What the iPad is Missing (No, it’s not a Camera)

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News | Stephen Coles | April 8, 2010

I’m not an iPad naysayer. I forked over $700 on the first day of pre-ordering and my iPad hasn’t left my side, day or night, since it arrived on Monday. I’m with those who see the device and its new approach to computing as an exciting step forward, especially for media delivery. The possibilities for reviving the magazine and newspaper industries are exciting and real.

Yet it’s exactly that part of media consumption, reading, that reveals what’s missing on the iPad: good typography.

Signs that type took a backseat in the iPad’s development were clear back in January when Steve Jobs demoed the device, revealing just four uninspired and uninformed font options in iBooks. Apple also went with full justification without hyphenation, learning nothing from the Kindle’s spacing woes. These decisions were small or unnoticeable to the millions of future iPad buyers watching the announcement. But they stuck out like a sore thumb to typographers, whose job it is to make small, unnoticeable decisions that make text easier and more enjoyable to read. For those of us who hoped that a device meant for reading would be designed for reading, with all the typographic details well-considered and implemented, the announcement was disappointing.

Disappointing, but not surprising. Apple has made some puzzling decisions over the last few years that leave one wondering if they really care about typography as much as they did in the 1980s when the Mac launched the desktop publishing revolution. As recently as 2005, Steve Jobs made typography a central theme of his commencement address to Stanford grads, but his actions as the almighty head of Apple haven’t followed suit.

Lucida GrandeThe string of odd missteps began with the release of Mac OS X. Amid a bunch bundled fonts, most of which are not worth mentioning, the system came with Lucida Grande, an excellent screen-optimized version of Kris Holmes’ Lucida Sans. The clean, readable face, contemporary but fairly neutral, was used throughout the OS X interface and embraced by web designers (along with its Windows equivalent Lucida Sans Unicode) as their go-to family for small text. Yet, to this day, there is no Lucida Grande italic. I can’t explain why, and neither has anyone at Apple. This is the short and simple reason why sites like Facebook don’t use italic. If you design with Lucida your options for emphasis and hierarchy are limited to size and weight. Meanwhile, Microsoft — the company that traditionally eats Apple’s dust in design — worked with some of the world’s best type designers to develop the ClearType fonts, six complete families designed specifically for the screen.

A lack of Lucida italic could be considered a mild irritant, but Apple’s typographic neglect in OS X ran deeper. The system came with a font manager that was, until recently, the least reliable software bundled with a Mac. Even now it has has a reputation that contradicts Apple’s high customer satisfaction. Tweets about “Font Book” are often accompanied with the words “sucks” and “hate”.

Then came the iPhone, its fantastic display with a high pixel-density enabled legible type at small sizes. But Apple essentially erased that potential by choosing Helvetica as the iPhone’s system font. Sure, Helvetica is a graphic designer’s favorite, but its closed forms and tight spacing hinder reading, especially when small. It was a classic style-over-substance decision. The even more egregious spit in the face of readability was forcing Marker Felt users of the Notes app. More often than not, Apple’s recent decisions about type either ignore its importance or value form over function.

The iPad represents a new opportunity to reverse this trend. A device designed for media consumption could validate Apple’s dedication to design by emphasizing design’s most basic element: typography. But so far, it flops. Here’s what’s missing:

Typography on iPad

1. Missing in iBooks: Ragged Right Alignment and Hyphenation
This is Typography 101. You don’t need to be a full-time glyph geek to know what full justification without hyphenation does to spacing and readability. Of course, resizable text can’t benefit from all the careful spacing and line break adjustments traditionally made by a book designer, but the least an automated system can do is prevent wordspace rivers wide enough to sail a tanker through. This was one of the more obvious ways in which Apple could have one-upped the Kindle and they dropped the ball.

Update, June 21: iBooks 1.1 was released today with an option to disable full justification. Strangely, it’s buried in the iPad’s global Settings where few users will see it or even realize it’s an option, but at least Apple is listening. Hyphenation would help prevent the more ragged margins, but that’s a much greater feat.

2. Missing in iBooks: Orphan/Widow Prevention, Proper Handling of Tables and Line Breaks
Liz Castro is documenting how iBooks potentially mangles tables, ignores page breaks, and mishandles text wrapping around images. It’s possible that some of these issues can be addressed by the ePub author, but it sounds like iBooks could be more intelligent with documents that weren’t designed to display in such a narrow column widths.

3. Missing in iBooks: “Embeddable” Fonts
one commenter rightly condemns:

The lack of support for embedded fonts is a catastrophic failure. It’s a massive black mark against Apple for anyone who’s interested in seeing publishers improve the standard of ePubs.

4. Missing in iBooks: Font Options that Work for Books
Typography on the iPadIf you’re not going to let the publisher/book designer select the book’s typeface — and Sam Wieck explains why that alone is wrought with problems — the user’s options better be good. Unfortunately Apple offers just five: Baskerville (Monotype), Cochin, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Verdana. Of these, I’d say Palatino is the only legitimate choice for reading a book on a screen. Some cuts of Baskerville work well in print, but its weight is far too uneven for text in pixels. Cochin reeks of a decision made by someone gawking at pretty letters rather than diving into pages of text. The web learned long ago that Times New Roman doesn’t work for text type on-screen. And Verdana? Maybe for an IKEA catalog…

What would I offer instead? Minion, FF Scala, Dante, Garamond have all proven themselves in print. And the more sturdy of these alternative typefaces for book design would perform better than Apple’s selection.

This is only conjecture, but it feels like Apple decided to save some cash on font licensing by relying on the same old Linotype fonts they’ve bundled with their machines for years. If that’s the case, why not go with Hoefler Text which is already installed on the iPad? And the strangest omission of them all: Georgia, the father of all screen serifs and far better than any of the iBooks options.

Unlike Apple, Amazon clearly did their research here. PMN Caecilia isn’t well known outside the typorati, but it’s one of the more readable typefaces ever designed and its low stroke contrast and slab serifs serve the Kindle very well.

Update, June 21: Today’s iBooks 1.1 release offers Georgia as an option. Hallelujah! The difference in reading experience between Georgia and the other fonts is stark. I don’t know why you’d want to read with anything else in that list, except perhaps Palatino.

Typography on iPad

5. Missing in iPhone/iPad OS: a Legible, Flexible UI Font
Helvetica wasn’t a failure on the iPhone because the display’s high pixel density kept the letterforms clear. But the PPI on the iPad is significantly lower. I haven’t seen much that borders on illegibility, but relying on Helv limits the range of font sizes an app developer can use. Go below 12px and things get muddy (the numbers at the bottom of this Calendar view, for example). Our friend Lucida, on the other hand, which shines at small sizes, isn’t included on the iPad.

6. Missing in Pages: Accessible Text Options
Typography on iPadI’m impressed with how easy it is to make a nice looking document in Pages. But you better like its templates and default styles, because customizing the type is a bit of a chore. Font selection is buried behind a few taps and a scroll, and changing the font size requires a tedious tap for each single point up or down. It’s all surprisingly un-Mac-like.

7. Missing in Mobile Safari: True @font-face Support
Contrary to some reports, the iPad does support CSS font linking via @font-face, but it’s limited to SVG. There are many reasons why SVG isn’t a legitimate font format — stability and selectability, for example — but the most important is that a majority of font makers have already settled on WOFF or services like Typekit as their format of choice. This blasts developers back to those dark ages (a few months ago) when there were very few professional fonts available for embedding. Typekit is working on a solution, but it’s not ready for prime time.

So, webfonts are out. Fortunately there’s a much longer list of fonts installed on the iPad compared to the iPhone/iPod Touch, but very few of them are very interesting or practical for modern web and app design.

Typography on iPad

8. Missing in Notes: Font Options
The Notes app on the iPad is still stuck in silly Marker Felt land!

We can only hope and pray to Lord Jobs that today’s iPhone OS 4.0 event will address some of these gaping holes. With so many manufacturers, publishers, designers, and developers following Apple’s lead, the state of typography in a world of digital media may depend on it.

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  1. And that, dear sir, was the hundredth comment in this record-breaking post. :)

    Posted by Yves Peters on Apr. 17, 2010
  2. You’re looking at the iBook stuff all wrong. Take a look at the original Gutenberg txts. What Apple is doing with all those free txts is nothing short of amazing. No one is manually formatting those books… it’s likely a script, possibly in perl, that reformats those txts on the fly. If you’ve ever tried to read a txt from the Gutenberg Project, you wouldn’t be complaining about iBooks.
    Also, about ragged right margins and justification… Just to make sure I opened a few actual books I have here, and I was right. No one publishes books without forced justification. Take a look on your own bookshelf… most will be solid on the right. Perhaps you’re right that it might be easier on the eyes, but Apple has conformed to what publishers of real books do. If you’re such a typography snob, you’d have known this.
    I stopped reading after these complaints. Yeah, Apple should include some more fonts. But you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.

    Posted by Chilli on Apr. 18, 2010
  3. about ragged right margins and justification… Just to make sure I opened a few actual books I have here, and I was right. No one publishes books without forced justification.

    It’s true that most printed books use full justification, but they are also produced by professional typesetters using professional typesetting tools that use hyphenation and thoughtfully considered linebreaks.
    Take a look at your books again. You won’t see the spacing issues that you see in iBooks. Because electronic readers are indeed automated, they need either hyphenation or ragged right alignment to avoid these issues.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Apr. 18, 2010
  4. Very nice and helpful article! There are a lot of reasons not to buy an iPad, thx for sharing those informations!

    Posted by Webstandard-Blog on Apr. 20, 2010
  5. Some very good points. I personally think Helvetica works fine for the UI on the iPhone (I don’t have an iPad yet, ask me in two weeks)… there’s no question there are fonts better suited to screen reading, more versatile, with true italics, and so forth, but keep in mind that before the iPhone, the standard was blocky, digital-looking type and clunky UI design. The Palm Pre is one example of a platform that has improved upon the iPhone formula by putting typography back at the center of the UI, with a custom type family and a more sophisticated use of type across the UI.
    There is really no reason to complain about Notes or the other built-in apps… just go find an alternative on the App Store. There are many better apps out there, for reasons beyond just the typography.
    When it comes to iBooks, however, your point is well-taken. I personally don’t understand why iBooks doesn’t allow embedded type and custom typography on a per-book basis, given that it uses a proprietary format anyway. The technology will certainly improve, and the typographic issues you summarize so well will probably be improved in the future.
    Getting @font-face working in Safari would be great, but given how poor most non-standard typefaces look through Typekit in Windows, the predominant digital platform, I haven’t taken that very seriously yet as a solid typographic option.

    Posted by Paul Ferguson on Apr. 20, 2010
  6. Stephen, thanks for the thoughtful review. I laud your critical approach for its call to typographic progression.
    To those who said to back off on the criticism: Typographic excellence cannot be lost in the digital change blur. The iPad is a technical achievement (and I don’t think Stephen would disagree), but we shouldn’t abandon the push for better type. There is always room for critique. It’s how we get better.
    And Marker Felt? There is no need for this face. Anywhere.

    Posted by Mike on Apr. 20, 2010
  7. The TeX hyphenation and word-spacing algorithm is nearly 30 years old; freely-available implementations exist in pretty much every current programming language. That’s just one way to do text layout with competence. There is no excuse for the ugly unhyphenated full-justification in iBooks. (I’ll excuse Chilli that silly comment: when “actual books” are carefully typeset, it’s easy to miss the odd hyphen which lets a paragraph flow harmoniously, or the hair-spacing in one line that prevents chasms between words in the next.)
    When I saw the promotional videos for the iPad, I assumed that such things were just pre-production kinks to be worked out. When I pointed out the awful page layout, I was told something similar to Watts’ point – that ePub texts are often lazy, after-the-fact conversions, even when works are composed and submitted to the printers in electronic formats.
    Either way, it’s a mess, and even if Apple were to expand its range of screen serifs for iBooks to include typefaces that are proven with body text, the layout engine would still make them look crappy.

    Posted by nick s on Apr. 20, 2010
  8. PostScript and great fonts were a strategic advantage that propelled the classic Mac.
    Now it seems more of an afterthought, a taken-for-granted spouse. I see it as part of the downslide that comes with increased mass appeal. Rather like jettisoning creator codes because there is no “web” standard for them.
    Here’s hoping Apple sells enough iPads to become big enough on the web that they can drive internet standards to support better typography. And that they “get” that fine typography is important even to former Windows users who like Comic Sans.
    Many fine textbooks, manuals, and coffee-table books feature right-ragged text (a fine art in itself). On a wide enough measure, rr is more legible than horrid justification, we can only assume eBooks feature those gaps to seem more “book-like”, and instead are more like a really bad eZine. A good eReader should let you choose.
    And why not TeX? Maybe lack of horsepower to hyphenate and still be snappy-quick.
    I like to think Apple does their small apps mainly as proof of concept and leaves them somewhat unfinished or set to Marker Felt to give 3rd parties room to play. Pages and Keynote are disappointing and astounding in a way that only a $15 app could be. iBook has only just learned to walk.

    Posted by Bret Perry on Apr. 20, 2010
  9. As a book designer, who spends her time carefully adjusting type to have optimal readability and proper editorial style (no bad word breaks, etc.) this is a slap in the face. Most books these days are delivered in PDF format. This preserves fonts, art and design. Why can’t these electronic books work with PDFs and simply have the reader use those, it would avoid all these issues.

    Posted by Maria Fernandez on Apr. 24, 2010
  10. Fantastic article with informed and literate comments.

    Maybe there should be a collection so that Marker can be sent to the same retirement home as ComicSans??

    Posted by john renfrew on May. 8, 2010
  11. Apple. Fix it.

    Posted by e.h. williamson on May. 11, 2010
  12. For font selection in a Note book app consider Notes To Store. Full selection of the available iPad fonts on a page by page basis.

    Posted by Scott Squires on May. 13, 2010
  13. There is more typography bundled with the iPad than the iBook App actually shows. To help Interface-Designers, Art Directors and Software Developers selecting the proper Fonts for their iPad Application I came up with a piece of Software that makes it really easy to explore the Typefaces provided by the iPhone OS: iTalics for iPad. I would be happy if you give it a try and provide some feedback. iTalics is available at the Apple App Store.

    Posted by Marc Scheib on Jun. 3, 2010
  14. Why did Apple remove Arial Unicode MS from the iPad and iPhone 4?

    Posted by Louis on Jun. 9, 2010
  15. When I first began using a Mac in 2007, I was puzzled by the lack of italics for Lucida Grande. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.

    Posted by Michael L. on Jun. 9, 2010
  16. I need an iPad to do keynote presentations.


    1/If I import an existing (iMac created presi) what does it do to the faces I’ve used

    2/ If I create a keynote presentation ON THE iPad – what are the ‘native’ typefaces I can use


    Posted by Martin Warnes on Jul. 16, 2010
  17. A workaround exists for Marker Felt on Notes – find a note in the desktop version of Mail, edit the font as you would in any other OS X application, and sync to iPhone. The spacing and font size has to be just right so that it’ll fit on the lines in Notes and it doesn’t work with every font, but there are some sans-serifs which are supported. Tedious, but it’s there.

    Posted by A on Aug. 13, 2010
  18. “Unlike Apple, Amazon clearly did their research here. PMN Caecilia isn’t well known outside the typorati, but it’s one of the more readable typefaces ever designed and its low stroke contrast and slab serifs serve the Kindle very well.”

    Does anyone have a reference to back up the readability statement?

    Posted by Christopger Dean on Aug. 17, 2010
  19. And I’ll be the first to point out my own typo.

    Posted by Christopher Dean on Aug. 17, 2010
  20. Could someone let me in on the big secret about what fonts are standard to Mobile Safari in iOS4? I’m generally pretty clever with The Google, but have struck out on this one. And what is their schema for font substitution?

    Posted by Sam Pratt on Aug. 29, 2010
  21. I’m glad to read I’m not the only one who is less than completely happy with the user experience.

    I do understand there’s no pleasing everyone. But jailbreaking an iphone just to install a font feels like having to break into your own house because the builder has gone off with the keys.

    Posted by cjk on Oct. 6, 2010
  22. Does anyone have a reference to back up the readability statement?

    Posted by nisa sanjaya on Dec. 1, 2010
  23. I was inspired by your column, Stephen, and wrote about the evolution of iOS typography — how it is addressed by Apple, Amazon and Google on the iPhone: http://blog.angoulvant.net/2010/12/06/ebook-typography/

    Posted by Stephan on Dec. 7, 2010
  24. You completed a number of nice points there. I did a search on the subject and found nearly all folks will consent with your blog.

    Posted by Lynsey Mayze on Dec. 7, 2010
  25. You are now aware that the font size and line height on this site is too small…

    Posted by Patrick on Apr. 6, 2011
  26. Touch, but very few of them are very interesting or practical for modern web and app design.

    Posted by kabin on Sep. 12, 2011
  27. I couldn’t agree more about the lack of font options there is on the ipad, lets hope they resolve this with the next update.

    Posted by John on Dec. 2, 2011
  28. This week, Apple released an update for iBooks that includes several new fonts (Athelas, Charter, Iowan (Old Style?), and Seravek). But still no adjustment of leading or line length. And still no way to get rid of the ridiculous page-flipping animation and book-style background image.

    Posted by Matthew Butterick on Dec. 8, 2011
  29. Writing the follow-up article as we speak. ; )

    Posted by Yves Peters on Dec. 8, 2011
  30. I suppose all this means I’m not going mad. Trying to create some work with some interesting fonts. Surely when paying so much for an iPad you would think that typography would be included. I don’t want to carry a mac book pro around with me. Oh well back to my daughter’s little laptop.

    Posted by Jess on Mar. 14, 2012
  31. What the iPad is Missing (No, it’s not a Camera) | The FontFeed http://www.vbmrubipr400.blogspot.соm

    Posted by Cettypose on Jun. 12, 2012
  32. For everybody who is sick and tired of not being able to use custom fonts in their documents on their iOS devices I might have a solution.

    I ran into similar problems and took this as my motivation to develop “AnyFont”. With this little app you are able to install all the fonts you need for your presentations on your iPhone or iPad. So when your are using Calibri in your presentation and get the error message after importing it on your iPad you can use AnyFont to install Calibri on your device which makes the error message go away and lets you use Calibri in your presentation.

    Let me know how you like it!


    Posted by Florian Schimanke on Mar. 3, 2014

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