If I had to choose the aspect of design that I enjoy the most, it would be fonts. Looking at them, drawing them, comparing them, choosing them.

During my wandering college years, part of the requirement of my journalism class was not only writing for, but laying out the college newspaper. One day in 1990 I picked up an issue of HOW Magazine and read an article that asked designers: “If you were stranded on a desert island, which font would you choose to have with you?” The art featured fonts names displayed in its font all grouped together on a little island.

Now, bear with me—these were the very early days of desktop publishing. I had never heard of PageMaker or Quark. The closest I had come to considering typography had been taking a calligraphy class. Seeing all those fonts together tripped a switch in my brain. It struck me how they each had a different “feel”, or as The Elements of Typographic Style more eloquently puts it:

One of the principles of durable typography is always legibility…that gives its living energy to the page. It takes various forms and goes by various names, including serenity, liveliness, laughter, grace, and joy.

I wanted to be a part of that. To choose fonts in order to bring text to life seemed like a craft, an art, magic. I graduated with that degree in journalism and then got hired by the local paper’s composing department and never looked back.

Flash forward to today. As a print designer I’ve practiced the art and craft of print book design for 15 years. I’ve gained respect for the reliable tools of design—the grid, white space, scale, contrast, typography—alongside amazingly talented designers and on a wide variety of subjects.

On writing, from The Elements of Style:

A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. … In most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

On typography, from The Elements of Typographic Style:

Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form. … The typographic page is a map of the mind.

Perfect together!

It’s my hope that I’ve made the author’s words come to life and connect to each reader in every book I’ve designed. It’s an odd kind of position to be in: If I’ve done my job right, my role will be invisible. But that’s okay. At the intersection of graphic design, typography, and books, I am alive.

Of course, book publishing is going digital. And I’m up for the journey. However, sometimes the best I can do is make a portable ePub file to be read across a wide variety of devices (both eInk and tablet), and darnit if it doesn’t display like a Word doc?

Is it any wonder that these early days of ePub production have us print book designers feeling a little lost?

Some days, my fear is that those ePub folks already comfortable with coding and digital production are mocking us print designers. I know that not all do! But “trade book designers lamenting loosing typography and X-Y page layout” causing ePub suckage?

We may be lamenting, but only because we know how powerful those tools are in structured, purposeful design. The good news is the EPUB3 and HTML5 will start to bring more of a design sensibility to the craft of ePub production, pending eReading devices being able to support them. The web can already support many typographic principles. And we print designers understand structure and are excited by the possibility of helping editors to structure digital text to be easily cross-referenced.

But one wild-card factor will still remain. Portability.

The ability for readers to immediately access a seemingly endless array of books and authors? Almost anywhere in the world? For a very affordable price? On their choice of eReading device and with their choice of eRetailer? Yes, yes, yes, and yes! I’ve already signed up and there’s no need to convince me of portability’s strengths. Long live the book!

That being said, portability means flexibility. And giving more display control to the reader. Which I’m fine with. Anything to help people feel comfortable with their books. But I maintain that print book designers should advocate for a comfortable reading experience … and wait for the day when eReader technology catches up to our design tools.

Here’s one font example. An author wanted large portions of her text set in bold. The editor tried to talk her out of it but then ended up coming to me and asked if we could set the type in such a way to satisfy the author and yet tone down the impact of the bold, bold, and more bold everywhere. I set the print text in Adobe Garamond which has a semibold that fit the bill perfectly (click the pictures to make them bigger):

But there is currently no such semibold option for an eInk eReader (ran out of time to get pic of my eInk reader):

So put that one on the wishlist: wider font support for eReading devices. I’m not even talking specific fonts but perhaps more weights. Right now, when you export a font from InDesign to ePub that has some sort of semibold option, it either comes out regular weight or bold weight.

Recently, I was working on an eBook targeted for the iPad. I basically taught myself HTML and CSS during that project, with help from the #ePrdctn group on Twitter, especially @rcgordon. I thought I’d try my hand at choosing a font. Embarrassingly, with lots of code swimming in my head, I didn’t notice that iBooks overrode my font choice in the running text with Palatino, but did apply my font choice to other text elements, like examples. I’m not going to admit how long I tried to troubleshoot that situation! But, it got me thinking that 1. in my fast-paced production department I can’t waste time with an issue that needs to be fixed by iBooks, and 2. well, how does my book look in all of the font choices?

Here’s my book in all six font choices in iBooks at the same text size (click the pictures to make them bigger).

  • Baskerville and Cochin
  • Georgia and Palatino
  • Times New Roman and Verdana
  • It was a good exercise for this print designer. Each of these fonts lend the text a different personality, right? None of them broke the design. But I’m so curious what font most (human) readers will choose (the default is Palatino).

    There is an intersection where eBook portability, ePub specs and eReader support, and graphic design principles meet. The larger that intersection becomes, the better we’ll serve (human) readers, and that should be only goal of both print and digital book production. There’s serenity, liveliness, laughter, grace, and joy there!

    In a future post, I’ll dig into the history of the fonts that are available in iBooks.