is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Three years ago I waited in line to buy the original iPhone and I haven’t upgraded since, so I’m definitely warming up my credit card for Apple’s newly announced iPhone 4. I admit that it took some will power to sit out the subsequent releases of the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS; the not-insignificant speed gains that those models brought would’ve come in really handy. Still, neither of those updates struck me as particularly impressive. They were incremental, at best, where iPhone 4 seems like a major leap forward.
Even the new phone’s screen, the so-called Retina Display, is an important development on its own. Its incredibly high concentration of pixels (326 ppi, or four times the density of previous iPhones) promises a quality of resolution that’s positively print-like, where the pixels seem to disappear to the eye and rendering of curved shapes is much smoother. The advent of higher and higher density screens like this one will continue to have some subtle but important changes on the way we practice design for digital media, eventually pushing us to work in a resolution-independent framework that’s currently foreign to most.
However, this advancement in raw presentation abilty is hardly everything it can be. It’s worth pointing out one glaring omission that, seemingly, still remains: a lack of truly rich typographic controls. A few months ago, my friend Stephen Coles wrote an excellent and damning indictment of Apple’s apparent indifference to typography, in spite of the company’s reputation as a champion of good design. Joe Clark also followed up with an argument that today’s Microsoft actually beats today’s Apple in typography, which is also well worth reading.
It’s only been a few short months, but the situation has hardly changed, even with the introduction of the newly-renamed iOS. Perhaps even more galling is the fact that Apple continues to lay claim to being a purveyor of excellent typography merely through hardware innovations like the Retina Display, which to my mind address only one aspect of the problem of getting us all to a richer typographic environment.
Here’s an example. In one of the elaborately produced, incredibly self-congratulatory promotional videos that the company released to announce the arrival of iPhone 4, one particularly outrageous moment stuck out for me. At about three minutes into the video, senior vice president for iPhone software Scott Forstall extolls the virtues of the Retina Display by declaring that “The text… is just perfect!” Meanwhile, the central image in the video at just that moment is this little typographic calamity:
I urge you to fast-forward the time code to 3:02 to hear this for yourself. Forstall is quite literally claiming perfection while a hand model holds up this terrible example of everything that’s wrong with Apple’s commitment to typography. While the letterforms on that virtual page may look gorgeous, it’s apparent to any designer that the text is far from perfectly typeset. It’s hideous, scarred as it is by unsightly “rivers” of bad spacing within the text. No self-respecting typographer would dare call that perfect.
Creating a beautiful display and patting yourself on the back for having good typography is disingenuous, I think. It’s a little like saying a high-definition television set makes for better television shows; an absurd claim at best.
That metaphor is imperfect, of course, because television manufacturers have nothing to do with the content that appears on their devices or with its production. But that, supposedly, is the unique value that Apple claims to offer: they build the whole widget. Not just the hardware and not just the software, but the divine unification of the two into transcendent commercial products.
Steve Jobs’ vision for Apple, repeated in yesterday’s keynote address, posits that the company operates at the intersection between technology and the liberal arts. I think it’s reasonable to regard fine typography as falling within that mandate, but unfortunately, they are falling short of that promise. Building a great display for typography without building great typographic tools is a dereliction of duty.+