Typography: Font Design, typeface and Text for Website Page Design

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When we built websites we usually started by defining the body text. The body text definition dictates how wide your main column is, the rest used to follow almost by itself.Used to. Until recently, screen resolution was more or less homogenous. Today we deal with a variation of screen sizes and resolutions. This makes things much more complicated.

In the heat of the relaunch I wrote a quick blog post on responsive typography, focussing solely on the aspect of our latest experiment: responsive typefaces. Without knowing the history of iA, you’d miss some key aspects to the responsive typography and design in our relaunched site. Instead of mashing up all our articles on the matter, I decided to start from scratch and explain responsive typography step by step. This is step one.

To avoid designing different layouts for every possible screen size, many web designers have adopted the concept of Responsive Web Design. In a nutshell this is the idea that your layout automatically adapts to the screen definition. There are different ways to define it. I like to put it this way:

  1. Adaptive layouts: adjusting the layout in steps to a limited number of sizes
  2. Liquid layouts: adjusting the layout continuously to every possible width

While both have advantages and disadvantages, we believe that adaptive with as few as possible break points is the way to go, because readability is more important than having a layout that is always as wide as the viewport. This is a debatable opinion on a complex matter in itself, but optimal readability requires a certain amount of control over the measure (column width) of the text, and in this regard a liquid layout creates more problems than it solves. More about that another time.

Note: Responsive design already incorporates a lot of macro typographic issues (type size, line height, columns width). So responsive design already incorporates responsive typography in many ways. What we focused on in our first post on the responsive typography on our own site, mainly referred to our use of graded fonts. I’d like to talk about grading in the next post and dive right into the basics of responsive macro typography on the screen now.

Line height and contrast

While body text size can be evaluated with that perspective trick, line height needs some adjustment. With more reading distance and (what we call) pixel smear, it’s wise to give screen text a little bit more line height than printed text. 140% is a good benchmark, but of course, it depends on the typeface you use.

Today it’s a given that you make sure that the contrast is not too weak (e.g. grey text on a light grey background) or too garish (e.g. pink on yellow). Since screen typefaces were designed to be displayed black on white, using dark backgrounds is also somewhat difficult, but these can work if done right. With contemporary high contrast screens it’s also preferable to choose either a dark grey for text or a light grey for the background, instead of a hard black on white. But that is, again, not the most important question.

What about desktop computers?

Some people complain about the big font size in Writer for Mac. Just like we had to go for the biggest minimal size choosing the font size for iPad (which is held at different reading distances), we went for the biggest minimal font size on Mac as well. At the time our benchmark was a 24 inch high resolution iMac, where the perceived size is more or less the same as on all other devices.

Since the variety of Mac computers that run iA Writer is finite, we could determine the different possible resolutions. We looked at every possible configuration to make sure that the type size was the best compromise for most machines.

You might ask “Why not just allow the user to choose the type size?” Well, adjusting type size is not a matter of taste, but a matter of reading distance. Since most websites and applications have an overly small type size, new customers would initially choose a type size that they are used to, that is: too small a size, and never experience the full pleasure of our writing app. The main reason is not that we want to force a certain look upon all users: what we want is that iA Writer works without settings without fumbling, that the only thing you can do with it is write. This has been the open secret of its success and changing that would be messing with its core. (What we need to improve are the accessibility integration for people with bad eye sight).

Okay then, why not adjusting to the device’s resolution automatically? Wouldn’t that be true responsive typography? That’s right, and we are working on something similar. Now, in adjusting to the resolution, you also have to choose the right optical weight to make sure that the typeface really works as intended with every size and resolution. With the type size and the resolution optics of the font change as well. That’s why iA Writer for Mac, iPad 1/2 and iPad3 all have different grades as well. To explain the full logic behind grading digital fonts and explain the thoughts behind our new Website, I need a little bit more time and space. So, stay tuned for Part II!

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