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Like this article? We recommend The Dilemma of 'Print' Onscreen

The Dilemma of 'Print' Onscreen

I was amused, but not surprised, to read a technology columnist's confession in The New York Times that after having had a Kindle e-book reader for three years, she had yet to finish a single e-book. And, she went on to report, she was not alone; e-book publishers have found the phenomenon so pervasive that they have started to commission and publish shorter and shorter books that more resemble short stories than novels. She couldn't put her finger on what was amiss. The penny never dropped for her: It wasn't just the touch of the paper that she missed, or the fault of the short attention span culturally associated with the use of electronic devices; it was, in my analysis, just a problem of bad type. She may have been looking at the type, but she wasn't seeing the problem.

Whether readers consciously observe it or not, their demands for the presentation of text are extremely sophisticated and deeply conservative. No matter how compelling the content, readers will not suffer text that's an effort to read. This is true in print, and it's doubly true onscreen.

Electronically displayed type attempts to imitate printed type—it has no choice in this matter. But while our entire typographic tradition (and calligraphic tradition before that) is based on black letters on a white background, electronic devices always display black by also using gray or color. It's a technique called font smoothing. Crisply defined black characters do not exist in this electronic world. All text is intentionally made slightly blurry (see Figure 2) to smooth out what would otherwise be jagged-edged characters, where individual pixels are distractingly visible. In this low-resolution world, subtle control over the spacing between characters—a linchpin of hand lettering, engraving, and typography for millennia—is impossible.

Figure 2 Electronically displayed type is normally rendered using shades of gray (top, in 14-point) to make its component pixels less visible. The type looks less jagged, but it's also blurry. The coarse resolution of electronic displays also creates spacing anomalies, as the relatively large pixels don't allow precise positioning of characters. The spacing of the high-resolution text here has been adjusted to match that of the screen type above it; it's clearly out of whack.

To make matters worse, e-book software typically doesn't even hyphenate, creating many lines of text with grossly exaggerated spaces between words. We're not used to this problem, and the reason that typographers have battled against it for centuries isn't simply that it's not pretty—it's fundamentally harder to read as well. Electronically displayed text just doesn't match the high standards we've become accustomed to experiencing in print, and reading becomes a chore. It's like riding on a bumpy road—you soon start thinking about where else you'd rather be.

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