On Typography

When we were at the park a few weeks ago, my better half (and the light of my life and wonder of my years) asked me what font was on the park sign. My best guess was Router. But of course, it was far more likely that it was literally routered by machine rather than imprinted with a carefully designed typeface.

We further discussed why streets signs and railroad signs are sans serif (to make the letters as plain and clear as possible) but agreed that the letters in the street sign at the park corner would be difficult to read from a distance (KING ST) because the “I” was narrow and the entire word was tightly kerned, so it got lost in the first leg of the “N.”

Perhaps we should stop and establish some definitions: A typeface is a complete symbol (letters/numbers/etc) set; so, Helvetica. It is a full family, which includes some basic styles of the same face. Your basic styles are Roman (plain), Bold (demi), and Italic (oblique). A  more complete list of styles includes Book, Medium, Condensed, Normal, Display, Light, Thin, Heavy, Extra {Anything}, Semibold, Black, Ultra, Caption, Subtitle, and any combination of those (Medium Oblique Condensed, for example). Further, some designations are simply by number; 500 or 700, for example. A font is the variation in style, so Helvetica Roman. See the discussion on FontFeed here. The comments are especially interesting. That said, most people use these interchangeably.

Adjusting the space between letters is called kerning. The space between lines of type is the leading (like the metal), because in printing the lines of letters are literally spaced apart with bars of lead. Interesting sidenote: type is set into forms, and in order to get all the spacing on the left and right of the form correct (and if there is to be special spacing, say for a poster or something similar), larger chunks of wood are generally used and these are called furniture.

For a long time, there were only about 10 web-safe typefaces, Arial, Helvetica, Georgia, Times New Roman, “sans serif” (which would just specify any sans serif typeface found and available for use), serif, Trebuchet, Verdana, Tahoma, Comic Sans and a few others.They were “web-safe” because almost all computers were shipped with them in some format, so if a page was designed with one of them, it was safe money that the viewer would see the page as designed.

But many designers were unsatisfied with this paltry offering. Hacks and trickery were employed to give the illusion of typographic variation.

Then, while the world* was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point, @font-face was being developed for use with CSS. It worked by allowing a user to load up the font that was on their own computer and host it alongside the webpage, thereby letting it be seen by people who didn’t have that font on their computer. Which was a nice theory but unfortunately opened those fonts up to being pirated, so many foundries prohibited the use of @font-face. But the idea was there.

Here my certainty of the timeline gets a little hazy. My understanding is that Jeff Veen and Greg Veen (and I’m sure others at Small Batch) began working on this problem sometime around or just after their time at Google. That tinkering led to Typekit, which has since been acquired by Adobe. Typekit did something quite extraordinary: it forged special relationships with type foundries so that certain typefaces were hosted securely by Typekit, and then for free or a small fee (depending on use), anyone could then use those typefaces on their web pages. The model allowed regular people to use beautiful typefaces, while protecting the foundries’ intellectual property. Further, the free kit was possible because the volume of paid and enterprise subscriptions cut the burden of cost to the end user – democracy on the web, for sure. This blog uses Typekit, because it has a wonderful integration with WordPress, allowing novice web contributors to comfortably use even the fanciest fonts without effort.

In the interim, @font-face has undergone more scrutiny and may be better developed/protected. I’m really not sure about its status, but the conversation does continue to include @font-face. All together, there has been a veritable explosion of typography on the web. Something that was a dream five years ago is suddenly not only prevalent, it is becoming expected. Indeed, I recall late last year I wanted to use Skolar in a print design and was looking for it in my InDesign font stack. We don’t own Skolar. I had forgotten that I couldn’t access Typekit from there (although with their acquisition by Adobe that will change). Not too long ago, the thought that there would be more available fonts on the web than on your own computer would be ludicrous. It will be interesting to see where typography roams next. I don’t believe we can close the book on it (oh, oh, hidden pun) and declare that there is no more exploration to be done, although the future may hold more integration and granularity than the past efforts to just get typography available on the web (a massive, massive effort that really cannot be minimized or marginalized).

Discover more about typography here:










*well, the type-on-the-web world

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