Working with type

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Published:  November 10, 2010
Working with type

One of the most exciting aspects of the emerging web lies in the potential for creating beautiful typography online. But will a staggering array of new typefaces becoming available for online use be a Good Thing™, or will it just lead to even uglier websites?

To answer this question, I corner Mark Boulton, a UK-based web designer and one of the speakers at Web Directions South 2009 conference in Sydney. In addition to being a highly sought after designer, Boulton is a prolific blogger, speaker and author, and his client list includes the BBC, Warner Bros and ESPN.

When you refer to the term ‘typographic’, what do you mean?
I like to use the definition of typographic design as being ‘the mechanical notation and arrangement of language’. It’s about more than just choosing the typeface – typographic design refers to focusing on all elements of typographic design, from grids and hierarchies to typesetting, and everything in between. In my mind, the difference between a typographic designer and a graphic designer is that a graphic designer does typographic design, but it’s not their main focus. They’re often focused on imagery, photography and art direction. For example, any image you use in a design should fit into a grid – a typographic grid. It should be created and designed with typography as the primary element. 99 percent of what we do on the web, as designers, is typographic design.

So, is typographic design an art or a science?

I definitely consider it to be a science, more than an art. Type design – the design of the letterforms – is much more akin to art. To design a specific typeface that conveys a certain feeling or idea for a large body of text is very, very challenging. Typographic design, however, has rules and definite ways of doing things. It’s less about art than type design.

What do you mean when you refer to ‘typographic structure’?
My view of typographic structure consists of nine squares: we have function along the bottom – language, typesetting and grid; above that we have form – hierarchy, font and rhythm; and on top we have attributes – layout, colour and content. All of these elements need to work together to create a strong typographic structure, but it is in fact possible to remove a couple and still retain a robust structure. On the web we’ve always had very limited font choice, to the point where designers rarely consider typefaces. But we can still have a really strong structure due to all the other elements, so creating strong typographic design on the web is possible – even with the limited fonts that we have right now. Just because we’re unable to choose our font, doesn’t necessarily mean we have to produce poor work.

Typographic structure

Typographic structure

Are web designers going to have to relearn this structure for every new font?
Yes, because it’s not as simple as dropping in a new font into the structure, unfortunately. The recent support for the @font-face property in modern browsers is a double-edged sword; it’s great for designers, but if it’s as simple as choosing Comic Sans from a dropdown menu, like you can in Microsoft Word today, then who knows what hobbyists might do with it? When you choose a font, you replace that bit in the middle with a different font, and it has an effect on all the surroundings.

Are free fonts the answer to a beautiful web?
Most of the free fonts out there are rather crappy, actually. They often don’t render properly on different platforms, the kerning is usually wrong and they generally aren’t available in multiple weights, limiting their commercial use.

I don’t mean to have a go at free fonts – my hat goes off to type designers, because designing a typeface is such hard work and takes a long, long time. It’s no wonder so many foundries are very protective of their years of work.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the coming wave of online fonts?
I’m a bit of both. I do worry that we’re giving hand grenades to kids; with the wrong tools in place, people will be unable to make good design decisions.

For designers, though, it’s exciting, and it’s a good place to be; however, I think we lack the right fonts to use on the web at this stage. The difference between web fonts and fonts designed for print is huge. I’d love to see browser vendors or big corporations step up to the plate, like Microsoft did, and invest in having web fonts designed and distributed – whether that be through a service like Typekit, or from the foundries themselves. Because fonts like Garamond or Bodoni really weren’t meant to be used on the web.

Mark Boulton’s journal:
http://markboulton.co.uk

Web Directions conferences:
http://webdirections.org

From Desktop magazine.

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