Typography on the Web

In spite of my fondness for typography, I have always been fairly antagonistic towards web typography “solutions” like sIFR. Sure, it’s a better idea than using a GIF file for every headline, but is it really necessary?

I’m skeptical. What is it buying you, and at what cost? What’s the return on investment? Is it improving conversions, improving customer/reader loyalty?

To me, content is king. I’ve visited, bookmarked, and returned to many web sites that are no-frills black-text-on-a-white-background. I remember fondly the days of Gopher, shortly before the rise of the World-Wide Web: all information, and no waste.

Let’s say there are 3 kinds of people in the world:

  1. Graphic Designers
  2. Computer Programmers
  3. Everyone Else

Let’s look at these groups from the bottom-up:

Everyone Else
These people don’t really know or care about typefaces. They are likely to stick with whatever default font is selected in Microsoft Office. To Everyone Else, there are 3 fonts in the world: Serif, Sans Serif, and Illegible.

(There is a curious subset of Everyone Else, known as Human Resources Managers. These cheery folks recognize 2 fonts: Comic Sans and Stodgy.)

Computer Programmers
These people know that there are many different font files on their computers, and that some are TrueType and some are PostScript. To Computer Programmers, there are 4 fonts in the world: Serif, Sans Serif, Monotype, and Illegible.

Graphic Designers
Graphic designers love type. They are well-versed in the anatomy of a typeface, and speak lovingly of typeface designer Eric Gill. They can identify by sight 20,000 different fonts, and have probably designed several themselves.

On the web, you can be fairly certain that a given user will have Arial or Helvetica (sans serif), and some variant of Times (serif). There are a few others, but basically you tend to focus on serif and sans serif. You can adjust various type properties via CSS: font sizes, colors, leading (that’s the space between lines), and even letter-spacing. Take a look at 10 Examples of Beautiful CSS Typography and how they did it to see some interesting examples.

At the recent WordCamp Birmingham, I caught Sara Cannon’s presentation on Branding WordPress. She talked about sIFR, and I thought that, perhaps for the sake of peace and brotherhood, I should go ahead and use sIFR and play around with some funky type. The sIFR text is selectable as text. It’s not as bloated as you might think–even the SWF file containing the specific fonts can be optimized to only include the characters you need–and even though it uses Flash, it is used to enhance the page on Flash-capable browsers. For everyone else, it still appears as regular HTML type.

Other folks at the conference (including Mitch Canter) mentioned TypeKit, a web-based service, as an alternative to sIFR. I decided to try it on this blog by using a couple fonts with a little more character for the title and headings. I think the typefaces I picked might have a little too much character–they are falling into my Illegible category–but it works, and it’s easy.

4 thoughts on “Typography on the Web”

  1. I like your division of the world into three font groups, but I’d have to add a fourth — non-GUI programmers. When I was programming financial systems where the only user interface was in monospace, I could recognize three font types — web, monospace, and illegible. It only after moving to web programming that I realized that web fonts are divided between serif and sans serif. Hopefully programming will never get to the point that I’ll have to know 20,000 fonts.

  2. When I was picking up a rental car yesterday, they were complaining about their new computer system. They had just moved from the “green screen” to a more modern interface, and they were not necessarily embracing it. Of course, most computer users are change-averse, but it did surprise me a little–ASCII-based interfaces must be getting rare.

    I think you have a good eye for an easy-to-use interface. Maybe that’s because of your work on financial systems, rather than in spite of it!

  3. If graphic designers knew more about Eric Gill, they might not speak of him so lovingly. I’ve read a bit more about him and he had some unusual sexual proclivities. His legacy in typography is surely secure, though.

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