In fonts. Not per se in typography and absolutely not in graphic design, but in typefaces.

My esteemed, not-always-annoying colleague Stephen Coles is correct: Apple typography has been half-assed at best through the entire reign of OS X. Typography on the iPhone/iTouch and now iPad also isn’t good enough.

Coles collected a wide range of unarticulated grievances into one teeming mass. You probably have your own gripes, like the very existence of Arial on an iPhone that already also has Helvetica. (Not a good choice for onscreen reading, but Arial adds an unwanted element of artistic fraud and chicanery.) Make bad choices available and people will use them: The Weather Network app actually uses Arial. And I seem to be the only one to have documented how atrocious the Arabic is.

Apple has a typography desk. It is not exactly crowded with developers vying for every square centimetre, but it really exists. Have you ever heard of it? Could you tell me who runs it? Can you point to any publicly available resources about it?

Then compare Microsoft, which has two divisions focussed on type and reading (Typography and Advanced Reading Technologies). Esteemed colleagues Simon Daniels and Kevin Larson are but two of many people with a high profile in the type business who work for Microsoft (in those departments respectively). MS Typo itself does a great deal of work. Apart from commissioning the confusable Microsoft C-fonts, the department does everything from creating box-drawing characters for teletext fonts to designing Liberian symbol systems.

Volume of blogging has declined over the years, but there’s still an immense amount of information on the MS Typo site. The new page on Windows 7 typography is simply amazing compared to anything Apple has, which is precisely nothing.

Everyone has their own quibbles here too, though. The C-fonts, even insiders admit, are not that hot (some just aren’t usable), and the confusable names were dictated from on high by fiat. The system font Segoe (“see-go”) retraced the soiled path of Arial by illegally and unethically duplicating an existing typeface – and doing a hack job of it. (In this case, that face is Frutiger.) ClearType wasn’t turned on by default in most systems till Windows Vista. MS-funded reading research, like tobacco-company-funded cancer research, tends to show its own fonts in questionably fair light.

Still, and in stark contrast to other Microsoft practices, there is nothing about Microsoft typography, or lack of same, that warrants white-hot anger. I’d say we’re getting close to that point with Apple. But it’s fixable.

  1. Steve has to care

    Nothing major happens at Apple without direct Steve involvement. Some minor tasks also cannot occur without passing through the Steve prism. You should probably trust me when I say that Apple’s decline in typography can mostly be ascribed to Steve’s not really giving a shit.

    Of course this is at odds with the prevailing design sense at the company and Steve’s own such sense. Time and again the world has rewarded his high standards. It’s always ready for more. To paraphrase the slogan from the ’90s, “We’ve upped our standards. Up yours.”

  2. Turn on WebKit features

    Informed people can reasonably debate which rendering engine does a better job at making Web standards real, but from a typographic standpoint it’s no contest: WebKit wins. You wouldn’t know it, though, because important features like kerning, hyphenation, and several kinds of ligature and alternate-character substitution are turned off in Safari, ostensibly for “performance reasons.” This excuse is nonsensical at best on anything faster than a 2G iTouch.

    Let me put it to you this way: There’s something wrong in the world when Opera for Mac renders the Zapfino headlines of this Weblog better than Safari does. Firefox on Mac does in fact at least use kern pairs and f-ligatures. As somebody once quipped, great artists ship. Firefox is shipping.

  3. You’ve got exclusive type features. Use them

    Why does Hoefler Text exist in your Macintosh and iOS devices? Because it was commissioned to make QuickDraw GX type features look good. It is still a highly usable garalde and is much preferable to another widely-seen member of that classification, Adobe Garamond. But why does it exist? As a showcase for type technology.

    We have long since forgotten that technology. Nonetheless, Apple does have its own layout engine and some useful text-composing features, none of which have names as catchy as QuickDraw GX. Turn the features on, give them better names, publish dedicated Web pages for them, and – importantly – commission new fonts that look good only when such features are in use. (We’ll come back to that later.)

  4. Something else you’ve got is fascistic negative taste. Now use it

    Pace young Aaron Swartz, Apple has negative taste:

    Negative taste is the ability to tell when something is bad…. People with negative taste can make things that look really nice, but they also look very plain…. People with negative taste make things by trying something very simple and then stripping away pieces until it looks good. They can detect goodness, but not create it, so they’re limited to designs with very few variables, because then they can go through all the options and pick out the ones that look OK. […]

    People with negative taste can recognize people with positive taste and hire them.

    Here you have Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive in a nutshell.

    Apple urgently needs to deploy its trademark negative taste. Get Arial and fucking Papyrus off the iPad. Dump those half-assed “marker” typefaces. Debride the wound and start working on the scar tissue.

  5. Defaults matter

    I think it is well accepted now that default settings are enormously important. Even small mistakes, like mail programs defaulting to top-posting, lead to consequences so immense they make stomping Ray Bradbury’s butterfly look like spilling a grain of sugar on the kitchen counter. Many people have no reason to alter default settings; many more don’t know how or get frustrated when they try. MS Word bulleted lists are an example of the latter.

    Actually, every typographic feature of MS Word is the worst it could possibly be (six-inch measure; too-short leading; full justification but no hyphenation; widow/orphan control and kerning available but off; blank lines between grafs; Times “New” Roman default font [pre-Vista]). PowerPoint is considerably worse. And how much of the financial collapse could be attributed to unreadable numbers in Excel?

    Apple gets default settings wrong all the time, especially in the Finder, which confuses me still even after continuous Macintosh use since the day it came out in 1984. Apple is in fact not any better at intelligent and correct default settings than Microsoft or many open-source platforms.

    iBooks’ default use of full justification with no hyphenation is an outright abomination. CSS can override it, but the response it triggers isn’t just “You can’t be serious”; the response is “You obviously aren’t serious.”

  6. Design fonts

    As you’d expect, I urge Apple to get back into the business of type design. The chief lesson of the Web must be observed: Do what works and don’t do what doesn’t work.

    1. Bring designers inside. MS Typo has in-house type designers. You’ve never heard of them, but they’re there and they’re busy. We know for a fact that single-person shops are the mainstay of type design, while the effect of staff increases is multiplicative, not additive. Two- and three-person shops like Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Underware are powerhouses. (UPDATE: H&FJ is up to 11 people now. My point remains.) Nobody’s really a monolith in the type-design industry, which explains why Pilgrim’s trademark atavism and cruelty are to be ignored when it comes to Webfont licensing. (Do not fuck the foundries. There are no “foundries”; there are a couple of artisans here and there trying to earn a living.)

      The point here is that Apple can go big by starting small. An in-house design staff of eight, six, or even four can churn out more fonts than you can shake a subpixel at. There are more people than that working just on VoiceOver.

      We need new fonts in part to divorce people from their misapprehension that thrice-removed variants of ancient letterpress faces make any sense at all for onscreen reading. Baskerville may have been classy in hot metal on cream-coloured stock a century ago, but it, like Cochin, is completely unusable on a computer today. Don’t wear a top hat and tails to the Water Cube.

    2. Unhitch the stallions. Once you’ve got designers working on actual typefaces, give them free reign. This is not a time for micromanagement. Typefaces take a long time to conceive, draw, and test. Ideas must percolate and distill. You need a lot of printouts, but what you need even more of is aimless wandering through cherry blossoms and koi ponds.

    3. License from outside. Almost a no-brainer, and something Apple already does, albeit poorly. At this point is there really a reason why, say, four variants each of Gotham and Retina should not come standard on Apple products? (These are mere examples, offered in furtherance of the H&FJ theme of this posting.) Where are the C-fonts? Why hasn’t Apple licensed Tom Milo’s Arabic layout engine?

    4. Go open and stay closed. Open-source fonts are almost completely oxymoronic and are nearly a total failure, but only just. They’re a near miss. WebKit is open-source but Safari is locked down tight as a drum. Something similar could be done for typefaces. A few open-source typefaces that Apple also uses could be quite handy in online environments. They’d sit alongside (often in the same pages as) typically-licensed fonts.

      Only Apple has the taste, and capital of various kinds, to reverse the infamous Gruberism I’ll adapt here: The fonts you’re allowed to redesign aren’t worth using; the fonts that are worth using aren’t redesignable.

And yes, their caption fonts suck

Of course I’m going to bring this up. Fonts for caption and subtitle playback are a joke. On iOS, what few closed captions that exist are displayed in Courier.

Caption example using Courier (mostly upper case)

By default, iTunes uses Monaco, and if it’s possible to change that, I don’t know how.

Caption example using Monaco (mostly upper case)

I have DVD Player set up to use Thesis Mono, which is vaguely tolerable.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that all these QuickTime-based players can display only analogue-television (NTSC, EIA-608) captions and pretty much nothing else, even there they manage to be worse than my ten-year-old midrange Sony CRT television. I keep telling everyone caption and subtitle fonts suck, and everyone just keeps on using defining them using Windows defaults, with all the associated taste and appropriateness. Except Apple actually isn’t any better. There’s something wrong with the world when it is possible to say that.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2010.04.12 14:17. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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