I just finished Jason Santa Maria's latest book, “On Web Typography”, here’s what I took away from it.
Before I talk about what I thought about the book1, it might be interesting to note the way I read it. The first chapter at home on my laptop. The next two or three at work on some crappy Android tablet I stole from a conference room. I finished it on a crowded bus on my phone. That’s how I read most books today. In fact, that’s the way most people consume not only books, but also news articles, blog posts and social media updates. The modern reading experience is spread out over the dozens of devices and contexts we use and find ourselves in every day.
##You don’t have to start from zero.
Designing an experience that works across all those different environments seems like an almost impossible task. Jason Santa Maria doesn’t deny this, but makes an important point: You don’t have to start from zero.
There’s been generations of typographers before ours, and they were all trying to achieve the same thing we do today: Making things easy to read. Of course, some of their (brilliant) ideas, like designing letterforms specifically to account for low-quality paper and fast-paced printing techniques2 solve problems that don’t exist on the web. Guidelines for spacing, hierarchy, punctuation and choosing typefaces, however, hold up.
These guidelines give us a solid foundation to work on the new, unsolved problems that come up on the web.3
##Readabillity is Key In my work for Wikipedia I regulary see people (presumably designers) get offended when they spot straight quotes or a minus sign where a dash would be appropiate. It always seemed to me that details like this would only ever be noticed by designers and be of little practical use. Normal people won’t notice the difference between curly and straight quotes, right? Well, wrong.
Unlike the people complaining on Wikipedia, Santa Maria makes a very clear case: Typographic conventions are meant to make text easier to read. That’s it. There’s nothing mystical around them, and it’s in fact worth questioning if they’re still serving their purpose once in a while4.
And users do notice good typography. If your content is cumbersome to read, people will look at cat gifs instead. That’s my takeaway.
Nick Sherman wrote a great article about Bell Centennial, the typeface AT&T designed specifically for their telephone books. Bell Centennial, Form & Function. A detailed look at he telephone book typeface (2005) ↩
Like, for example, making type readable on different screen sizes or working with fallback fonts. ↩