• Print

The new New Typography

Replacing the book production ecosystem with webpage production tools

In the 1920s and 1930s in Europe there was a movement known as the New Typography. It was a movement that rejected traditional type set in symmetrical columns and instead treated the printers block as a blank canvas to be explored in its entirety. The calling card of the movement was type arranged in harmonious and beautiful asymmetrical compositions. In the last 2 years there is another slow breaking wave of typographical exploration. The printers block is now HTML and CSS and Javascript are fast becoming the new tools of the typographer – not just for the web, for ebooks and for print, and not just for printed books, but for all printed material.

Browser as typesetting machine

The change of the books basic carrier medium from paper to HTML (the stuff webpages are made of) has meant many changes to what we might still call typesetting. Kindle and other e-ink devices actually move ink on a display to form words, sentences and paragraphs. The moveable type of Gutenberg’s time has become realtime, in a very real sense each book is typeset as we read it. Content is dynamically re-flowed for each device depending on display dimensions and individualised settings to aid readability. Moving type in ‘read time’ marks a significant paradigm shift from moveable type systems, including digital moveable type manipulated by Desktop Publishing software, to flowable typesetting. We are leaving behind moveable type for flowable type.

The engine for reflowing a page in realtime is something we have seen before. It is the job of the browser. And, since ebooks are webpages, browsers have come to play a central role in digital ereaders. In the case of the iPad the iBook reader is actually a fully featured browser engine; Webkit, the very same technology behind the Chrome and Safari browsers. Browsers are the typesetting machines for ebooks.

What is interesting here is that the browser can also reflow content into fixed page formats like PDF which means that the browser is becoming the typesetting engine for print. CSS and Javascript are the print design tools of our immediate future and the vast majority of innovations in this area are based on Open Source and Open Standards.

The power of CSS and Javascript

CSS is the set of rules used by the browser to know where to place type, images and other elements on a webpage and style those elements. Typical rules define where an image is placed in relationship to text, what fonts used, the font size, background color of the page, and the maximum width of an image, etc. While designed originally for the exclusive application to webpages the CSS Working Group, responsible for overseeing the development and direction of CSS, anticipated the intersection of the book and the web some time ago. In the latest drafts of the CSS standards new additions are almost entirely focused on typography and page control. As a consequence this area is starting to blossom. In particular, the CSS Generated Content for Paged Media Module specification is astonishing for its reframing of flowable text into a fixed page. Cross reference and footnote controls, not needed on the web, are among many book-like structure controls being addressed by CSS. Table of contents creation, figure annotations, page references, page numbers, margin controls, page size, and more are all included. The definition of these rules precede their adoption in browsers, however they are being included in browser engines, notably Webkit, at a very fast pace.

Coincidently there has recently been an explosion in interest in improving browser typography primarily for the better design of websites. Although these advances have not been made with book production in mind these advances can be inherited by the browser for typesetting both electronic and paper books. Of interest is the sharp rise in the websites offering tips on CSS typography an explosion of web fonts, and some very interesting Javascript libraries.

Javascript is the programming language of the web and it can be used to create dynamic content or manipulate objects on a webpage in ways CSS can not, or can not yet. Of particular interest is Kerningjs, inspired by the previously available letteringjs library. These code libraries allow you to change each letter individually in a paragraph or heading and control the spacing between letters (called ‘kerning’). Kerning is essential for printed books, and ebooks, but missing from browsers for a very long time. Colorfont is another Javascript library which enables dual toned glyphs, and the amazing TypeSet Javascript emulates the sophisticated TeX line spacing algorythims developed by Donald Knuth. Even the layout of musical notation (which was never effectively mechanised with Gutenberg’s moveable type and was hand written into books for many decades after the printing press came into the world) has come into focus with the VexFlow Javascripts. With libraries like this it is apparent that Javascript, the programming language of the browser, has a future with typography, and with that Javascript is fast becoming the lingua franca for all typesetting.

There is a lot of fuel in these developments and, interestingly, most of it is coming from outside the traditional print and publishing industry. It could be said that these industries, built upon the printing press, have lost sight of their very foundation. Instead the IT industry is taking hold on a very deep level. Apple and Google are behind the development of Webkit – the rendering engine behind iBooks, Safari and Chrome – which makes a lot of these typesetting innovations possible. Apple utilises these typographical features not just in its browser, but in the development of its iBook reader – the ebook reader on iPad which is itself based on Webkit. Google also fuels these innovations for many reasons other than the browser – better typography in Google Docs being one of them. We can expect the momentum to build and it is possible to say with some confidence that the browser, together with CSS and Javascript is to become the most important typesetting engine of our time as it is fast becoming the typesetting mechanism for digital and paper books and the web.

Ease and efficiencies

The implications for this are enormous and possibly not yet fully realised. At publishing industry conferences and other book-focused forums the attention has largely been on the ebooks effect on distribution, ereaders and the demise of the so-called brick-and-mortar book stores. The biggest effects however are elsewhere, ‘bubbling under’ in the recasting of the browser as a typesetting engine, and with it the slow realisation that the technical ecosystem surrounding book production can be replaced by tools for producing webpages. We are beginning to turn our attention to the tools for making webpages, to make books, and this, it turns out, is much easier than with Desktop Word Processing and Publishing software. Additionally due to recent developments, all of this, as it turns out, can also be used to design print (more on in-browser print production in a future post). Book production once again is becoming faster and cheaper and on its way to achieving another leap of magical efficency.

The future of book production right now is exploding all around us. These pieces of the puzzle are coming together and coming together fast. We can almost watch in real time the necessary mechanics get filled in by new release candidates of major browsers and searching online for ‘out of the blue’ small innovations such as Javascript typography controls. It is getting easier and easier to make books in the browser and consequently there has never been a time when it has been this easy to make books of all kinds. Ease of production is where it all started for Gutenberg and it is starting again for us. If you believe Gutenberg’s efficiencies changed society forever then what effect will the new new typesetting engines have? Its a giddy question. Making books in the browser will have an enormous impact on society as a whole, and just like the printing press, it will not revolutionise the old order, but create a new one.

This material is Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 unported. Attributable to Adam Hyde, 2012.
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  • Simon Cozens

    I have started adapting Bram’s TypeSet into a more generic ebook typesetting library, Calzone: https://github.com/simoncozens/calzone

    • Adam Hyde

      hey Simon
      Thats fantastic. Can you say a little bit more about what it will do? I intend to write about open source developments in this area and if the code base is usable and the direction interesting I might be able to write about it here.

      adam

  • gues

    My mind is blown. This is really exciting. Can’t wait to read Hyde’s next article on this subject.

  • bowerbird

    i don’t know what to say, adam.

    that doesn’t happen to me very often, adam,not often at all.  indeed, it is extremely rare!     :+)
    and because of that i find it quite amusing…        ;+)on the one hand, i know the _excitement_that you’re feeling, because i feel it too, i do,in the work that i’m doing along similar lines.there’s something bubbling underneath here.on the other hand, once you look at it closely,you realize that the “something” is basicallythat we are using a computer for typesetting.yes, we’re doing it in a browser, and that isnovel (excuse the pun), but really, so what?is it any surprise that code that can run offlinecan also run online, as javascript?  not really.but, at the same time, it still _feels_ exciting…so i am confused.  speechless.  and amused.likewise with your obsession with making .pdf.didn’t we decide fixed-page formats are over?i mean, i’ve always argued that we need to be_able_ to support print-on-demand completely,and .pdf has always been in my output array,but to obsess about it, and treat it like it is some_big_deal_ is a little silly and ludicrous, isn’t it?of course it is.so i chuckle about that, but still…  you seem so_excited_ that, well, it makes me chuckle more.so i can’t decide whether to just keep chuckling,or to chide you for being so quaint and outdated,or instead to cheer you on for your enthusiasm…like i said, i’m confused.  speechless.  amused.but hey, now that i know you are _working_ foro’reilly, my dilemma is over.  i will just ignore you,as i have come to ignore all of the o’reilly o’noiseas exploitation of the death of legacy publishers…-bowerbird

    • bowerbird

      oops!  my fault, adam.  it’s _another_ adam who is
      working for o’reilly.  my apologies for the mistake…

      i will ignore the other adam, not you…           :+)

      -bowerbird

  • GilFra

    Thanks Adam. A really cogent and stimulating piece. Exciting times ahead. Hope to read more.