eBooks and Design

My collection of works on typography and general design includes some of my favorite books. The art of placing words on a page, or screen, is something I admire. The designer’s choices, which once appeared with some frequency in colophons, shape the reading experience. Nothing appalls me more than a publisher giving no thought to the typography of a text. Books should have personalities, adding to the meaning without harming legibility or readability.

A font can be legible, but not readable — meaning the letters are clear as units, but words or sentences are a challenge to read as a text. Typefaces are designed for specific sizes and for specific purposes. The face at a given size is a font, and in book publishing the preferred fonts are serif faces of 9.5 to 12-point. For nearly two centuries, the traditional book face in the English-language press was Caslon. During the last century, other faces have risen to dominance. Examples of popular book faces include Bookman, Goudy, Palatino, and Times Roman.

The reason I offer this lengthy intro is that I am bothered by one aspect of many eBook formats: the lack of design control.

There is a technological limit: most hardware has only a limited number of fonts. Some eBook readers only offer a serif and a sans-serif face. It’s a luxury to have three or four serif faces and two sans serif faces. The book designer has no control at all over the reading experience. The reader controls the appearance of the book.

Because screen sizes and resolutions vary, the book designer doesn’t control pagination. Spacing, tabs, and line breaks are beyond the control of the designer, as well. In literary works, especially poetry, this is a serious detriment. Poems meant to reside on a page might end up on two or three screens. Visual poetry, in particular, is nearly impossible to support within an eBook.

Someone asked me if I dislike audiobooks. I think some books work as audiobooks while others do not. Obviously, visual poetry does not work as an audiobook, but poetry that was meant to be performed is ideal for audio. I’m sure a great many works are design- and form-independent. But, there are books that are best experienced visually.

An art book is certainly an example of a text that should be designed carefully. Any visual book should be itself a work of art.

It has been suggested that PDF (Adobe Portable Document Format) eBooks could be a solution. The problem is that these are larger files and, while portable, would still present a problem for smaller hardware. Zooming in and out to read a page on a small screen is a hassle, even if it allows the designer more control.

I’m not sure what the solution will be, but the migration to eBooks is inevitable. What this means for design is hard to predict. I hope there is a solution, a way to maintain book personalities in the digital age.

– Scott