All the Same

In Why I Write, George Orwell mentioned aesthetic enthusiasm as one of the reasons for why people write. This could range from the love of clever arrangement of words to the beautiful typography of the page. Today’s ebook readers render the latter impossible. Whether you use the latest “retina” iPad or a black and white Kindle, there will be no typography unique to the book because the font, its size and arrangement is dictated by the device. This is not completely true, there are some ways to move text around, but the options are very limited and seldom used. The font, its size, its line height and the margins around it are the same for every book. The electronic book, which freed us from the costs and labor of paper publishing, has also taken away with it the freedom of aesthetic expression.

Some readers may now interject and point out that it is the words that make the book, not the typography, and that the uniform design of every ebook is actually a good example of invisible design – design that does its job and gets out of the way. I will not argue that the content takes precedence, that is true. But content being more important than its presentation does not mean the presentation can be wholly separated from it, nor does it mean that well made presentation that is specific to a certain piece of content cannot elevate that content in any way. It certainly can, and indeed that presentation can be judged truly good only when it is able to accomplish this.

Web designers often talk about the idea of separating content from presentation. This concept plays a very important part in the Web development, but its purpose is wholly different from the idea of presentation working together with content to elevate it to a new level. Here, the separation is only meaningful for the development process itself as it makes the implementation straightforward, future maintenance easy and simplifies access to your content from other presentation mechanisms (e.g. screen readers). There is no separation in the final product, where both, the content and the method of presentation come together into a unified whole.

It almost seems like the makers of today’s ebook readers have separated the content from its presentation, but afterwards, when it was time to assemble the final product, did not provide that content with its unique presentation layer. We have the words, and a method of displaying them on the electronic device, but the idea of varying the presentation of those words and giving each book its own style and look has been put aside, much like turning off a website’s stylesheet to view just the raw content that it holds. We may have a functional solution, but also a somewhat inferior one.

The typography of a printed book gives the final product three advantages that the ebook in its current state does not:

  1. The appearance of the text, whether good or bad, will have an emotional effect on the reader, either positive or negative. How strong the effect will be will be up to each reader’s sensibility. In the latest Kindle update for iOS, Amazon tweaked the margins a little as well as introducing a few other interfaces changes. They left the app with a single font, Georgia, and no control over line height or margin widths. Not only do all books look the same, there is no way to even change the font they’re set in. Georgia may be a fantastic font for a low resolution and low pixel density screen, but it’s not the best choice for the new retina devices from Apple. Other apps like iBooks and Kindle on the actual Kindle device give you more options, but the situation is still very poor in terms of typographic quality, and much inferior to that of a beautifully made hardback.

  2. The chosen typeface and its presentation sets the tone for the book. Companies spend fortunes tweaking their brand images, and one of the key ingredients of that is the typeface selection. Some fonts are serious, some laid back, some clear, some luxurious – each has a character of its own. Picking a font for a book is much the same process, you want its style to reflect the content of the book. Showing all books in the same fonts removes this additional channel of aesthetic expression from the designer’s tool-belt.

  3. The unique presentation of the book makes the content memorable. You remember the pages themselves, not only the words, and by tying those additional pieces of information to the content, that content becomes easier to recall. There are additional things here like the texture of the paper and the design of the cover, but the typography and typesetting play their part, too. When every page of every book look exactly the same, all such cues are gone.

I think it’s actually very curious that on the Web, everyone styles their sites as they see fit, wanting to make an impression, to stand out, to be memorable. We do this even though everyone’s personal computer or mobile device is different, never mind their Web browser and its window size. We’ve developed a whole philosophy of responsive design just to accommodate to this variable nature of the devices and software that people use to view our sites. But on the ebook, where the device screen size is fixed, and its specifications known, we’ve thrown away the custom presentation layer. Instead of using this as an opportunity for more custom design, we’ve gone the other way and separated content from its presentation altogether.

I’ve recently been reading the Distance magazine on my iPad, and the method of digital delivery used was a PDF. I don’t remember if there were any other formats besides a hard copy, possibly, but there was no reason for me to go for those. The PDF actually provided a much better reading experience than the iBooks or the Kindle app because here I was given properly typeset pages that were a pleasure to look at and easy to read. The fixed screen of the iPad worked much like the printed page, giving the designers better control over the final presentation, and so the old PDF ended up being a better solution than the newer book readers.

As things stand, the ebook of today takes away the pleasure of experiencing beautiful typography, it removes certain cues that make the content of the book easier to recall and it destroys each book’s unique sense of character. Now, the few aesthetic details I’ve listed probably do not outweigh the benefits of convenience that come with the digital delivery channel, but the fact that they don’t outweigh them is not in itself a reason to ignore them. For now, old formats like the PDF seem like the better way to go, especially for high pixel density devices.

Published August 2012