What Happens to Type with Our New Reading Habits
Now electronic books are marching into the bibliographic marketplace with a saucy swagger, but the typefaces they use make them look more like faceless bureaucrats than the next hot new thing.
Back in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the people who began what we call the publishing industry, men like Aldus Manutius and William Caxton, became publishers because they believed that if everyone had the opportunity to read the rare manuscripts they were reading, they could genuinely change the world. That belief imbued every aspect of the work of the early publishers and their type designers.
Of course, cookbooks, travel, self-help, humor and other genres were also published during the Renaissance—books have, should and always will represent every aspect of the human experience. But when craftsmen like Nicolas Jensen, Francesco Griffo and Claude Garamond considered the proportions of each letter, the contrast between the thick and thin lines, the shape of the curves, the endings of the serifs, letter-fit and the legibility of the type on a page, their goal was to make every stroke they cut into their steel punches worthy of the best of our literary, religious and scientific heritage.
Incorporating better book design and utilizing the best types of the past and present would represent an additional investment for the manufacturers of e-books. But beauty is not a mere frill—humans demand it, and books deserve it. I believe the printed book will surely last, but e-books may well become the sole presenter of some nonfiction and other genres in the future, and the exclusive source of literature for some readers. If so, I hope the technicians accept the responsibility to make their presentations worthy of the best literature of our time and literature that remains timeless, by embracing and adapting typographic traditions that for centuries have made books a pleasure to have and hold, and the printed page a quiet delight to behold.
Via limited language
There have emerged new ‘reading spaces’, that are incomparable with the traditional paper ones, but still behave like they were made by Gutenberg. New portable ‘e-readers’ like Amazon’s Kindle or the iLiad are state-of-the-art gizmos that still mimic a paper page’s format, albeit of a one-page-fits-all kind. The notion that one can manipulate the appearance and behaviour of text on screen still has had no serious consequences in any generally distributed medium, including the web. The simple idea that text – not necessarily the content it carries, but its formal structure and the way it is accessed – can be laid-out in variable ways to be triggered situatively by the reader has been only marginally worked out in mainstream on-screen media, in what we could call ‘template culture’. What we see as ‘interactive text’ is mostly functional text, i.e. text that functions in verbal wayfinding within websites and on-screen forms and menus. You click a word, and a list of subcategories appears. You mouse over a word or an image, and an explanatory line or paragraph pops up.
Such ubiquitous functionality could be used for richer purposes than mere informational messages; it could be used as integral part of a text, and of the reading experience it offers. The standard hierarchies of text in print media – headline, chapeau, introduction, main text, footnotes, captions – can function in a totally different way in on-screen media. There, if need be, and if the author sees it as an interesting way of communicating, each letter could spawn an endless variety of text formats. A summary statement could give access to deeper layers of argumentation and reference within the same ‘page’. An image could morph into its own description – or vice-versa. A question or argument could become surrounded by answers or counter arguments. A text could give more or less detail, depending on the reader’s behaviour…
Image Source: Leo Reynolds