FontBook Reloaded

Tonight at 6:00 pm CET, typographic legend Erik Spiekermann flipped a switch and FontShop released the FontBookApp for Apple’s iPad on the App Store. I was fortunate to be given a review code and so I have been able to kick the tires a little. These are my first impressions after a two days of moderate use. 

The short version: Awesome.

The long version: See text below. ↓

The original FontBook – first published two decades ago in 1991 - has been an indispensable tool for designers everywhere. Not only for referencing and searching specific typefaces, but also for self-education by simply skimming through the pages at random, marveling at the breadth of available forms and styles and finding inspiration in this seemingly inexhaustible repository of typographic creativity. The FontBook exemplified an encyclopedic approach: If a font existed somewhere, it was probably listed in the FontBook. This not only made it comprehensive, it also meant that the FontBook wasn’t exactly portable. My 1998 edition, containing over 25,000 fontspecimens, weighs a hefty 2.5 kg and is about 5,6 cm thick. I’m not picking this thing up when I leave the house to visit a client.

Enter the iPad

Fontshop has taken its massive font database with over 620,000 entries and put it on Apple’s tablet with a clean and intuitive UI. Freed from the constraint of a sequential medium the FontBook now offers several approaches to discovering and finding typefaces. The initial menu gives access to FontShops vast catalogue via five large tappable areas: ALPHABETICAL, DESIGNER, CLASSES, FOUNDRY and YEAR. From each of these selections you can then drill down deeper until you reach your desired typeface.

One smart UI decision was to have the size of the different areas (let’s call them “tiles”) correspondent roughly to the number of results inside these tiles, thereby giving relevance to the search result even before you actually tap on it.

You can see right away that Linotype has more fonts listed than ITC and Adrian Frutiger more than Julia Friese. For the largest tiles the app even adds a little overlay that displays the actual numbers of fonts inside (477 in Frutiger’s case) but for some reason these wouldn’t show up in the screenshots the app lets you take.  

Once you have selected a specific typeface you are presented with the actual type specimen. In this view you have a scrollable list with related fonts on the left and five sheets with examples that you can drag in from the right.

For every font you get a type sample poster, an interactive three-size type sample player, sorted type sample in display size plus alphabet, sorted type sample in text size, the complete character set and a summary of font info: more than enough to make an informed font choice.

The FontBookApp is a legitimate substitute for 3 kilograms of dead trees. It is elegant and a joy to use. I’d even argue that it is more effective at its core functionality than the old yellow brick ever was. The only drawback is that the app is designed for being online at all times. Without internet access you lose about 90% of the content (the app comes preloaded with a number fonts for offline viewing) and this keeps it from ultimately supplanting the original analog FontBook.

You can find out more about the app (like the awesome compare function) in this comprehensive overview at FontFeed.com.

Nitpicks 

Of course, nothing is perfect right out of the gate. Here are some minor annoyances that are grating enough to get noticed but not so irritating as to impede the usefulness or the enjoyment of the app:

  • When you look up a typeface with the search function or any of the tiles except the CLASSES tile, you have no way of finding out which class it actually belongs to. Is Sirba a French Oldstyle or a Transitional? How about Skolar? I’d like the app to tell me these things.
  • The tiles in the CLASSES section need to show the fontnames. A screen full of sans-serif RGs doesn’t help me pick a typeface. 

     
  • The compare function only lets you compare fonts that have been previously marked as favorites, effectively reducing the FAVORITES tile to temporary storage. I’d like my favorites being kept seperate from stuff that I looked at only once to find that I don’t need it.
  • Did I complain about the weight of the original FontBook? This new puppy may be lighter than the 3 kilograms of the 2006 analog edition (Apple lists the weight of the iPad2 as 1.33 pounds/601 g) but the filesize is a whopping 524 MB (which works out to 5.73 grams per megabyte by the way.) You don’t want to download that over 3G without checking your data plan first. 

These little gripes are no showstoppers but I still hope that Fontshop addresses them in future updates.

Final Verdict 

At €4.99/$5.99 there’s no excuse to not buy the FontBookApp immediately. Every designer will get one anyway and those who don’t own an iPad yet have now the perfect excuse to get one.

Like, now.

P.S.

Can somebody tell me why 1995 was the most prolific year in typedesign ever? I know that Macromedia bought Altsys in ’95 and got Fontographer out of that deal but … really … 517 fonts in that year alone

Notes

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