It Takes All Types

It Takes All Types

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In: Columns > Pro Dot Con

By Peter Fielding

Published on July 10, 2001

I had a month off, and I spent it bitching and whining. It was splendid, wasn’t it?

Well, now we’re right back in it.

“Web Design has all but effectively killed the art of typography.” It’s funny the things you hear when new media meets up with old. Print designers decry the death of good type, and point to the net for their arguments, which is nothing new. I’m as guilty as anyone else for using 10px Verdana, with no line spacing adjustments. Before CSS brought about a renaissance of my style (pun intended), I was even the bearer of the hated <font size=”1″> tag.

Please don’t tell my friends. The derisive stares seem to berate me less than my fragile ego.

The Baseline of My Type

Content is king.

Any design snob will tell you this. It’s not about what you say alone, or how you say it alone… it’s about how you say what you say together. It’s about how you give it a kick in the arse with a kerning boot. The dawn of web design brought a few problems that hadn’t been encountered in print before. Mainly there came the question of shoving as much text onto a single page as possible, so as not to let our fickle viewers have a chance to click away, without reading about our daily wrestling with the waffle iron. So, in the rush to appeal to the short-attenion-span crowd, we started specifying smaller type.

Then we remembered that Times New Roman is a face begging for good content to waste, so the slow death of the serif font was echoed through the silicon. We also remembered that there was a way to make type even smaller than the miniscule (and poor cross-browser displayed) versions we had.

Teeny-tiny type became the way of the web design world. Applaud us for this, as many Macintosh users across the globe wear coke bottle glasses to this day. Years later, as I reflect on the progression, and update my prescription specs every few months, I realize that some of those print geeks were almost right about some of us web geeks. I say “almost” because I’d replace “killed” with “completely changed.”

Now, I’m not going to say that all of the changes have been wonderful. I look back on some of the type layouts from the early nineties, in magazines like Bikini, and I am awed by their usage, their clear dexterity. There’s a craftsmanship in the typesetting and typeface choices of this seminal work that really strikes the viewer, without them truly understanding “what” it is that’s affecting them.

Even after all the time that has elapsed since, I’m not ashamed to say that Bikini gave me good type. So, the question becomes “Is that gone now, in the realm of limited system fonts, and variable diplay sizes?”

Well, yes… and no.

The Harsh Realities, and the Questions That Go With Them

The limitations of what web designers can expect Macintosh and PC users to have installed on their machines is quite a hit below the belt at times. However, most content on sites can be sorted into the family areas of serif, or sans-serif, with either having a decent fit into the scheme of the design.

Lets suppose that we want large, choking serif type that runs off the page, breaking “borders.” Well, Derek did it, back in the day… and he used image files.

Yeah, I said it… images. “Fake type…” Ha!

Using graphics to add typographical effect to websites has been for some time the second step toward “better” online typography. Sure, it can increase download times, and eat bandwidth like Auntie Bettie tackling a cobbler at an ice cream social… but it’s one of the few alternatives to the “default” typefaces, and type fomatting over which the designer has little if any control.

The fact is, if I want to use 72 pt Adobe Garamond in my header, it’s just not going to happen unless I use graphic treatments. I can design it to read out, but anyone lacking the Adobe spawned font will never see it. Or, rather, they will, but in whatever Roman (serif) font that’s applied as the default choice on their system.

“So we’re S.O.L. with editable content typefaces?” you ask.

Well, not really. Some designers turned to Macromedia Flash as being a small bastion of typographical freedom.

The advent of Flash brought about the ability to have type displayed as vector images. Mathematical curve constructs that effectively show the lines of the typefaces used…no matter what platform, or what fonts the viewer has (or conversely doesn’t have) installed on their machine. The greatest part of this is that the type is still fully editable in the original .fla (Flash movie) file. Now, the use of Flash itself as an internet design tool is highly debated by purists and progressives at times. Ultimately, who cares? It’s all about personal choice, and it DOES open up new avenues down which type-lovers can travel on the web.

“Flash can be annoying to upgrade the movie files for, at times. I also don’t like the idea of a site full of images. Is there anything else?”

Well, again, yes and no.

The Developing Alternatives

The walking-wounded arrival of Cascading Style Sheets has impacted the world of web design in more ways than could be discussed here in twenty issues.

Besides, I’m lazy, so we’ll move on.

CSS is still bound to the rules of “only-the-fonts-the-user-has,” however it introduced the ability to play with the type spacing, formatting, and placement. Suddenly designers could have type over type, type with set spacing to create more whitespace, or less for a more compacted look, and they had near complete control of the layout of their type without the kludgy tables and antiquated “transparent GIF” filler space.

There is a certain logic that says that CSS actually surpasses print media methods, in that overlapping type doesn’t require the tedious task of colour trapping, or the process of checking each cmyk value for colour correction.

All of this, and more is free to you when you pour your heart and soul into the thankless world of web based type!

Of course I skipped the time of web work when the idea of embedding fonts into the pages that required them, was a big looker. In a world based on skittish audiences and limited attention spans, the prospect of demanding a font download for the display of one page delivers a reaction akin to that received by selling a Pinto for parts at a NASCAR event.

With these alternatives in hand, web designers set about using what little there was in interesting, and previously unseen ways.

Layouts took on some serious type effects, as well as displacement maps becoming a nice standard for “dirty/gritty type.” While graphic letterforms and type effects were happening, a new minimalism was spawned as well. Depending on the screen based pixel, so-called “Pixelfonts” were given life.

Silkscreen, Sevenet, Mini7…all of these owe their fame to the ability to be used at low pixel sizes with great results on screen res pages. With Silkscreen having a base height of only 8 pixels, it saves a lot of screen real estate when used properly, AND is legible due to it’s lack of anti-aliasing. These fonts, designed specifically to be clean at almost impossible sizes, formed the base of the new minimalism, and presently adorn a fair number of high, and mid-range design sites online. They are also seen in print magazines, where they are used to convey this very same minimalism that has started on the web.

Hmmm… print typography is borrowing from web typography? That’s baffling!

What About the Future?

So, what’s next for web based typography? Scalable Vector Graphics? Increased Flash support for type effects, and small, aliased text? No-one can tell, yet. GIF-text isn’t disappearing in the foreseeable future, but with more software flooding the market at times, it’s only a question of time before a logical typeface viewer is integrated into browsing.

Print design will always differ from web work. That’s a solid axiom of the differences between media. However, as type on the web continues to evolve, and more amazing typographers get deep set in the ways of “web kung fu,” those differences will get smaller when considered in the context of type alone.

Until then, pass the 10px Verdana and a global stylesheet. I’m about to get a little nutty.

Related Topics: Typography, Web Design

Peter Fielding makes the pretty things for, while he hunkers down in the frozen tundra of western Canada. Receiving his email by data dog sled, he is most often found lighting miniature garbage can fires for the homeless baby seals that power his cpu, and lobbying for the inclusion of Full Contact Page Design in the next Winter Olympics.