This is the archive of version one, made in 2006, launched in 2007, and active until 2012. It’s archived to preserve the original design and its content that was referenced in multiple posts, books and galleries. There’s a holding page before the new site arrives.

All entries from December 2007


  1. Thinking my way in to 2008

    On the 15th of November, 2005 in Washington DC, the Dalai Lama said:

    “I believe the twenty-first century can become the most important century of human history. I think a new reality is emerging. Whether this view is realistic or not, there is no harm in making an effort.”

    Thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson for introducing me to those words in his book, Sixty Days and Counting.

    As we move into the eighth year of the new century, that’s what I’ll be trying to do in my own way with some small projects that I’d like to think can contribute. They are not the paradigm shift the Dalai Lama refers to, but you’re welcome to join me anyway.

    Earlier today I took a break from the consumer carnage of the sales with Starbuck (unfortunately not the one from Battlestar Galatica). I sipped my chai tea latte, smoked a coconut ciggi and wondered what 2008 might bring. Eight is a lucky number for Chinese folks. When my father first heard I’d moved to house number 88, he told me to get a lottery ticket straight away. I didn’t win but it was fun to engage with the superstition for a moment. Maybe 2008 will be a lucky year for humanity but my first thought wasn’t that, it was wondering if it will be a good year, period.

    I was hoping I might be able to do everything I want to in the coming months, and not kill the planet while I’m about it. A thought struck me though: The tension between “us” and “I” is always there; between what we’d like to do for each other and what we feel we have to do for ourselves and our loved ones. As the earth moves towards rapid climate change with 100 million new humans are added to the tribe every year and the whisper of science is still drowned by the cacophony of war the pressures of our own lives loom larger still. The need to buy the right home, to educate our children, to secure our personal futures all make us compete. Having said that, with a little perspective I try and hold on to the common, human aspirations we all share, whether they are realistic or not. After all, there’s no harm making an effort, is there?

    If I was an overly-cool, cynical man perhaps I’d sarcastically say “utopia for the win!” Perhaps that persona and the altruist that I’d like to think I’d be without the other pressures can compromise though. So, instead I’ll just say: Thanks for taking the journey with me, and all the best to you and yours for 2008, no matter how or where your efforts lie!


  2. What Future for Web Typography & Screen Fonts?

    The browser wars of yesteryear were a frustrating period for anyone working on the Web. We’ve come a long way since then. Following the vanguard of Opera, Safari and Firefox, IE8 will be the first Microsoft browser to pass the ACID2 test when it’s released in 2008. Congratulations to the IE team! 2008 may well be a seminal year for Web standards.

    However, the same might not be said for Web fonts. While we have commonly supported standards with which to author information for the Web, we still only have ten core Web fonts to present it, with six most commonly used. There are hundreds if not thousands of outstanding typefaces. A few are shipped by Microsoft, Apple and Adobe with their software, allowing us to use them with font stacks. That leaves a multitude of beautiful, important typefaces that can only be used as text in images or with kludges like sIFR. The current situation is like the browser wars, or perhaps, the type wars.

    In a world where the Web is the platform, having ten core Web fonts makes no sense. It stifles innovation in the same way that poor Web standards support used to.

    The core Web fonts, then & now

    The Microsoft core Web fonts project was started in 1996 and discontinued in 2002. To put that in context, 1996 was the same year that Internet Explorer 3 was released with a CSS gallery to test IE3’s first tentative implementation of W3C CSS.

    Today, the core Web fonts remain in stasis. Apple have renewed the license with Microsoft this year but there are no plans to expand either the typefaces or the font variants. Back in 2006, Andrei Herasimchuk made an excellent proposal closely followed by Jeff Croft’s own worthy suggestion, both of which have unfortunately not come to fruition.

    Other Web fonts with @font-face

    More recently, Web fonts and the @font-face CSS property have come into focus. Håkon Wium Lie’s article on A List Apart started some valuable discussions. Ascender also recently announced new licensing for Microsoft faces which could apply to downloads, and the observations of people like Richard Rutter give us all hope for the future.

    However, as people have already mentioned, @font-face support is not a reality yet and there are questions over support across platforms that have not been addressed. Think mobile phones for example. End-user license agreements (EULAs) will need careful consideration and the methods of protecting type designers’ and foundries’ rights are still a matter for debate.

    Universal Web Type

    If the Web is the platform, and browsers are the gateways to it, then we don’t just need standards for layout and object rendering, but also a standard type library that is universally available to all, with a mechanism to allow new faces to be added over time.

    This is not an alternative to @font-face—there will always be a place for very specialist typefaces for specific uses—but it is a compliment to it.

    I would like to invite you to contribute how you think this might work. This is how I see it:

    1. Organisation: We should form a grass roots organisation to provide universal Web type. It could be part of, or complimentary to the Web Standards Project and the W3C. It would reach out to, and include anyone who has a stake in implementing, creating or using Web fonts.
    2. Structure: The organisation should be co-operative and democratic, with membership open to all. Intellectual copyright and assets would be jointly held by the group on behalf of everyone.
    3. Purpose: The group would strive to find common ground between all stakeholders to research or support common standards, find funding to create a font library with complete typefaces that would be freely distributed.

    The group could be funded by a mixture of micro-finance, donations of time and money, public funding and sponsorship. It would also affirm the right of type designers to proper remuneration for their work, and foster recognition of type’s importance to the Web.

    I’m deliberately publishing this idea to elicit your feedback and comments. The way forward is not clear, and I do not claim to have the answers, but I believe that between all the interested parties—whether individuals, companies or organisations—we have the ability to give everyone a better typographic experience.


  3. Opera sues Microsoft over Web standards in the EU Court

    Opera and Operati, I love you! There’s a crate of cider at my place if you want to swing by and pick it up. Yesterday, Opera filed an anti-trust complaint in the EU court against Microsoft:

    First, it requests the Commission to obligate Microsoft to unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows and/or carry alternative browsers pre-installed on the desktop. Second, it asks the European Commission to require Microsoft to follow fundamental and open Web standards accepted by the Web-authoring communities.

    Read the Opera press release and treat yourself to a smile. They rely in part on the recent decision taken by the court against Microsoft over bundling MediaPlayer with Windows. Opera accuses Microsoft of stifling innovation by embedding a browser than does not support Web standards as it should. All true. How many compromises, hacks and tweaks have we made over the years for Billy Gate’s browser?

    Of course, if this suit was successful Opera would have a better opportunity to grab themselves some market share. Good on ’em. If Opera had a stripped down version of the browser, but with tools akin to Firebug or Chris Pederick’s Web developer toolbar it would be my primary browser, right now.

    Co-incidentally, I’m just about to pay Microsoft for the priviledge of a new copy of WinXP, all because I can’t run multiple copies of IE for testing on Vista easily. Imagine a world where we could run multiple versions of IE without clever hacks. A world where IE passed the Acid2 Test (like Opera) and conditional comments and IE specific style-sheets became a relic of history. I’m almost salivating at the thought.

    There’s a long way to go before that happens. I’d like to think that Billy’s browser would of made it to the point of goodness regardless but, if Opera’s action helps it along, so much the better. It’s just a shame these kinds of actions seem necessary. Then again, Kim Stanley Robinson’s idea of revolutions by law in Pacific Edge always seemed much more preferable than any other method.

    Good luck to them!


  4. An Ode to Old-style Numerals

    Most of my bread-and-butter fonts are broken. So is my keyboard. I can still use them but they’re broken because they don’t work as they should, or as I want them to.

    Between the two of them they’re breaking my user interface and interfering with my ability to communicate. Here’s why:

    Modern (lining), old-style & small caps numerals

    All of the core Web fonts apart from Georgia have modern numerals. They are all equal width, and the same height as capital letters. They are great for tabular data because they line up vertically in tables which is probably their raison d’etre. They work perfectly with capitals, too. After that they start to fail. Miserably.

    For my purposes, I’ve use two of the core Web fonts—both excellent in their own way—that were designed by Matthew Carter as examples.

    These are the modern numerals of Verdana:

    Verdana 123456789

    Old-style numerals have variable widths, just like regular letters. The numbers are mostly the same height as the lowercase letters with descenders and ascenders that fall and rise from that beat. They are perfect for use within text, or anywhere outside of the two examples used for modern numerals. They are beautiful, harmonious, easier to read and I want to use them, all the time.

    This is Georgia:

    Georgia 1234567

    Small caps numerals are equally beautiful and, as the name suggests, relate to the size of the small capital. Also, small caps are not just shrunken uppercase letters, and may not fit to the lowercase x-height so numerals can be drawn separately.

    There’s more detailed comparisons and great examples in John D Berry’s Creative Pro article.

    The only problem I’ve come across with old-style numbers is telling the difference between a zero and a letter "o". This hit me when creating the business cards for Grow. My answer was to commit sacrilege and draw an asymmetric line through the zero in the knowledge that letterpress techniques would deboss the faux small caps heavily almost to the weight of a proper small caps font, and the line would clearly differentiate the zero from the "o".

    Every typeface with upper and lowercase letters should have modern and old-face numerals.

    The ClearType fonts include lining and old-style numerals by default.

    They are both needed. However, I mostly type two kinds of text: prose and code. If you ignore the code for a second, I would guess that almost all of the people using an alphabet where old-style is useful are typing prose more often than not. In prose, depending on the type (technical, academic, business etc) there are rules about the use of numbers. Thirty dollars will get you access to chapter 13 of The Chicago Manual of Style or you can also see the Connecticut Community College guide to numbers and lists, and Jack Lynch’s Guide to Grammar and Style.

    Whatever the house style we lean towards, old-style numerals should be available to use. Typographers and designers, please include them in every possible face. I realise that would be pointless unless everyone could use them easily with common software. Therefore, operating system and user interface designers, please give us access to them via a keystroke or two. There’s no easy way to access them right now, even if they exist (unless you edit the typeface itself to swap lining for old-style permanently.) This I can say with complete confidence:

    My keyboard is busted

    The number row on this shiny new Mac keyboard lists all modern numbers with symbols above them, just like yours.

    Mac number keys

    It’s busted in two ways:

    1. If a typeface has modern and old-style numerals I can’t type them both easily. It should be as easy as typing in uppercase or lowercase, which is exactly what it is.
    2. When writing code I use certain symbols a lot and therefore use shift a lot. In fact, with Mac keyboard the most common symbol I type after angle brackets is the hash (or pound in the States): “#”. This is accessed via pressing Alt+3. There is no hint on the key itself. When I switched to a Mac for the first time, I once spent a good amount of time on a train cursing before working it out.

    An answer

    I freely confess I’m opening a can of worms here, and could go into great detail about the various use-cases and modes our keyboards should have. However, that will be for another day. For now I’m offering this simple way operating systems can enable everyone to use old-style numbers without re-mapping the keys:

    1. Give my keyboard access to old-style numerals by default using the existing keystrokes. If they are not available, default to whatever numerals are available.
    2. If modern or lining numbers are also available, give me access to them in the same way that I have access to other capitals: via shift.
    3. Provide access to symbols with a different key. You decide, I don’t mind, but Alt seems obvious. Seriously, who uses ^ on a daily basis? The even less-used symbols should be moved to a double or triple action key configuration.

    If this is all too much of an ask, then at least allow everyone to access old-style numerals with an obvious set of keystrokes that won’t interupt writing flow too much.

    Does this solution make sense to anyone else? There may be problems I haven’t foreseen with the technical or interface aspects, and there’s much I’d like to add about code mode. However, right now I’d just love easy access to old-style numerals, both for the sake of my eyes when I’m reading and my heart when I’m writing.


  5. Web Design Craft & Boxwood Combs

    Around 10,000 years ago in the Stone Age human beings were using boxwood combs. They may have predated that, but that’s what the physical evidence shows. To put that in context, we’ve been using boxwood combs about 700 times longer than we’ve been using the Web, who’s protocols were put into the public domain on 30th April, 1993 by CERN. Boxwood has special properties. It is strong yet soft enough to be shaped and generates no static. A boxwood comb is perfect for purpose.

    Tsuge gushi or boxwood comb

    Boxwood comb via

    Sometime between the Stone Age and now, perhaps around 400 years ago, the Japanese turned Boxwood Combs (tsuge gushi) into something extraordinary. They discovered that Satsuma boxwood (Satsuma-tsuge) was the best quality for a comb. They dipped them in camellia oil to preserve the shine for comb and hair. People sat for 12 hours straight carving a single comb. They began to carve combs of incredible delicacy and precision that to this day, makes Japanese Boxwood combs the finest in the world. They became true craftsmen and women and were immortalised by artists like Hiroshige.

    That still continues today. Jusan-Ya in Tokyo’s old quarter has been there for almost 300 years where Keiichi Takeuchi, a 15th-generation craftsman, still makes boxwood combs by hand.

    The tradition and craft is important, valuable and precious, but the comb in itself is not the final output of this dedication and history. Craftsmen and women like Keiichi Takeuchi don’t create beautiful combs or just help women have beautiful hair. Through their craft they help to make life beautiful, both for themselves and for their patrons. They do this by creating something that responds to people, something perfect for purpose. That’s what all crafts people do, no matter what their profession, trade or art.

    In my eyes, Web design is almost indistinguishable from experience design. In the same way that boxwood comb makers create an experience, so do we. Web designers are all experience designers, or perhaps more accurately we are all narrative designers. A narrative designer creates an interface with flow. If you imagine user tasks as stories or narratives, whether the content is user generated or authored by copy writers, the concept of narrative design starts to make sense.

    The mistake that people make is to see Web design as the evolution of print design. Jeffery Zeldman broke it down rather well recently. Others have also commented on this and related topics. This mistake is best emphasised in Web design galleries. It seems to me that even fellow professionals sometimes forget what they are rating or judging and fall in to the trap of looking at the visual aesthetic alone. Sometimes the comments are disappointingly shallow. I wonder truly how many of us can reach past our predilections for pretty interfaces and fashion, and move into the realm of uplifting experiences that require much more than a glance at a screenshot to judge. The irony is that our discipline is very much about visual design, but it is not just about style. In my view, it should be about building carefully crafted experiences based on a thoughtful empathy with the audience and their goals.

    There are a lot of craftspeople in narrow disciplines. The issue is not a lack of dedication to craft, but the breadth of narrow disciplines that make up Web design craftsmanship. For example, apart from the technical disciplines of CSS, HTML and the vagaries of cross platform and agent behaviour, there are a vast number of others that overlap, merge and relate. To name a few, there are graphic design disciplines such as typography, illustration and layout. There are user centred design disciplines like accessibility, task analysis, persona building, information architecture and wireframing. There are marketing disciplines like copy writing and brand positioning. Then, if we want to truly create excellent user experiences designers need to understand or work with craftspeople who have depth in application optimisation, scalability, security and adaptability. The list could go on and on.

    I think a good Web designer has an understanding of all of these things, has mastered the technical, knows the non-technical and is thereby freed to be concerned with narrative: How users experience an interface and create their own stories based on the information presented to them, or by creating information themselves. Narrative design is what we do.

    In his fascinating article on Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Henry Jenkins of MIT said that, “a story is less a temporal structure than a body of information” which seemed eerily familiar to my way of thinking. He went on to make two relevant observations. The first on enacted narratives that could be compared to brochure sites that we create:

    “…the story itself may be structured around the character’s movement through space and the features of the environment may retard or accelerate that plot trajectory.”

    The second on emergent narratives that could be compared to social sites:

    “…spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players.”

    Web designers have to consider these kinds of narratives on a daily basis. The skill is in how we push, pull and merge all of our technical and non-technical knowledge together. In order for Web designers to be craftspeople we have to be technically rigorous but also creative and organised, imagining and implementing complex narratives with everything in mind. In that sense, Web design is a much more complex discipline than making a boxwood comb but both aspire to the same ambition of creating something that is perfect for purpose.

    It took 10,000 years for human beings to reach the boxwood summit, but I think that many Web designers are there already in their approach. For my part, I’ll still be reaching for the lofty heights of the polymath and on that note I’d better get my finger out and do some work.