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/ log / 15th Oct, 2008 /

Flipped Types

Typesetting-Printing Office. Digital ID: 1152640. New York Public Library

Sometimes, flipping things around can be a useful mental exercise. It can raise a wry smile. An idle comparison between print and web typography was one of those times.

Imagine this: A client gives you a detailed brief and the content to go with it. You choose the type and design the layout, applying all of your craft and skill to every last detail of the work. With the help of a rendering expert, you specify precisely what device, screen, operating system, colour profile and browser the finished work will be viewed with. You test your work in that environment and make necessary adjustments. It’s distributed to the audience who see it exactly as you expect. That’s print typography.

Now imagine this: A client gives you a detailed brief and the content to go with it. You choose the type and design the layout, applying all of your craft and skill to every last detail of the work. Two files are given to the audience: one with content, the other with detailed design instructions. They pass both files to their printer. The instructions ask for a specific typeface to be used. The printer may or may not have it, but will never tell anyone, so you specify a few alternatives, just in case. The audience chooses the kind of paper to use, and what size it will be. They also tell the printer what personal preferences they want applied to the design, like making the text size smaller or larger. Your work is printed for them. You never see it. You’ve already resigned yourself to the fact that it will look different for different people. By testing your work in a broad range of environments before you sent it to the printer, you’d like to believe it will look good for most people, and adjust itself gracefully. Not to worry though, someone will probably tell you in no uncertain terms if you get it wrong. That’s web typography.

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library digital gallery, entitled Typesetting-Printing Office from Working with the hands : being a sequel to ‘Up from slavery’, covering the author’s experiences in industrial training at Tuskegee (1904) by Booker T. Washington.


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  1. 1. By Harry Roberts on 15th Oct ’08 at 05:38am

    Brilliant analogy. Shame it’s 100% accurate…

  2. 2. By ben on 15th Oct ’08 at 06:00am

    Um, 90% accurate.

    In thirteen years, I’ve never once gotten the content with the brief. In fact, I can only think of a few projects in which there weren’t at least a few spots of frayed, half-assed content when they went into production.

    Just sayin'.

  3. 3. By miha on 15th Oct ’08 at 12:35pm

    That is why I like Flash so much, I can even set how exactly type looks (with Saffron rendering). Too bad it has other disadvantages…

    btw, you have a gorgeous site.

  4. 4. By captain on 16th Oct ’08 at 04:33am

    Heh yeah that’s why flash rocks, also flash 10 player have even better typo with support of ligatures etc. That’s one of the reason why i’ll switch to flash in 2009 for simple sites.

  5. 5. By Dušan Smolnikar on 16th Oct ’08 at 11:06am

    I don’t think Jon wrote this as a rant. At least I didn’t understand it in such a way, but it seems some of the commentators did.

    And I think this is one great thing about html, which Flash doesn’t have. Why would you want to feed the same design to everyone? Why wouldn’t you allow the user to chose, isn’t this what it’s all about? We have different needs after all. If I want a bigger font, due to my bad eyesight, let me have it. I can’t see colours, let me see it in black & white. If I don’t want to read font in Comic Sans, because I don’t like it, let me use Verdana instead. If I don’t want to see a page fullscreen, because I have other things on my display, why force me to?

    Don’t want to offend anyone with my comment, just felt like sharing a different view. Great Metaphor, Jon. I’ll make sure to share the link with as much web developers as I can. And by the way, I really adore your website design.

  6. 6. By miha on 17th Oct ’08 at 00:58am

    Yes, in a way you are right. We should use positive sides of web medium, which are impossible in print. In fact, you can also make GUI in Flash for changing font size, or make it accessible, but it’s rarely done. And after all it is just a proprietary technology, breaking current standards.

    It is just that HTML (implementation) is still far from perfect (at least in typographic view). Even on this site, there are fake Small Caps…

  7. 7. By Leon Paternoster on 17th Oct ’08 at 14:33pm

    It’s what makes web typography, and writing web texts, interesting. I guess the constraints must be frustrating for people coming from and/or working in print.

    Flash is not really web design, is it? It’s just putting posters and movies on the computer screen. Real web design is based on text. Also, doesn’t Firefox support ligatures?

  8. Jon 陳’s profile 8. By Jon 陳 on 22nd Oct ’08 at 03:19am

    Thanks Miha and Dušan, much appreciated! Just to be clear, this entry was not intended to make an argument for using Flash, although I can see why that might be a natural leap of thought.

    Flash and other diversions from HTML / CSS might even contribute motivation for OS and UA developers (and spec writers) to improve web typography with better glyph rendering, existing CSS support, and future recommendations for typographic rules. Web typography should be as sophisticated as print, and surpass it as a component of usability with the adaptive sensibilities of Dušan and Leon applied by default.

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