What I Said About Apple and Typography

I watched with dismay yesterday when the comment thread for my post, “Better Display, Same Typography,” a rant about Apple’s lackluster efforts in typography on all of its platforms, went a bit astray. Lots of commenters understood what I was trying to say, but many others didn’t.

Many thought I was criticizing the forthcoming iBooks for iPhone, which is understandable because the photo included in the post was of exactly that — iBooks for iPhone displaying a less-than-sterling example of typographic chops. But I wasn’t singling out iBooks, or the iOS even, so it’s my fault for not being sufficiently explicit.

What I meant was that, on all of its platforms, Apple has far from exceeded expectations it has itself set for typography. Just take one look at the Fonts panel that appears in any Cocoa app (e.g., TextEdit) to see what I mean. It hasn’t changed in nearly a decade, and it’s still far more difficult to use than it should be. (I also urge everyone to read Stephen Coles’ blog post, which I linked to, for more details on Apple’s infractions on the iPad.)

Maybe most disappointing of all, though, were the comments that asserted that no one cares about this stuff except for typographic prima donnas like myself, that it matters not one whit to the world at large. I readily admit that most people will never care whether Apple changes its ways here or not — it goes without saying that Apple more than satisfies the general public’s appetite for stellar design already — but that doesn’t mean that they should be let off the hook.

Fine typography is important; it’s a tradition that goes back for centuries, that has helped us elevate our communication and that informs our sense of self and civilization. Now, it’s true that in the midst of the digital revolution we’re living through, we may have to leave many such traditions behind, but fine typography doesn’t have to be one of them. There’s no technological or business reason why we can’t make the tools for rich typography more readily available.

In fact, we have much of what we need in place already, largely thanks to Apple: an ocean of beautifully rendered and thoughtfully constructed fonts, a desktop operating system with an audience that’s highly receptive to the craft, a mobile platform that unites visual design with hardware design, and increasingly capable displays for rendering great type. All we lack is the dedicated passion of people who are in a position to bring it all together, to carry it that last mile — or to fulfill the promise that such laudable work has established. That’s why I believe Apple should do a better job.

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  1. “Ёwe may have to leave many such traditions behind, but fine typography doesn’t have to be one of them.”

    Well said Khoi. Couldn’t have said it better. Thanks for yesterdays and todays post.

  2. Not only should they do a better job, but they should also stop claiming to have such high standards for typography when they aren’t actually following through with the statement.

  3. Good type is good for everyone even if you don’t realize it. It just works and they go on their merry way. Kind of like indoor plumbing. It it complicated but we mostly forget how important it really is!
    But bad typography (and bad plumbing) is bad for everyone and everyone realizes it but non typographers can’t understand why thisЁ thing they are reading is giving them a headache.
    The classic example is the all caps text set page wide on bills or license agreements. We designers all know that caps are harder to read than lower case and line length that is too long and too tightly leaded is terrible.
    Where is our crystal goblet when we need one Apple?

  4. I’m not sure how that post could’ve been received so poorly by so many people. It is painfully clear that there is *much* progress to be made in arena of textual presentation on many devices. The iPhone/iPad do happen to stand out because of Apple’s backdrop of generally good design.

    Thing is, while I was watching that WWDC keynote, and listening to all of the marveling about the clarity of the Retina display, I was kind of screaming to myself: “Please put all those extra pixels to work!!”

    All that extra resolution just begs that Apple develop smarter typographic rendering. It’s not even all that complicated once you achieve that kind of unit density (no need for tricky “sub-pixel”).

    Making text easier on the eyes (and the brain!) is important generally, but as you point out here, it’s even more important that Apple get it right.

  5. I think the key point about good typography is that it makes reading (and writing) clearer and more pleasant. That’s its main function. Most people might not know why a poorly-typeset chunk of text is hard to read, or why a particular layout is hard to understand, but it still is.

    It’s just like how people don’t need to know the details of how the iPhone and iPad’s finger-scrolling acceleration work (or even that there’s acceleration there at all)—it feels good, and helps them be more accurate, and aids them in getting their stuff done. Good typography is the same. And it’s a shame that Apple doesn’t seem to see that.

  6. You were right yesterday, and right today. Apple sets such high standards in so many areas yet consistently falls short with typography. Their high standards invite criticism.

    I think the point of confusion for many yesterday was the simple distinction between typography and type rendering. The latter is an important part of the former, but Jobs’s sales pitch for the “retina display” made them the same thing in the minds of the uninitiated.

  7. I could not agree more.

    The fact is that good typography makes a huge difference to the legibility of text and to the whole user experience.

    Unfortunately, the majority of people don’t realise that it matters. When it’s done right, they just feel that their experience is somehow better in an indefinable way.

    It’s these finer things that all add up to make that outstanding user experience that Apple is aiming for.

  8. I’m not about to wade through the trolls’ comments on the previous posting (I read it before it got so heated) but if people don’t understand why clear typography is important (as many do not, and that’s fine, it’s not my job to care about most other peoples professions) then these kinds of posts should be ignored by them, this is a blog written by a designer after all. It’s the same people that wonder why anyone would care about what font Avatar used or any similar debate.

    Truth is, Apple isn’t so much getting lazy as it is getting away from what created so many fanboys over the last decade or so. Apple put a huge focus on design in the late 90′s up until now. What allowed them to do that was the fact that they had a small, specialized market that was ok with being snobby about design and aesthetics. Now that they’ve exploded into the mainstream not everything is going to be as well designed as it once was. The entire iWork suite is a prime offender here. It’s rather difficult to design anything that isn’t completely minimalistic and have it look decent in iWork programs for a reason, they have to look pretty. MS Office has the same problem, except worse.

    They’re now shooting for a more ‘family friendly’ market, hence you have to dumb things down a bit. By that I mean you can’t always have cutting edge typography and other treatments because someone’s mom or grandpa or little sister is going to look at it and go ‘I don’t get it, that’s ugly’. Now Apple is all about gradient’s, reflections, etc. which yes, look really great on their displays but have nothing to do with ‘good design’. They’re gimmicks that most consumers ‘Oooo’ and ‘Ahhh’ over. People should have seen this coming when the iPod was such a hit that everyone bought one. Apple has made good design more accessible to everyone and therefore taken the emphasis away from the group that made it popular in the first place. That’s what happens when anything gets popular.

    Designers are right to take apple to task for bad design but really that’s only because up until now they’ve been able to do no wrong. Apple is the club that no one knew about and only the cool kids went to back in the day. Now they’re on their way to becoming a successful franchised family restaurant. It’s rather difficult to micromanage everything across a company when it starts to get as big as apple and I’m actually impressed that they’ve managed to handle it as well as they have. Fortunately the thing apple has done is made competition actually have to consider design. MS design is still not exactly stellar but look at what they’re doing on things like the Kin or Windows7 Mobile concepts that have been floating around. They’re leaps ahead of where they were and you can bet competition from Apple is why.

    I guess my point is that yes, Apple has type issues but you can bet this is going to start being more prevalent the larger they get. Everyone thinks that Apple can be as big as MS and still be just as well designed as they are now. Sorry to disappoint but even for apple, at that size the market will get more and more say about how things get designed because they HAVE to continue to sell more and more products.

  9. Just to clarify my above post, I do use apple products and really enjoy what they do well. I also use PC’s and really enjoy what they do well. I’m not hating on apple, just being realistic.

  10. Calling you a prima donna, whilst unhelpful, would at least have some merit if good typography had no wide benefits. The whiners may not recognise it, but proper type-setting of the iBooks example you used would greatly improve readability.

    I agree that Apple have let their game slip. Hopefully they start to feel the pain of it and pull their socks up.

  11. Complaining about bad type isn’t snobbish — it’s your job. The majority of us work in jobs fields where we are finding solutions to problems we didn’t know we had, an typography is a perfect example of that.

    It’s a tired argument to say that something like typography doesn’t matter because it falls outside the circle of necessity. Most of what we do today goes beyond basic need and that is especially true in the digital realm. There is still room to improve and even innovate typography, not because we can’t read without good type but because we can read better with it. If no one had acted on the insight that good type makes reading better, we would be reading iBooks in blackletter.

  12. Many people don’t recognize the unconscious rhetorical and communicative power that typography can have. On a basic level, it’s why we have trouble taking warning signs seriously when they’re set in Comic Sans, or why Apple’s use of Marker Felt in the Notes app suggests that it’s not really for “serious” use. (And this isn’t to dismiss either of those fonts out of hand. It has to do with context as well as typeface.)

    I could go on, but suffice it to say that it saddens me when it feels as if Apple is only willing to let “good enough” be the standard for typography.

  13. Derek K. Miller nailed it in his comment here, it’s not about tradition or the innate beauty of good typography, (as nice as those things may be) it’s about readability.

    The average iPad/iPhone user doesn’t care about word spacing or justification. They probably aren’t be able to consistently identify a beautifully typeset page over a sloppy one. But (and this is the key) they will notice when their eyes hurt after reading a couple dozen pages. And even if only subconsciously, they’ll be less inclined to do extended reading on that device in the future. That’s why typography is worth worrying about.

    Typography is about the details, and the details add up.

  14. This old Steve Jobs interview immediately came to my mind as I was reading your post yesterday. And I mean the part where he specifically addresses ” art of typesetting, beautiful books” and “bringing culture into products”.
    Your article really made me wonder if Apple still has that level of attention and commitment to bring culture and beautiful typography into their products. Or, as I’ve read recently: Apple = Microsoft 2.0?
    I’m not really buying int that, so I hope that the necessary steps will be taken, even if the new Safari5 Reader is no good sign on the right direction. Go check the screen shots on their website, judge for yourself.

  15. Type and typography are like air: they only become an issue when it’s bad. Forcing a pseudo-script into Notes may just be silly, and replacing perfect Lucida with boring Helvetica on all the iThings is boring but not dangerous. But ignoring the most basic rules of layout and producing books that are pretty much illegible is unforgivable. Suddenly Microsoft, the company that has no taste, as SJ once said, doesn’t look so bad. They are the ones who commissioned some of the world’s best type-designers to make custom fonts for Windows instead of rehashing tired old “classics”.

    Arrogance is ignorance with an attitude. I remember the cocky project manager for the Newton back in 1992 who insisted on a script for the “handwritten” notes on that low-res device when I designed the bitmap fonts for it. Immunity to outside knowledge is the first sign that a company has become too big for its own good. SJ has done wonderful things for the company and inspired a lot of people, but he is beginning to be thought as infallible. Look what happened to the other institution with an infallible leader.

    I bought my first Mac in 1985 and have been a fan ever since. I’m having second thoughts now.

  16. I think the way to go is to find a way to layout eBooks just like real books and PDF, but with the more flexible HTML-Features. Secure Font-Embedding (overriding the 4 oder 5 standard fonts), Margins, Justification and so on – just like with Фreal╗ Typography, only a bit more fluid and with rotation, fontsizes and such stuff in mind. It should be easy enough to implement something like this in InDesign/Quark or some other software, coming up with a way to make ePub a Фreal╗ book format that allows publishers and designers to Фbrand╗ their publications a bit more. I think it is a big problem that every book on iBook just looks and feels the same, after some books this uniformity becomes tedious like hell. Also: SmallCaps, Old Style Figures, Ligatures and so on… all of this is missing. We’re back to the typographical stone age with this thing.

  17. This is a footnote, but notable that the font panel is actually the same one I used on my first NeXT in 1991.

    This is hugely significant for design. I can’t imagine using this panel productively in InDesign, Illustrator, or even Photoshop for the thousands of projects we’ve done. For all the leaps Apple has made, type support is indeed lacking. Listen to Khoi; he is right.

  18. I think our collective design I.Q. needs to go up. It’s almost impossible to “intuit” good typography and so, even if Apple improved the Fonts panel, it doesn’t mean people would create better typographic settings.

  19. I’ll make the same point I posted in two comments at the very bottom of yesterday’s thread:

    You don’t have to know how to bake a croissant to tell the difference between a one microwaved for an inflight meal and one made from authentic, quality ingredients by a master baker.

    And yet some were arguing that good design is irrelevant to those who don’t understand its mechanics. Those readers are surely not the target audience for this blog.

    On a related note:

    It constantly amazes me how even those who have sophisticated taste in other arenas (such as cutting-edge music, fashion, architecture, movies, fiction, etc.) often have a complete blindspot when it comes to type and graphics.

    How many times, for example, have I watched the opening sequence of a stylish and smart film, only to see the most clumsy titles roll up over the gorgeous cinematography?

  20. In agreement with the general thrust of everything written here. I was quite astounded just how unsophisticated the Reader in Safari 5 is – I won’t be abandoning my Readability bookmarks just yet.

    Sam Pratt’s comment about how narrow some people’s taste / interest can be is spot on – in a similar vein I’m always astounded how many photographers have terrible websites. If many photographers can’t recognise even the most basic of typographic crimes it’s no wonder many in the general public can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

  21. There’s a fine line when talking about the purpose of typography. We can spew function over form but the simple fact is this — sometimes evaluating a piece’s function, especially when it comes to experimental bits, isn’t always as obvious or as tangible as clearer type, better legibility, etc.

    But bad typography, sadly, has more to do with ignorance than intent: it’s symptomatic of early computer word processors being designed by engineers, who for many years, did not understand or recognize the importance of the nuances of letter spacing to improve reading or the visual balance of a header. And now that computers are used for everything, including design, its cultural baggage has created a sort of blinders for an entire generation of young designers, many of whom grew up in the shadow of Word Perfect, MS Word, etc., before even touching a design program.

    Apple’s issue, imo, isn’t about bad design but consciously choosing aesthetics over function. They excel in many areas of design, and yet, when it comes to things like say, the touch keyboard on the iPad, are damn near impossible to use in a practical sense. But as I said earlier, sometimes it’s better to have some intent than none at all: if such innovations, even if they are mostly aesthetic driven, represent stepping stones to better technology, then for the time being while its current incarnation may be impractical, it may still be good design within a longer, wider scope that we are not yet aware of.

    Personally I am excited to see what Apple does next, and I don’t even own any Apple products at the moment.

  22. “Fine typography is important; it’s a tradition that goes back for centuries, that has helped us elevate our communication and that informs our sense of self and civilization…”

    It’s worth noting that when the rules of “fine typography” were distilled into what designers now use; typesetting was a labor intensive, expensive, industrial operation. Trying to evenly break and justify thousands of words of text set in lead type is no task for the lighthearted. These expensive standards would not have persisted for so long if they did not serve a function well beyond making us “typographic prima donnas” happy.

    My perspective is that of a book designer (who has had both successes and failures in his typography adventures). As others have noted, good type is easier to read. If you are reading a book with absurdly loose lines and tight leading, it take more concentration to simply to move your eyes from one word to the next without jumping to the wrong line. I don’t believe the average reader is conscious of this, but I do believe that it can impair their ability to absorb information. While reading, your mental energy you be spent absorbing an author’s text…not processing clumsy typography.

    I hope I didn’t repeat too much of what has already been discussed here. Khoi, I enjoyed your talk at MoMA the other night. Dealing with typography on the web and other devices will be an interesting new challenge.

  23. I just wanted to say thanks. We need people to push us as a society (and Apple) to strive to be better. No matter how high of standard we reach, we should strive to a higher standard. Being satisfied with the status quo leads to complacency. If we were all always satisfied with what we have we’d still be monkeys swinging on trees. If even that. We should all push for higher standards in our respective fields of expertise. So to Khoi and all the folks with great comments, thanks.

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