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Typography Aficionados Still Not Happy With Kindle Fonts

379979781_bacb4cebba_oTypography snobs have never been happy with ebooks. Even though ebooks in their modern incarnation are less than two decades old, the snobs still object to the fact that the current ebook tech can’t equal the beauty of a paper book. Never mind that a paper book draws on a couple thousand years worth of art and engineering, ebooks still don’t measure up.

Design Week was inspired by the launch of the new basic Kindle this week to ask what a couple typography experts thought of Amazon’s new fonts, Ember and Bookerly. (The latter is over 18 months old, I know, but let’s skip that.)

One of the responses caught my eye, and not in a good way. Edenspiekermann co-founder Erik Spiekermann expressed a disappointing view ebooks:

“The Bookerly typeface is lovely and appropriate but nothing new for book designers. The layout also looks like a proper book page, albeit with bad hyphenation – 4 hyphens in a row already on the first page!"

"In other words, a page on a Kindle has finally almost achieved the look we’ve had in books for 500 years. But it still runs out of batteries, cannot be read in bright light and won’t survive a fall."

Yes, folks, he thinks a Kindle can’t be read in sun light and won’t survive a fall, and he faults ebooks because in  twenty years they have not achieved the same progress that paper books made in a millennia and a half.

That’s why Spiekermann  thinks ebooks are doomed:

"I’m not holding my breath for the future of e-books. They are okay to replace cheap paperbacks, but real books have more to offer. Front and back covers – both flexible – the smell of ink, subtle shades of paper, printed spines and the right size to hold and read them anywhere, without looking at a light and without disturbing whoever is sitting or lying next to you.”

Yes, he thinks ebooks have absolutely no use as instant-large print editions, which is a surprise given that Spiekermann was born in 1947. He also sees no value in an integrated dictionary, sharing options, or the more esoteric options found in rich ebook formats like Apple iBooks.

No, ebooks are only good for replacing mass-market paperbacks.

And this guy is supposed to be an expert? It sounds to me more like he’s reached the "get off my lawn" stage of his career.


image by jm3

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jmurphy June 25, 2016 um 2:52 pm

Well, considering that a 300 dpi Kindle produces output that looks worse than what Ventura Publisher could do in 1986 on a 7-pin dot-matrix printer, some typography "snobs" have a point.

William Ockham June 26, 2016 um 9:08 pm

Were you doing drugs in the ’80’s? I suggest you dig out some output from a circa 1986 dot matrix printer.

Name (Required) June 25, 2016 um 3:49 pm

I am not a typography snob. I still think that the Kindle typography looks awful.
It doesn’t even support hyphenation for all books – just for a few selected ones purchased from Amazon.

Relatively small display, plus huge margins, plus lack of hyphenation lead to lines with too few characters and that lead to wildly inconsistent spacing between words on neighboring lines.

Typography on an e-ink reader can be made a more bearable – just have a look at other e-ink readers, such as Kobo where you can tune the layout to your liking. I don’t even need to harp about PocketBook. Recently I have tested a few Android based e-ink readers. There are quite a few programs available, such as AlReader, CoolReader, MoonReader, FBreader where you can customize *LOTS* of things, to make the device display text much better than Kindle does.

An e-ink reader does have a few shortcomings. It also has quite a few advantages, such as customizability of the display. Why doesn’t Amazon let us set such basic things as arbitrary font size, sane margins or left justification?!?

Pedro C June 25, 2016 um 6:01 pm

I can probably be considered a typography snob/dilettante, but I will disagree with Erik Spiekermann (although he otherwise gets all my respect simply for being the designer of the FF Meta type family): one of the things I love most about reading ebooks is the freedom to choose the typefaces and the page format of my liking.

There are many professionally printed paper books I have owned where I hated the choice of typography, or the text size or the line spacing. Mostly cheap paperbacks, yes, but it has happened to me even with expensive hardcovers.

Before I owned an ereader, I read ebooks mostly on an iDevice, and I was quite happy with the app I used as far as formatting options and the ability to upload my own fonts. When I bought my first ereader last year, I chose the Kobo Aura H2O, because I had read enough about Kobo v. Kindle to know that I could easily patch Kobo to get the formatting choices I wanted, and I didn’t really care about not being in the Kindle ecosystem.

I think Bookerly is quite ok, although sometimes I find its Regular weight too thin, as it happens with many other typefaces on eink screens. It’s great that Kobo does bring the ability to increase font thickness (it can be easily patched to work with all sideloaded fonts), though I usually prefer to find a typeface where I don’t need to use it. That’s why I find serif typefaces that have optical sizes and varying degrees of thickness are really good for eink screens (e.g.: Arno, Garamond Premier, Minion, Mercury Text).

DavidW June 25, 2016 um 10:04 pm

I was excited at the title because I think that we have a long ways to go typography wise with the kindle… but… instead I see that they got two clueless idiots to harp on the same tired crap that we have heard over and over and over.

Especially can’t read it in the sun??? What!? I read in direct sunlight alot. If you’ve never seen or used an ereader do please just shut up (directed to the two clueless idiots quoted in the article).

I’ve found way more of substance in the comments here than in the original article! I

Excessive hyphenation can be a problem (I prefer ragged right instead of full justification)… BUT… this has to be said, if you actually use font sizes comparable to what is used in print (both paperbacks and hardcovers) you would not suffer from excessive hyphenation or rivers on the Kindle.

poiboy June 25, 2016 um 10:45 pm

since you can can very veeeeery easily mod a kindle 4 to use any font (and any book can be re-fonted through calibre), it is about time that kindle raise the bar with their font selection. snobbery aside.

Muratcan Simsek June 26, 2016 um 2:42 am

I think you are being a little unfair. The mistake Spiekermann is making here is that he uses the same criterion (or should this word written as criteria?) for ebooks as printed books. Of course an ebook won’t look as beautiful as a very well designed hardcover like House of Leaves, but it is not meant to be. The goal here is to reach the best look we can in a 6″ screen. We still have some work to do at the page design, but otherwise we are almost there.

Also, don’t forget that we only have two or three typefaces designed with eInk in mind so far. Others are all modifications. Who knows what will happen?

Olivier June 26, 2016 um 8:22 am

Your rant assumes that ebooks started from scratch and thus needed time but they didn’t: they had several centuries of print typography and several decades of computer typography to draw from but failed to make use of either because, you know, they are so fab, what could they possibly learn from their predecessors? *That* is indeed unforgivable.

Nate Hoffelder June 26, 2016 um 9:35 am

Except HTML as a markup language was only a few years old when Mobipocket and eReader got their start. Plus early html was incredibly primitive compared to what can be done with print, and mobile software was limited by the limited hardware.

The tools required for beautiful print went through a couple millennia of development to get to where it is today. The tools for making beautiful ebooks did not exist a couple decades ago, and yes they had to be invented from scratch.

Shari June 26, 2016 um 9:15 am

Any time I hear someone talking about typography, I automatically assume it’s going to be the type of pretentious person who enjoys designing/reading websites with gray text on a white background.

*Newsflash* The majority of people Just. Don’t. Care. about typography. They just want to read.

poiboy June 26, 2016 um 2:39 pm

if you truly believe your newsflash.. then i challenge you to read your next 5 book with open dyslexic font on tiny font setting.

Shari June 26, 2016 um 3:57 pm

Yeah…except that the people talking about "beautiful typography" aren’t talking about font size, as much as their talking about ligatures and hyphens and such. If I wanted to read a book in a tiny font, I would just pick up one of my many paperback books that I still have, but no longer read. The biggest reason that I no longer read them is because I can no longer read tiny text without my glasses, and I don’t want to wear my glasses when I read in bed.

Again…I just want to read. I can’t do that with a tiny font, no matter how beautiful the typography is. On the other hand, I could easily read it in the Open Dyslexic font, or Courier, or Time New Roman or any other font…as long as I can adjust the size.

DavidW June 26, 2016 um 10:13 am

Have to also respond to "It is more than likely that Caecilia was dropped because of licensing costs so Amazon used the opportunity to create their own font."

Caecilia is still available on the kindle. It was not dropped. He might as well have said "I have no idea but I can speculate based upon my complete lack of knowledge!"

Typography Aficionados Still Not Happy With Kindle Fonts | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing June 26, 2016 um 2:01 pm

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Will O’Neil June 27, 2016 um 1:48 am

I have found through extensive experiments that the recommendations of type "experts" correlate negatively (yes, negatively) with reader assessments of readability, which has caused me to lose all interest in their pronouncements. Yes, I agree, some typefaces are prettier than others, but as an author/publisher the abstract aesthetics of type are of little interest to me.

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