Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dear Apple: Typography Still Matters

As others have pointed-out (thanks to Jay Lake for that link), Apple’s ebooks have abandoned good typographic practices, and instead embraced problematic practices like full justification for all text. Apple has now carried these failings over to the generally wonderful “Reader” mode of version 5 of their Safari browser. I’ll confine myself to the issue of full-justification here, and leave the other issues for people who’ve kept their typographic skills more current than my own.

Why is full justification bad? Because the increased space it introduces in text can result in distractingly large gaps between words, and, if some or all of the gaps in one line happen to align with some or all of the gaps in the preceding or following lines, a phenomenon known to typographers as “rivers” is the result – winding vertical columns of white space running through the text. The rivers are not only ugly and distracting, but they ruin the “color” of the text (its consistent grayness when seen from a distance, or with your eyes slightlty defocused.) Typographers don’t let these problems appear in their text, and neither should Apple, inventor of the desktop publishing revolution.

(I was there, by the way, at the beginning of the revolution, replete with my copy of Aldus Page Maker version 1.0, so I remember when typography still mattered to Apple. Even if every other old-timer has gone, Steve Jobs remains, and it is amazing that his justly famous attention to detail allowed these crimes against typography to find their way into released products.)

Steve, Apple, someone – remember when typography mattered at Apple and please make it matter again.

Three “rivers” in less than a paragraph of “Reader” text.
Source: Ars Technica.

No major rivers here, just appalling word spacing (“tracking”).
Source: Wikipedia.

One might attempt to resolve these problems, while clinging to the troublesome practice of fully-justifying text, by increasing the kerning (the space placed between letters) to minimize the tracking. One could even stretch the glyphs of the text a little to reduce the demands on kerning and tacking. However, even in combination, the color of short lines of text will still suffer.

Again, as others have pointed-out, the solution couldn’t be simpler: use left justification (at least by default), and stick to it. (If you must, let users then choose alternate justification schemes – if the lines of text are long enough that full justification can be achieved cleanly, great; if not, let the people who can’t see them have their gaps and rivers.)

C’mon Apple folks, it’s in Apple’s DNA to handle text with the respect that it deserves. Has there been a recent transcription error, or (shudder) was the relevant gene recessive all along? In any case, you can choose to do better now. Honest, you can.


  1. Once upon a time, one could divide longer words with a hyphen. It required some skill and knowledge of the peculiarities of each particular word (not all double consonants could be split in the middle) but it worked to keep the text compact. In the example you have shown, it would have solved the problem and possible even saved a line in the body of the text.

  2. You are correct about the virtue of hyphenating, and also about what makes it tricky to do automatically. Language specific tables of hyphenation information are, I would expect, a requirement. Of course, anything with a spell checker should, or could, already have all that data. So I think we passed the point where automatic hyphenation was too much to expect a decade or more back.

  3. I cannot begin to tell you all the incorrect hyphenations I have seen in newspapers now that they are neither proofread (for the most part - at least not that I can tell, what with all the grammar errors as well) nor set by experienced typesetters, who controlled for spelling even as they set the words in mirror image (my father- and brother-in-law were both trained typesetters). While correct automatic hyphenation should not be too much to expect, apparently it is.

  4. I had no idea that full justification rankled others, but that was naive, of course. Rather than being allowed to meander through the arbitrary and often messy relationship between the line and your words, ending up . . . wherever (and there you go!), you see your intervals coopted and manhandled to fit - what? - the most boorish notion of neatness.
    Not that it REALLY matters, but come on...