Apple iPad Typography: Fonts We Actually Want

by Joel Friedlander on March 1, 2010 · 35 comments

Apple iPad iBookstore

Click to enlarge

We haven’t seen much of the Apple iPad yet, and the screen shots we have seen show that the fonts for the Apple iPad are perhaps not all they might be.

What do we know? Apple, as far as I know, has issued only the one press release on the day of the product’s announcement, January 27. I wrote to the media center asking for more detail on the iBook application and the fonts that might be part of the iBook reader software. I was advised to continue to read the press release until the product is available.

Let’s Take a Look

As you can see in the photo (Courtesy of Apple) the iBookstore looks pretty much like every other eReader portal. The metaphor of the bookshelf is apparently too strong for any designer to resist. And that makes sense, because every user will recognize it and know what it represents.

The bookshelf also helps to display the book covers, which make us feel as if we’re reading actual books. We know the iBooks will look more like printed books than they do on any other eReader out there, complete with a great animation of a page turning over.

Obvious care has gone into rendering the shelves, the covers, the virtual book itself, giving it a real sense of a physical dimension. The page you see in this photo is attractive as well. I’m guessing this is the Baskerville font seen on the snap of the iPad’s reading software. It’s clearly the best font for actually reading books on the list.

Although the paragraph indents are pretty deep, they’re in balance with the line length, so there’s nothing troubling the eye. You can also see, as in other photos, that the lack of any hyphenation has left the page with large gaps between words. That’s pretty unattractive.

The Fonts. What About the Fonts?

This is the list of fonts that seem likely to be available in the iBook reader app:

Apple iPad

  • Baskerville
  • Cochin
  • Palatino
  • Times New Roman
  • Verdana

Here’s my idea: Let’s pretend we’ve been given the power to pick the fonts for this software. Each of us will have to come to a meeting with a list of three fonts, and the ones selected will be the fonts that get the most “votes” by appearing on the most lists. Game?

First I’m going to throw Cochin, Palatino, Times and Verdana off the list. If we are going to be reading books here, I think we can agree we won’t be needing these fonts at all.

Here are the three I’m going to put on my list, and why:

  1. Janson text—this oldstyle face is great for long documents. It’s a favorite of book designers for a good reason. Although it has plenty of eccentricity in its details, the page it produces is smooth and easy to read. A real winner.
  2. Garamond—pretty much a no-brainer, I like the Adobe version, but Garamonds of many varieties have been among the most used book typefaces for several hundred years. The roundness and harmony of the letterforms make it perfect for books.
  3. Bodoni—another more modern face, and a complement to the Baskerville we left on the list. As opposed to the two oldstyle typefaces nominated above, these modern typefaces give a completely different color and a more vertical emphasis to the page due to their contrasting strokes. Beautiful reading for the right book.

I could have certainly selected from many other worthwhile and beautiful examples of typefaces from centuries of book design. Perhaps on my personal iPad I’d like to have Bembo as well, although I think the other oldstyles, Janson and Garamond, might display better on screens.

What I’m trying to get at here is that there are many, many better choices for fonts for the iPad’s new iBook application than the ones we’ve seen so far.

Well, I’m interested in your lists. Are you coming to my iPad type font selection meeting? What’s on your list?

Takeaway: Fonts on the upcoming Apple iPad’s new iBook reader application desperately need improvement. Better fonts will enhance the display and reading enjoyment of the new iBooks.

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    { 27 comments… read them below or add one }

    Julia Lindsey March 1, 2010 at 5:33 am

    Joel
    You always have interesting posts.
    What font do you recommend for blogs, websites and newsletters. I am always playing with the fonts and I never can decide what I should use. Most applications seem to default to Times New Roman.

    Reply

    Christopher Finlan March 1, 2010 at 6:53 am

    Boy, you really hate e-books, don’t you? :)

    Reply

    Joel March 1, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Julia,

    Thanks for your comment, much appreciated. I’m using Verdana here, a font that was specifically designed for reading on screen, and I’ve been more or less happy with it. It’s almost impossible to get the same level of typographic control on screen as we do on printed products, so it always seems to be a compromise. Times is good for business reports. Georgia isn’t bad if you want a serif font on screen.

    Reply

    Golden Krishna October 9, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Thank you for writing this. Bodoni is not a great body text typeface, but I agree with your general feelings. Steve Jobs needs to stop saying he takes typography seriously and start acting like he takes typography seriously. (see: http://www.planet-typography.com/news/typo/steve-jobs.html)

    Along with Janson and Garamond, you can add Iowan Old Style, Aldine 401, Dolly, Albertina, Dutch809, Scala, Galliard or any number of the wide range of great body text faces that are more unique and wonderful to read for books than Palatino, Times or Verdana.

    However, you might have just walked into your own trap with your response to Julia. You’re recommending that she use Verdana or Georgia because they are designed for the screen, but that Apple use Janson, Garamond or Bodoni on their screen…even though those typefaces are designed for print.

    When Christian Schwartz was interviewed by FontFeed awhile back, he commented that what we need are new typefaces designed for screens, not reuse the ones for print. (See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUSl2vDJnNc)
    That’s a refreshing approach and I hope it’s the direction Apple follows with their iPad, like Palm did with their phone (see: http://tinyurl.com/ntspnz) and Windows had done with their recent operating systems (that’s how we got Verdana in the first place).

    Reply

    James October 10, 2010 at 3:24 am

    If you are designing for the iPad the traditional thoughts of screen vs print appropriate typefaces are no longer relevant. A 72 dpi screen was not able to render the details correctly of something like a Bodoni especially at smaller point sizes. However the iPad is a 132 dpi screen – a much finer & sharper resolution. All of a sudden the screen vs print appropriate typeface argument that web designers pushed for so long is not nearly as relevant, at least when it comes to the iPad & similar devices. I imagine within the next few years all new laptops & monitors will follow suit. Like TVs, HiDef will become the norm.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 10, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    James, it certainly is a whole new world for the representation of text. With HD-like displays the possibility of real fonts is becoming a reality. I agree with Krishna, above, and expect that type designers will rise to meet the challenge, giving us tools for these new display opportunities. Thanks!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 10, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Krishna, thanks for your detailed input. I’ve already taken some grief about Bodoni, and it may not have been the best choice.

    I’m not so sure about the “trap.” Different types of text have different requirements. A blog like this, intended to be read or scanned, seems to me to do quite well with Verdana, among the choices available. But I sure wouldn’t want to sit down and read—in any format—a novel in Verdana. So I think context is also crucial.

    The Palm typeface is lovely and perfectly suited to its environment, and I’m in total agreement with the wish that new typefaces and new capabilities come into play to expand the very small choice of fonts we’re working with for ebooks and text display right now.

    Reply

    Maggie Dana March 1, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    For print, I’m partial to Goudy, Granjon, and Adobe Garamond. For reading on my laptop I prefer a sans serif font because serifs, especially fine ones, tend to get lost even on my 17″ Mac laptop display (1920 x 1200). I also prefer blogs that use a sans serif font (like yours). Again, easier to read. But … don’t ask me to read anything longer than a headline in sans serif when it comes to printed material.

    So, for me, it all boils down to this: until I can actually hold an iPad and change its fonts from serif to sans serif, I have no idea which will work best.

    Joel, I think the para indent as shown on the iPad’s sample is too deep. One pica would be more attractive at that line length. And I agree about lack of hyphenation, but that’s html for you.

    Reply

    Joel March 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Chris, you’re funny. I don’t *hate* ebooks, but I’m disappointed they don’t have the ability to incorporate all the knowledge we’ve gained about reading long text documents. Maybe the iPad? Hope springs eternal, so we’ll have to wait and see. The big problem with ebooks is the need for reflow. PDFs are every bit as nice as print, and they can be enlarged and reduced, but they won’t reflow, so they can’t be used on most devices. HTML was never intended to do the kind of typographic duty we expect from books. Someday soon perhaps the wizards at Apple or Adobe or someone we don’t know yet will devise a way to do these things. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

    Reply

    Peter Spicer-Wensley June 1, 2010 at 6:20 am

    Hi Joel,
    Enjoying reading your website (on an iPad) and I am developing (I could say writing and publishing) some children’s graphic novels forty to fifty pages in length for the iPad. As a format for electronic publishing, ePub is rubbish. It really is. PDF is much better at complex formats and graphic support and HTML5 will be good once ratified. (Still a work in progress but further along than you think.) I am creating apps rather than ePub books at present but am choosing fonts for their simplicity (younger readers) or graphic design. I quite like American Typewriter onscreen for young readers and Papyrus (on a papyrus background) for a middle primary work I am developing. Scribd.com is now using HTML5 instead of flash for its documents. I also love typekit.org and googles new font library. Thanks for your thoughts. PeterSW

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 1, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Hi Peter,

    I’m quite curious to see what Adobe comes up with in terms of making the PDF more amenable to ebook readers. Although I’ve heard a little about HTML5 I’m undereducated on its possibilities and the timing of its possible adoptions. I will say that there seems to be real opportunities to affect the basic formats for text that may well become standards for years to come. I’ve been talking to my web designer about Typekit and whether it would be workable here. When you complete your graphic novels, I hope you’ll give me a chance to take a look at them.

    Reply

    Peter Spicer-Wensley June 1, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Thanks for your reply Joel. I think Adobe “gets it” and understands the new publishing trends. There is a nice intro to HTML5 here:
    http://www.extjs.com/blog/2010/05/23/html5-now-with-20-percent-more-internet/
    Worth a read. Nice and succinct.
    I’ll be happy to send you copies (or links whatever) to my eBooks once they are up and published.
    Best wishes. PeterSW

    Reply

    Joel March 1, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Maggie, thanks for that. I used to be a big Goudy fan, used it for years, but as it happens with these things, you start looking at someone new, someone with flashier serifs, maybe, or a nice turn to the bowls, and next thing you know you haven’t seen Goudy for years. Also a big fan of Garamond. I think the “meatier” serif faces might do well on screen, I know a lot of people use Georgia, and it would be interesting to see something in a slab serif like Rockwell used as web typography.

    Your point about the iPad is certainly apt. Until we have it in hand, all this is speculation. But it is fun. And a lot more interesting than reading the press release over and over. Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Nipperkin April 10, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Thank you for your observations, which I appreciate, though I admit that I’m disappointed more by the form of the iBook (basically, a remediated print book) than I am by the choice of fonts.

    Why the quaint, retro vision (complete with page-turning animation!?) in such an otherwise forward-looking device?

    Reply

    Joel April 10, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Nipperkin, it’s astonishing how tenacious a hold the form of the book has on us. I assume all the time and money that’s gone into making digital facsimiles of the book are to create a feeling of comfort for the reader, hoping to almost “trick” people into missing the fact that they are reading a screen, and not a book. This seems to me to be a transitional phase, similar to the introduction of other forms, where imitation bridges the leap to the new technology. Eventually “books” may look and act nothing like the books we know today. Interesting times. Thanks for your comment.

    Reply

    Nipperkin April 10, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Thanks for your response, Joel. Though I understand what you’re saying, the transitional phase you mention is about 20 years old, if not older, since that’s when we got Voyager’s “expanded books” (remember those?), and there may have been others before that.

    I think that by now people are largely used to reading on screens. There just seems to be a lack of imagination/willingness to imagination what on-screen format may be more appropriate than imitation print books for extended reading.

    There has been some recent discussion about new approaches to horizontal-scrolling formats on various blogs, and these may certainly lead somewhere. It just seems somewhat surprising that Apple of all people look backwards rather than forwards on such a significant issue.

    Reply

    Dr. Science June 10, 2010 at 3:52 am

    Janson is killer. I wish it was available … seems like OTF fonts, or palatino, times, or verdana are needed to have Unicode characters such as macrons to come across correctly. IBooks are so cool though, they beat all the competition hands down when it comes to epubs.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Dr. Science, I’m a big Janson fan, it’s a great book typeface. And you should check out the ePub in my post here:

    Wired Magazine and VQR: 2 Ways to iPad

    And thanks for visiting!

    Reply

    bill June 15, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    For all its beauty Bodoni and its extreme thicks and thins make it a terrible choice in my opinion.

    Bodoni is grossly over-rated as a functional typeface in print, never mind on the screen. Thin strokes disappear, thick strokes fill in, whether with ink or pixels on a grid, unless you get passed a certain point/pixel size. I am talking body text sizes here, not heads and subs.

    Adobe Garamond too, with its small X-height doesn’t make sense either.
    The beautiful aspects of each characters design are lost onscreen, and its extremely ‘small’ and its italics are too ornate for screen reading.

    Bitstream Charter has proven to be a great serif ‘screen’ font – thick enough to display nicely without distorting.

    While I marvelled at the Wired iPad demo, I wondered out loud if anyone could put something like that together on a monthly basis? That is an extreme amount of coding to be done to make something that looks like it was printed – for intents and purposes – 20 years ago.

    cheers – interesting discussion here!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander June 15, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    bill, thanks for your input. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ebook in Bodoni, but perhaps you’re right and it wouldn’t translate well. I think my list is more of a cry in the wilderness, or just the result of being hit on the head so often with Palatino and Verdana that almost anything would provide some relief. And I’m particularly interested in the new screen technologies Apple is coming out with that might beautifully render typefaces like Bodoni or Centaur or others with real delicacy on the screen.

    The Wired iPad demo was pretty much a failure from my perspective, despite the lovely typography in many places. Bloated, overly commercialized, confusing to navigate and conceptually very dated. I wiped it off my iPad.

    Reply

    AD Lubow September 2, 2010 at 7:50 am

    The right way to format an illustrated iBook is to disable the type re-size feature so the illustration does not flow off the page or spread. Check out “Young Hungry Bears REALLY Love Peaches” on the iTunes iBooks store for what I believe is the right way to design a children’s book for the iPad and iPhone:
    http://ax.itunes.apple.com/us/book/young-hungry-bears-really/id383156792#ls=1

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 2, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Thanks for the tip, AD. The book looks lovely and I really like your widget that shows the pages turning in the iPad. Is that available, or something you put together yourself?

    Reply

    AD Lubow September 2, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks, Joel. We put the page-turning display together here at our company.
    http://www.ADLubow.com

    Reply

    James October 1, 2010 at 10:08 am

    “The metaphor of the bookshelf is apparently too strong for any designer to resist. And that makes sense, because every user will recognize it and know what it represents … complete with a great animation of a page turning over.”

    Why do they do this? Why do they design something using a new technology to mimic an old technology? Let me ask you, do we design books to mimic papyrus scrolls? Or Roman tablets? So why do we design electronic books to mimic real books. It seems absurd, inappropriate, unimaginative, and down right kitschy.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 1, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    James, I don’t think it’s that unusual. The earliest printed books slavishly tried to make themselves look like manuscripts written by scribes. When TV came out the original shows were like Broadway plays on the TV. Photography originally aimed to look like impressionist paintings.

    As the form matures it will throw off these imitations of the old form, it just takes time. Thanks for your comment.

    Reply

    Mehrishi March 14, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Times New ROMAN is NO good- transmitted from iPAD to a pc in Budapest- it distorted the format, font sizes and types following it finding the nearest equivalent to the Times.

    Most Js use ARIAL!

    Reply

    Joel Latner November 18, 2011 at 6:48 am

    All true. Why don’t you bemoan the complete lack of anything in the writing sphere: email? I haven’t been able to remedy this at all, though some apps refer to “all” the fonts on my iPad.

    Reply

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