The lost art of typography
July 19, 2001
Joe Gillespie who's done some nice writing over the years about visual design for the web, has a great article about typography for on-screen environments over at Digital Web. It talks about the details that make a typeface more—or—less readable in a medium that's both low-resolution and uses projective, rather than reflective, light—and why the most commonly used typefaces on computers are disasters for legibility, and how we've lost a significant vocabulary for expression.

As print designer I'd been aware of the problems with reversed type (lighter type on a darker background) becoming "thinner" due to ink spread that covers up the type. However, until Joe pointed out the obvious, I hadn't really thought about how we've got the opposite problem on-screen: reversed type thickens due to "flare" effects from the lighter type over its darker background.

Thinking about type got me thinking about one of the great tragedies of the web—the fact that we're stuck with such a limited set of (mostly poorly chosen) typefaces (at least for HTML text), nearly cutting off a whole language of expression. Just think of the differences in tone conveyed by typefaces used for a wedding invitation vs. those used by the Internal Revenue Service. This isn't just artsy-fartsy expression for expression's sake, typefaces can help reinforce the voice and tone of a site. (To provide a counter-example: imagine a sign reading "Danger! Bio-hazard area. Do not enter without protective suit" rendered in wedding script.)

Sure there have been attempts to use plugs-in to allow HTML text to allow typefaces to be downloaded as needed, but browser incompatibilities meant they were largely dead on arrival and I've rarely seen them used. (And yes, there are of course issues with using plug-ins and the additional download time added.)

While Flash certainly has its trade-offs, one of the delights is that it allows the re-emergence of this "lost" vocabulary, which is undoubtedly why we see designers gravitating toward it. Unfortunately, Flash itself has significant problems with rendering text, as Gillespie points out: "when it comes to display quality, their resolution independence making them jacks-of-all-trades, but masters of none." ::

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