-year history that has taught its practitioners a lot about how page, text, eye, and brain work best together. A font of a particular size will work best with a particular line length. The eye can follow best when there is a relationship between font and line. Typographers have worked out all kinds of issues with spacing, kerning, tracking, and leading. All of this is out the window with ebook readers. Sure you can control the size of the text on most readers. Some software, like Stanza, will even let you select from a few different fonts. But this is not really the same as looking at a book that has been designed by a master typographer. Our electronic texts don’t yet have the same qualities of legibility and readability. I think that may be one of the factors in the slow uptake of ebook readers. Lots of critics talk about the lack of aesthetics in readers, or about the “curl up with a book” factor. It may have more to do with the text than with the device.

This post is not about the superiority of printed over electronic text, although print IS superior at the moment. I think electronic will eventually win the day for any but the most specialized kind of text. What we need is an electronic text that has all the aesthetic qualities of print. But we also need an electronic text that is suited to the device’s display and lighting qualities and the human eye and brain. Our reading behavior on electronic devices will be different. Our electronic typography needs to get us to a place where we read effectively and with pleasure on our ebook readers. I think we have a long way to go to get there.

Postscript: I should add that some devices can view PDF files, which gives the designer some control over the text. But these too are not really quite the same as a printed text. The quality leaves something to be desired.



  1. Well, the designer obviously loses control over aspects of the screen medium, but that doesn’t mean that electronic texts have to suffer from poor typography: it’s just a different, more constrained set of rules.

    PDFs aren’t the answer as they cause accessibility problems and, at heart, are documents made for printing, not reading from a screen.

  2. Agreed, Leon. We’re working under different conditions. The reading devices that are out there now just haven’t addressed the “quality of typography” issue.

    A lot of these issues HAVE been addressed by web designers. That body of knowledge has also not been applied to ebooks.

  3. My favorite ebook platform is the Palm Zire 72. Although the system support for fonts is little to none, there are (or were) utilities for collecting fonts and installing them in the ebook reader (e.g., Mobipocket).

    This doesn’t give you the careful control over all the parameters discussed in the article, but it definitely allowed me to find a font that I found very comfortable. I can and have read whole books on it without any problem.

    In my experience with a few different devices, one other critical factor is the ease of use of the ‘next page’ button.

  4. Graeme. Thanks for the info about the Zire. You are so right about the ‘next page’ action. Honestly, I hate devices that ask you to to the ‘finger flick’ on the screen. Like they are trying to imitate turning a page. Doesn’t really do much for me. Just let me tap a button and be done with it.

  5. As a former graphic designer I love this post and I think this is the first time I’ve read someone who has hit the nail on the head about ahy it can be hard to read online text or e-books. For print, the typefaces of choice tend to choose serif types- such as garamond- this is because when you have a text block, it allows your eye to go from one character to the next led by the the little serifs. With websites the typefaces of choice tend to be sans serif as it is easier on a screen and generally with smaller text blocks to read with sans serif types such as veranda. Though I do wonder about this- there have been numerous studies done about the way people “read” online- they skip around, skim, etc….could this be because of the typefaces that are used? I’m not sure but someone should look into that! Anyway…now you have the e-reader with e-documents…so where to start- with serifs or without? Then there is the formatting- I’ve seen many e-docs where the formatting is atrocious. There was, as you mentioned, a standard in the print world, for formatting and typography. E-docs need to pay more attention to typography – though it seems that it could go either way…e-books continue not to quite take off because of lack of good type and good design OR people accept less and read like they do on the web…skim, skip, gloss over, etc. I hope for the first – I think there are too many good designers out there to let this opportunity slip by them.
    Also- I agree with you about the finger flick- I have e-books on my iphone and I’ve tried *really* hard to read on it…but I have given up…give me a paper books any day. Now I can’t say how I would feel about a Sony or Kindle…I have really had a chance to try them out and for the amount of money I would not buy one unless I knew for sure I would use it regularly. Maybe Amazon and Sony should do some piloting with more libraries…I think Cornell is already but who doesn’t need more help? šŸ˜‰

    • Great comments, Lisa. Good to hear from the experts!

  6. Steven, I’m just learning about your blog. I’m a former librarian now into book design. You pinpoint a lot of the problems with e-books today. Much depends upon the limitations of the devices in handling typography.

    There’s actually tremendous capabilities these days for good type on the Web but e-book devices have thrown us back to around 1995 in terms of design despite ePub, Kindle, etc., using a variant of HTML. It’s the device limitation for CSS that’s problematic, but just as browsers evolved then e-reading devices will, too.

    Then again, most Web sites are still not designed for extended amounts of reading, either. People often blame the backlight for the difficulty of on-screen reading on a PC but try reading a print book with excessive line lengths, poor kerning, poor tracking, bad leading, and in Verdana on bright white paper and everyone will have eye strain, too.

  7. Jeff, thanks for the comment. Excellent observations. I had a textbook in library school where the lines relative to the font size were very long. I couldn’t read the stupid thing!

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