E-reading application showdown, part 2: Typography

Early-twentieth-century photo of two women boxing

Cross-posted at Digital Book World. Part 1 is also on both this site and DBW.

When I first decided to try reading an e-book on my iPod Touch, I assumed—since I’ve been designing and typesetting book interiors for more than a decade and have strong opinions about what makes text readable and appealing—that poor typography would be my biggest complaint about the e-reading applications I tried. In the event, it turns out that as with print books, I’m much more tolerant of ugly, poorly set text than I expected. Just as I’m capable of losing myself in the pages of a cramped, blurry mass-market paperback if the story is one I want to read, so, too, can I block out consciousness of the less-than-ideal typography of an e-book viewed on a small screen. In fact, though I haven’t tried to empirically test this theory, I believe I might read novels faster on my iPod than I used to do on paper. Or maybe I comprehend better, or remember more of what I read.

Still, I’d rather have the option of making the text look good, and if an e-book’s appearance seriously offends me, I’m batty enough to crack it open and change it. I now actually get paid to do this, which sometimes feels like I’ve hit upon the best scam ever. (Other times, not so much. See below under anchovies.)

As any text designer can tell you, there are entire degree programs, conferences, and libraries of books on the subject of typography. So I won’t try to explain the whats, hows, and whys in a late-night blog post; but take my word for it that in good print design, there is a balance between several elements, including but not limited to

  • typeface style (serif or sans serif? old style, transitional, modern, Clarendon? geometric, gothic, grotesque?)
  • type size (which, as you know if you’ve ever fooled around with typefaces when trying to hit a certain page count on a term paper, is about more than just point size)
  • leading—the amount of space between lines of type
  • measure—the width of the block of text
  • alignment—is the text
    • centered, as in section headings and some truly terrible books of poetry?
    • fully justified, with the spaces between words squeezed or expanded so that they form a solid, sharp-edged text block?
    • rag right, aka left-justified?
    • rag left, aka right-justified—extremely rare in book-length texts but sometimes seen in advertising, to make things line up in a pretty but hard-to-read way?
  • word spacing
  • letter spacing
  • margins

A print designer can also control whether and how words are hyphenated (for example, I don’t like to see a two-letter fragment before or after a hyphen; it’s ugly and, I feel, more likely to lead to misreading, so I always set hyphenation tools to keep a minimum of three letters on either side of a break), as well as when and how deeply the first lines of paragraphs are indented (for instance, we usually don’t indent the first line beneath a heading, because it’s already obvious that a new paragraph has started).

So how much of this can an e-book designer control?

Consistently across all platforms? Pretty much jack shit nothing.

You can present serving suggestions, as it were, but you cannot plate the dish. Some e-reading devices and software automatically add ketchup (if not freaking anchovies) to everything, some serve everything up on divided styrofoam plates, and the reader can nearly always at least add salt.

Welcome to the dark side of my job.

Still, whether it makes me sometimes want to fork my eyes out or not, I promised you a rundown of typographic options in an assortment of e-reading applications, so that is what you will get.

Picking the fonts

When layfolk think of typography at all, what they usually think of is picking the fonts. Fonts are fun. Who among us didn’t sit there trying out all those goofy typefaces, upon first installing Microsoft Word? (What? You are too young to remember life before Word? Sorry, I can’t hear you—let me turn my hearing aid up. Squeeeeeeek.) Changing the font changes the way a text feels; it can make the author seem nerdy or cool; it can keep you from getting lost; it can change how you rate a text. Or it can make you throw the book across the room in disgust. But, wait—if you’re reading an e-book, you no longer have to keep your pitching arm limber! You can just change the font. To what?

Kindle.app: 0 fonts

Kindle.app for iPhone: text settings

Kobo: 4 fonts

Kobo.app for iPhone: settings

Nook.app: 5 fonts

nook for iPhone: settings nook for iPhone: settings, continued

All displayed in the menu using the same font, so you’d better know what each one looks like.

iBooks: 6 fonts

iBooks for iPhone: font menu iBooks for iPhone: font menu, continued

Google Books: 7 fonts

Google Books for iPhone: font options

Is more better? Not really. I use Georgia most of the time (sometimes Verdana, if I’m reading in night mode); couldn’t care less about the rest. YMMV.

Size matters

One of the big selling points of e-books is that each reader can adjust the size of the text to suit his or her preferences. There’s no longer a need to track down bulky, expensive large-type editions, or to use a magnifier to make conventionally sized text legible; you can just make the type larger, and everything will reflow to fit the screen.

Kindle-reading couple riding the NYC subway; one screen shows large type, the other small

How big is big, though, and how small is small? The following pairs of screenshots show the largest and smallest text in each app.

Google Books

Google Books for iPhone: smallest font size Google Books for iPhone: largest font size

iBooks

iBooks for iPhone: smallest font size iBooks for iPhone: largest font size

Kindle.app

Kindle.app for iPhone: smallest font size Kindle.app for iPhone: largest font size

Kobo

Kobo.app for iPhone: smallest font size Kobo.app for iPhone: largest font size

Nook.app

nook for iPhone: smallest font size nook for iPhone: largest font size

Attentive persons will note that the font displayed on the Nook.app is not Georgia, although that’s what I have the app set to use, and “use publisher settings” is off. Go figure.

Leading

Leading (rhymes with “heading”), also known as line spacing or line height, can have a profound effect on readability. Yet of the e-reading apps I’m looking at, only two let you alter this setting: Nook.app gives you four choices, and Google Books gives you three.

nook for iPhone: settings Google Books for iPhone: Settings

The screenshots below show the extremes of leading at the smallest and middle font sizes. The leading is proportional to the font size, so as the text gets larger, so does the spacing between the lines.

Nook.app

nook for iPhone: smallest text with narrowest leading nook for iPhone: smallest text with widest leading
nook for iPhone: medium-size text with narrowest leading nook for iPhone: medium-size text with widest leading

Google Books

Google Books for iPhone: smallest font size, narrowest leading Google Books for iPhone: smallest font size, widest leading
Google Books for iPhone: medium font size, narrowest leading Google Books for iPhone: medium font size, widest leading

Justification

One of the absolute worst things about typography on e-readers is that most apps, and most publishers, fully justify text by default. On a small screen, with primitive hyphenation algorithms, this is what most often makes me want to stab myself in the eye. At a very small font size, in landscape mode, it can look okay—

Kindle.app for iPhone: landscape mode

—but full justification is not appropriate for every part of a book—

Kindle.app for iPhone: fully justified table of contents

—and at large font sizes, it can look like a dog’s breakfast:

Nook.app: Nasty justification

In my opinion, left-justified or rag-right text would be a much safer default, but that wouldn’t fit in with all the stupid “Look! It’s just like a real book!” chrome that software developers seem to think readers want. More on that in a separate episode.

Fortunately, both Kobo and Nook.app let you either force the justification to rag-right or use whatever justification settings the publisher has specified in the file. Unfortunately, neither app shows the publisher’s settings by default.

Kobo.app justification options Nook.app justification options

Margins

Nook.app is alone among those under consideration in letting the reader change the page margins.

Nook.app margin options

Please check your InterWeb Guide to find out when the next exciting installment will air!

5 Responses

  1. Michael Walters
    Michael Walters August 1, 2011 at 3:05 pm |

    Hi India, I remember you from when you worked at Neuwirth and Associates. I was the Production Director at Avalon.

    Anyway, just wanted to say how much I enjoy your blog. Informative but with a sense of humor.

    Thanks, Mike

  2. John Tranter
    John Tranter January 10, 2012 at 11:01 pm |

    From: http://www.torontoreviewofbooks.com/2012/01/chris-stevens-on-alice/

    Toronto Review of Books: Besides Alice, what are some of your favourite book apps? Any lesser known app publishers you think TRB readers should check out?

    Chris Stevens: I’m desperate for the book industry to produce some work that blows me away, but for now there’s a few Alice clones and not much else. I can see exactly why this is happening. The major publishers have completely abdicated responsibility for producing the digital versions of their catalogues: it’s all handed over to amateurs. You see it throughout the industry. From the typographical horror of most eBooks, through to the lacklustre iPad titles being produced. The big problem is that most publishers don’t care about the iPad or eBooks very much, whether this is an aesthetic rejection based on the publisher’s historical reverence for the printed page, or a reflection of the relatively small profits to be made on the iPad so far, it’s hard to know.

  3. ragingyoghurt
    ragingyoghurt July 16, 2012 at 8:39 pm |

    hello! thank you for this handy survey. i’ve just been hired to design an ebook, and am starting to think that “design” might not be the right word for what i’ll eventually end up doing. at least the cover will work like print! ;P

  4. John Tranter
    John Tranter October 24, 2012 at 6:30 am |

    Please see this, about Apple’s awful iBook software: : John Tranter: Under the Horizon: The Age of Plastic: The death of typography: There was a time when the Apple Macintosh computer was known for its graphic design style. Excellent typography was part of the Macintosh mystique, perhaps deriving from Steve Jobs’s time spent in a calligraphy class at college. Well, Steve is gone, and so is the typography. Read this, and weep.

    at https://jacket2.org/commentary/age-plastic

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