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

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt