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Archive for the category ‘foibles’

iOS7 typography: too thin, too tight

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Everything about the new design of iOS that was previewed this week looked nifty, except for the typography. Okay, I’m not wild about the candy colors, but that’s just taste. Typography isn’t just about taste; it’s about functionality. On the screen, and for information design, Helvetica – whether Neue or not – is not functional; it just gives the flavor of functionality. The letterforms are too closed, too uniform; they’re not easy enough to distinguish at a glance. And a glance is exactly what we give to the screen of our phone.

At huge size, the Helvetica Neue Thin numbers look all right; but at any other size, they lack clarity. It’s too easy to mix up a 3 and a 6 and an 8 and a 0, at small sizes – not a problem you really want to have when you’re dealing with dates and coordinates and addresses and phone numbers.

Please, can we have a moratorium on very thin sans-serif type that’s pushed tightly together? Trying to squeeze more information into a small space is useless if the information isn’t clearly readable. The lighter the weight of a typeface, the more space it needs between letters, to be easy to read. And it needs even more space when the text is displayed against a dark or mottled background, or seen at an angle rather than straight on. All of which is inherent in the iOS7 design.

For that matter, I wonder whether, in the age of Apple’s Retina display, there’s any need to stick with sans-serif faces on the screen. For years, I’ve felt that an open humanist sans was the most functional style of typeface for reading onscreen; but perhaps that’s no longer true. Or at least not necessarily.

Everything that Jony Ive says about design in his iOS7 video is true. Unfortunately, in the typography of the visual interface, he hasn’t followed through. What we’ve seen is only a preview; the UI is still in development, and it could change for the better before it’s released. But I know how the process of software development goes, and I’m sure there’d be a huge resistance to any change at this point that affected how much text fits on the screen. It’s disappointing, because a fundamental rethinking of the typography is what’s needed.

Some examples:

Can you read this exchange easily? Not “can you make it out when you squint and peer closely,” but can you read it easily?

Messaging in iOS7

What’s on your calendar for June 10? (And what’s with that busy superior “th,” anyway? That’s 18th-century design, not 21st.) Can you read it when you see it at this angle?

iOS7 interface at an angle

Ironically, Apple’s marketing typeface is much more readable than its iOS text face. The callouts in this example are clearer than the information in the Calendar panel.

iOS7 Calendar with callouts

[Images at left: top, part of a screenshot of a message from Siri in iOS7; below, the same words in a few different of typefaces, with looser spacing.]

Addendum (July 8):

Apparently the latest beta of iOS7 allows switching to Neue Helvetica Regular instead of Light for non-Retina displays. Gizmodo has a nice demo of the effect. (Thanks for pointing this out, Aaron Meek.) Alas, it’s clear when you see the font switching back and forth that somebody at Apple doesn’t understand how to track lighter typefaces so they’re readable. The lines of lighter type should be at least as long as the lines of heavier type, not shorter. Squeezed again!

’tis or ’tain’t

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’Tis the season for backwards apostrophes. The web, and the pages of magazines, are full of variations on the phrase ’tis the season, half of which have the apostrophe backwards (like the example at left) – presumably because someone just typed an apostrophe on the keyboard and their software helpfully turned it into a single open quotation mark. But that ain’t an apostrophe. The apostrophe, like the comma, only faces one way. Pay attention, please, and get it right!

Web-page headline with backwards apostrophe

(Not sure how to get the right glyph? Copy and paste it from someplace else. If your software is giving you an open single quote, just type an apostrophe at the end of the word, where it’ll face the right way; then delete that and paste it at the front.)

[Images: from the holiday-season home page of lee.com – hardly the only high-profile retailer to make this mistake.]

Type different

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Thomas Phinney wrote a thoughtful blog post last week about “The Impact of Steve Jobs on Typography”: about how the Mac pioneered proportional fonts on the screen, and how the combination of Aldus PageMaker and the LaserWriter created desktop publishing; and about a host of later improvements and developments: “Being able to see what fonts look like on screen. Showing proportional fonts on screen. Scaling the same font outlines for screen as for print. Putting a ‘font’ menu in applications, and having all applications share a pool of fonts installed at the system level (instead of associated with some specific printer).” Jobs was famously attentive to details; more to the point, he was famously attentive to the details of design. His flare and care for industrial design made Apple’s products desirable – and usable.

Which is why I’ve always been disappointed that Apple doesn’t bring that same level of perfectionism to its use of type. The graphic design, both in Apple’s marketing and in its products themselves, is always careful and clean; but the choices of fonts have been erratic, and they’re not always used consistently. Just looking at a current page of the Apple website, about Mac products, I see both their corporate font, Myriad, and the current Mac user-interface font, Lucida Grande. Both are well-designed humanist sans-serif typefaces, and either one works well; they actually play together better than you would think, but it’s still subtly jarring to see two competing sans serifs on the same page. But that’s not all.

Ever since the introduction of the iPhone, Apple has been moving toward using versions of Helvetica on screen. I’ve written before about the problem with reading numbers in Helvetica. The same repetition of shapes that makes Helvetica look consistent and “modern” (or at least retro-modern) creates ambiguity and makes it all too easy to mistake one number or letter for another. As Thomas Phinney said in a comment on his own post, “I love iOS, but I am still horrified that it uses Helvetica as a UI font.”

A typographer is not a type designer

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Earlier this summer, I got e-mail from Abebooks.com, promoting a bunch of books about type and typography that they had for sale. It was a nice set of books. (Happily, I already owned most of them.) But in the text of the e-mail, the writer seemed to be misinformed about just what a typographer was:

“The book world revolves around typefaces. You might not even notice them but they are right under your nose. Typographers like Claude Garamond, John Baskerville, Eric Gill, Giambattista Bodoni, Adrian Frutiger and Hermann Zapf define the style of the words we read.”

And if you click through to Abebooks’ page about type books, you find that the very first two sentences contradict each other: “Typography is the art of arranging type and that includes the selection of typefaces, the point size and the leading. A typographer is someone who designs typefaces.”

This confusion has been creeping into print over the last couple of years: people who are newly come to writing about fonts start calling type designers “typographers.”

That’s like calling someone who makes violins a “violinist.” Typography is the art and craft of using type; it’s not the art and craft of designing type. That’s done by type designers. The classic type designers named by Abebooks may also have been typographers – Bodoni and Baskerville were renowned for their book design and printing as well as for the types they designed for those books – but what this e-mail is talking about is type design. Please don’t mix them up.

Re-fi type hell

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Sometimes you just have to show a really bad example. The one you see on the left is an online ad that appeared recently on a popular web page. It’s not high-end advertising design. The open-book metaphor seems to fight with the interactive drop-down lists, and in a misguided attempt to suggest the printed page, the designer has let the program freely alter the spaces within words and lines, without the aid of anything so mundane as a hyphen. The result is magnificently bad.

In those 19 lines of text, there are almost none that are typeset competently. Words are squashed together, other words are stretched out, all with no apparent logic except to force them into those terribly narrow justified columns. It’s hard to imagine this ad enticing anyone to read the text, even if they were hooked by the promise of the headline. What an open book has to do with refinancing a mortgage is anyone’s guess, but this miniature version is about as far from the even texture of a well-typeset page as you can possibly get.

Unserious Sans

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Amy Redmond forwarded this press release that she received from the Seattle Parks and Recreation department after she wrote a letter about a proposed ban on smoking outdoors in parks. “I just can’t take this seriously,” she wrote. “I so very badly want to storm into their office and say ‘I will support the ban on smoking in parks if you make a law banning the use of comic sans in press releases.'” Spoken like a true typographer.

Press release in Comic Sans