Typography on the Web: Questions for Jeffrey Zeldman—Part 2

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By: Ellen Lupton | November 18, 2009

This is the second in a two-part interview [part 1 is here] withJeffrey Zeldman.

The basic conundrum for web typography revolves around the seemingly contradictory needs of users and designers. Users need the ability to re-size text on demand. Designers need the ability to create designs with predictable results in different browsers and different user scenarios. Can these competing imperatives be reconciled?Leading designers in the standards community pretty much solved these problems over the past five years. Current best practices are spelled out in my book, and they really work. It helps that browsers have mostly switched to Page Zoom, a technology that enables users to re-size the page (not just the type), thereby preserving design relationships from element to element and avoiding the kind of visual snafus that sometimes plagued even the most bulletproof web layouts. But even before browsers made the switch to Page Zoom, we had figured out how to combine the precision of pixel-based design with the flexibility of ems and percentages.

In 2006 Microsoft issued the ClearType Collection, a set of brand new fonts designed for use on the web. Some of these typefaces are quite nice, such as John Hudson’s Constantia and Luc(as) de Groot’s Calibri. Have the ClearType fonts had any impact on the web design community?

I haven’t seen any real impact, and they are nice fonts. Microsoft’s initial font collection, back in late 1996, had a huge impact, of course; we all love Georgia, and thankfully it is as beautiful in a world of OS X Quartz-based font smoothing and Windows 7 as it was in the pixelicious days for which Matthew Carter designed it. Those fonts were widely distributed, and they were free.

The ClearType Collection might have had more of an impact if it was widely distributed and free instead of being sold (initially for hundreds of dollars) and if the fonts hadn’t all had essentially the same name. It’s like trying to brand triplets. The cute notion of giving the fonts names that began with the same letter created a psychological framework in which you perceived the fonts as a set, rather than studying them individually. At least, that was my experience. Later, Microsoft realized they should make the fonts more widely available if they wanted them to have an impact, so they “gave them away” by including them in Office. But many people don’t notice when an application sticks new fonts in their System folder. It’s not the way to get a consumer’s attention. Certainly some web-design geeks have an awareness of these fonts, but distribution and awareness is sufficiently non-universal enough to have prevented many designers from considering them seriously as a standard web design option.

And at this point, web designers are tired of eating at the segregated lunch counter. Most of us would rather use Franklin, Knockout, and Clarendon than make do with another set of “separate but equal” fonts courtesy of bountiful patron Microsoft, no matter how nice those fonts might be.

In your book, you say that designers with training in traditional typography and graphic design are worse off than those who don’t have any kind of formal design education. Why is that? Beyond technical skills and the ethical imperative to create accessible sites, what does a web typographer need to know?

Designers trained in typography and graphic design have traditionally had a tough time embracing the limitations of the web; some weren’t even aware of those limitations. This still happens in big in-house firms where “Design” is the person who creates a comp in Photoshop or Illustrator and walks it down the hall to “IT” for coding. Note that in this scenario, both Design and IT may be equally unaware of web standards and may have equally little concern about how people actually use the web.

I have long believed that large institutions should have web divisions rather than parcel out online user experience among a half-dozen competitive and incompatible fiefdoms (such as marketing, IT, and editorial). Such environments are still common. They do not help designers grasp the web. A true and advanced understanding of the web seems to happen more frequently at small agencies and startups. Bloggers with no traditional design training may be more likely to create well-designed sites than some print-minded designers who have skill but not “web consciousness.”

This will not always be the case, and it is changing as standards-based design brings real power to web designers. But for the first 15 years or so, there was a definite ghetto perception in many design quarters; designers who could code, and who were willing to work in a medium limited to five or six system fonts, were perceived to be working outside of the real design field. (Design respect was reserved for people and agencies that did one-off Flash sites driven by a print or animation aesthetic, and with little to no concern for usability and accessibility.) All of this is changing quickly and we’re pleased to be doing our part to help drive that change.

Designers should also read Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design, Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, and Dan Cederholm and Ethan Marcotte’s Handcrafted CSS to get a real sense of what’s happening and what’s possible. Also, of course, A List Apart.