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An Analysis of Typography on the Web

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Read Time: 16 mins

Typography is one of the most—if not the most—important aspects of web design. Some would argue that it takes up to 95% of web design, so why do we often neglect its importance? The readers who come to your site will often decide whether or not to stay according to your typographic choices. After all, they came here to read in the first place. Think about it for a second: if content really is king, logically typography should be treated as the queen.

In fact, even some font names suggest that classification; Futura, Optima, Times New Roman (OK, that's probably a dude), Verdana, Lucida, Georgia, Helvetica… There's no question about it, Typography is the queen. Therefore, she also needs to be dressed up properly before going out: she should put on some kerning and tracking, maybe a different font-variant, and already she's looking like a real lady.

Not sure what I'm talking about? Well, read on.

Knowing Your (sans) Serifs

Before proceeding with this article, and especially if you don't have much contact with typography, I suggest you fill the gaps of your Typographic knowledge from Typedia, taking special note of Typeface classifications and the anatomy of a typeface, which will serve you well when making your own font-stacks and pairing fonts.

After you finish reading the two articles on Typedia, come back here so we can tighten your newly-founded Typographic knowledge and prepare it for the next few chapters of this article.

Tightening Wisdom #1: Typefaces Relate

Typefaces have dynamic relationships and can look good or bad together, depending on who they're mixed with and their differences. If we'd like to get technical, there are in fact three ways in which typefaces can relate:

  1. Concord

    A concordant relationship is the one with no thrills, where two typefaces are very similar in characteristics. It can also be a single typeface in multiple styles and/or sizes.

  2. Contrast

    When typefaces are fairly different from each other, contrast appears. It's usually good to aim for contrast, for instance, between a serif and sans-serif typeface.

  3. Conflict

    Two (or more) typefaces who have different characteristics that are still similar enough to create distress on a page are in conflict. You should usually avoid this type of relationship.

Contrasting, conflicting and concording relationship between fonts.Contrasting, conflicting and concording relationship between fonts.Contrasting, conflicting and concording relationship between fonts.

Tightening Wisdom #2: Typefaces Differ

Typefaces can vary. Whether it is weight, height, width, or anything else, every single typeface has some characteristic that makes it stand out. You should learn to spot these subtleties and adapt to their influence. And don't think it doesn't matter, since even various iterations of the same typefaces can be significantly unequal at times.

This specifically relates to the Web, where the art of creating and applying font stacks is very important. You do not have to pick exactly the same-looking typefaces for a fallback, but it's only fair to say that an oldstyle font like Garamond should be backed up by another oldstyle typeface with sensibly similar characteristics (Caslon, Baskerville, Times, for instance).

Adobe Garamond Pro, Garamond Premier Pro and Georgia side-by-sideAdobe Garamond Pro, Garamond Premier Pro and Georgia side-by-sideAdobe Garamond Pro, Garamond Premier Pro and Georgia side-by-side

Although they're all serifs, Georgia, Garamond and Adobe Garamond Pro (200 point size in example above) look very different.

Tightening Wisdom #3: Not Every Typeface is Suitable For All Situations

A modern font, such as Bodoni Condensed or Bodoni Bold is an excellent choice for headlines, whereas it would likely be a bad typeface for extensive lines of body copy, where it would only distract the reader from the content. An oldstyle like Garamond (I ♥ Garamond) is a much better choice for these situations.

Non-designers often make poor decisions when choosing typefaces for different occasions, and—although I'm going to skip the Comic Sans lecture—you should be aware of the fact that it's not always suitable to use, say, Georgia for body copy. It's also not always bad to use Arial as your preferred typeface; but do consider what message you are trying to convey, via your typography.

Learning From The Best

This article is not primarily a showcase, yet it's always interesting to observe what other talented designers have done to make their (client's) websites a delight to look at. We're going to see what can be done with careful consideration for font decoration, as well as solid font-stacks and smart typographic choices.

(P.S. If you'd like to see other examples of nice Typography on line, browse through Typesites' archives. There's not too much content there, but they've covered some very good sites.)

Websafe Fonts: A List Apart

A List Apart, careful consideration to WebfontsA List Apart, careful consideration to WebfontsA List Apart, careful consideration to Webfonts
A List Apart shows how Websafe fonts can look good indeed when given enough thought.

Is Verdana the most boring typeface you can use? Not if you ask Jason Santa Maria. He was smart in using Verdana's strength (X-height) to make body copy rather small in size for a dignified, elegant look that A List Apart deserves. The small size also makes it pleasant to read in the long run.

Georgia is mostly used for emphasis on certain page elements, and as a display typeface. From other noticeable design decisions, uppercase letters are small in size and positive letter-spaced for easier readability and better looks.

Font Stacks: Jon Tan

JonTangerine.com, typographic excellenceJonTangerine.com, typographic excellenceJonTangerine.com, typographic excellence
Jon Tan, attention to detail brings Typographic perfection.

Jon Tan, like Khoi Vin and Daniel Mall, also follows the cult of black & white minimalist design with carefully placed splashes of orange. Although there's a lack of excitement in color choice, you could say that Jon makes up for it by taking extra care of his typographic choices. The CSS file of Jontangerine.com contains more than 250 different declarations for all micro-typography!

The main body copy is set in lovely Georgia, while centered headings appear in a Times-based font stack with Baskerville and Palatino:

In other areas, typographic "color" is achieved using different font-variants, various shades of black and excellent font styling. Definitely one of the best typography-centered sites out there!

@font-face Embedding: Information Highwayman

Information HighwaymanInformation HighwaymanInformation Highwayman
Information Highwayman is embedding Justus, a free font.

You have probably heard a lot about @font-face embedding with CSS during the past few months. Although Internet Explorer has had a similar technique ever since its fourth iteration (we're ashamed to admit this), only in 2009—when all of the five big browsers implemented @font-face (the right way)—did we start talking intensively about using non-core webfonts online.

There are, as you might know, a few considerable drawbacks to this technique (primarily copyright issues), but if you find a suitable font for your needs, you have every chance of improving the way readers experience your site. D. Bnonn Tennant (Information Highwayman) decided to use Justus for body copy, which contrasts quite well against the sans-serif background element (the "compelling magnum") and helps in achieving the "worn-out" effect on the site.

Typekit: Elliot Jay Stocks

FF Tisa Web Pro on ElliotJayStocks.comFF Tisa Web Pro on ElliotJayStocks.comFF Tisa Web Pro on ElliotJayStocks.com
The slabby FF Tisa goes perfect with Elliot's website.

Elliot likes to use Slab-Serif typefaces, which is exemplified in both his excellent 8 faces magazine on Typography (highly recommend it), with FF Unit Slab, and his own Website, where FF Tisa Web Pro is embedded using Typekit's font embedding service.

There isn't as much typographic styling on the site as, for instance, Jon Tan has; however, he's done a great job with alignment and color, which also never should be overlooked and are important ingredients in good typography.

Image Replacement and sIFR: Squared Eye

Squared Eye, sIFR typographySquared Eye, sIFR typographySquared Eye, sIFR typography
Squared Eye uses sIFR Flash text replacement.

Although they're rapidly becoming "old" replacement techniques, Flash and image-replaced text (both Cufón and manually inserted images) instead of ordinary text are important for cross-browser compatibility in sites whose visitors aren't predominantly using modern browsers, as well as in cases where the particular font isn't available due to one or the other reason (e.g., copyright issues).

Squared Eye places emphasis on different levels of headings with sIFR, as well as with manually inserted images. He's using a beautiful slab-serif Archer in harmony with a Lucida-based font stack for a modern, yet still elegant look.

Putting Our Knowledge to Good Use

Although I'm going to provide a few font-stacks you can use in your designs, consider the following more as a "training" for making your own font stacks. There are already plenty of other sites out there which offer a lot of readymade solutions for both display and body copy text.

As the saying goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

Gripping the Bases: Your Readers

Before beginning to build font stacks, you should become acquainted with your primary audience and determine what software and Operating Systems they use. That way, you can predict which fonts they might have installed, and how much typographic flexibility that provides you.

For instance; Matthew Smith (Squared Eye) probably (rightfully) predicted that most of his audience will not have a font like Archer installed on their computers and decided to embed it using Flash font replacement (comparing to Archer, ~97% of users have Flash installed).

Always design with core Webfonts first, and then gradually improve with font stacks)

For more information on fonts shipped with different software, browse through 24 Ways' Font Matrix, Fluid Web Type and Apaddedcell. You might also find Microsoft's extensive documentation on fonts that come with their products, as well as insight into their Typographic department, a useful read.

Notice The Small Things

When it comes to building font stacks, you'll need to consider a few variables, when determining what make fonts different from one other (remember the Georgia-Garamond-Garamond comparison above?). This, again, comes down to your experience and familiarity with different font categories. You'll need to learn to notice not only the way serifs are presented (are they slanted, or straight? Or do they not exist?), but also the small(er) differences between two similar typefaces.

Consider how they communicate with each other, their x-heights and readability on small sizes, as well as their form and direction. Even if this sounds, perhaps, intimidating right now, remember how practice makes perfect.

Example: Ibis Display and Archer, although both slab-serifs by category, probably wouldn't make a good pair due to the significant difference in the way their serifs are presented and the noticeable thick/thin transitions on Ibis versus a monoweight Archer.

Writing a Sample Font Stack

I've already mentioned I like Garamond. So I'm going to base a font stack off of Times New Roman, which is the Web-safe font closest in appearance to the aforementioned oldstyle typeface.

I would like to mention that Garamond, due to its low X-height, likely isn't the best choice when designing for excellent readability on screen (after all, it wasn't made for screen presentation primarily), but it is fine if used on high enough font sizes (in my opinion, 16-17 pixel/1em Garamond is optimal).

In optical scaling, as it is called, smaller text sizes typically have larger x-heights, wider stem widths, and less typographic stem contrast and larger display sizes have smaller x-heights with more variation in stem widths.
MSDN Blogs

Font degrading in our font-stackFont degrading in our font-stackFont degrading in our font-stack
How our font family will degrade in case Garamond isn't available (Garamond colored blue in examples).

According to 24 Ways' Font Matrix, Garamond is shipped with Office Word 2007 for Windows, and Word 2004 for Mac, which means that it's available to a huge percentage of visitors. For those who don't have it installed, I've provided a backup in the form of Adobe's Caslon, Garamond and Minion Pro typefaces which come shipped with the Creative Suite (notice, however, that all of these fonts are also available for individual download; I'm mentioning the programs they ship with because I suppose a lot of you bought them with Adobe's software).

I've also decided to use Crimson text from Google's Webfont repository to provide a decent fallback before Times. The final font stack looks like this:

This font stack should be used exclusively on higher font sizes, especially because Windows is notorious for poor font rendering.

Font rendering in Safari vs. ChromeFont rendering in Safari vs. ChromeFont rendering in Safari vs. Chrome

Chrome with default settings (left) and Safari with font smoothing set to Medium (right). May look subtle at first, but it makes a big impact on readability in smaller sizes.

If you were looking for extremely good on-screen readability, the high-x-height-blessed Georgia and Verdana (both fonts are from the nineties, made specifically for screen rendering) will provide more pleasing results in font-stacks.

For instance, we could take advantage of the similarity between the Lucida serifs (Fax and Bright, which also come with MS Word) and Droid serif from the Google Webfont repository to make a highly readable font-stack with a large x-height:

Once again Google's webfonts come to action before a generic solution, mostly because Droid serif is much closer in appearance to Lucida than Georgia and Times, respectively.

A very similar Verdana-based stack would also contain the three almost equal Lucida sans-serifs (Grande - ships with Mac, Sans, Sans Unicode):

Notice how the replacement fonts have similar characteristics, particularly how the g letter is virtually the same across typefaces, and how the o resembles a circle rather than an ellipse. As with most sans-serifs, they're monoweight and don't have any thick/thin transitions (Optima, for instance, isn't monoweight —that's what makes it more difficult to pair with other fonts).

Lucida-based Sans-serif font stackLucida-based Sans-serif font stackLucida-based Sans-serif font stack

Being Picky

While creating sensible font stacks is important, in order to provide excellent typography, you're going to have to do the "extra ten percent" and provide typographical contrast using different font variants, weights, direction and nurturing care to all micro typographic methods.

Jon Tan, attention to micro typographyJon Tan, attention to micro typographyJon Tan, attention to micro typography

Jon Tan tackles micro typography with extra care.

Jon Tan, for instance, uses some CSS3 selectors to create great visual impact.

He's using centered and italicized headings within a blog post in a Times-based font stack. This, when combined with justified text and his minimalistic design, makes for a very pleasant reading experience. Remember: small things do matter.

Absolutely astonishing headings on jontangerine.comAbsolutely astonishing headings on jontangerine.comAbsolutely astonishing headings on jontangerine.com

Mixing things up with a bold typeface, uppercase titles and positive letter spacing for smaller headings will many times provide a far better experience and contrast, as well as clearer separation to the body copy, than just a different typeface. Samantha Warren has covered Typographic hierarchy very well, and I suggest you read her article for a broader understanding of the topic.

Lucida and Garamond, contrasting and conflictingLucida and Garamond, contrasting and conflictingLucida and Garamond, contrasting and conflicting
Contrast improves separation. Can you even notice the second heading?

A seventeen pixel Garamond for body copy and 15px Lucida Sans for subheading level 4 (h4) do look quite different in the upper two situations, only due to a few small changes in our CSS:

The italicized ampersands are another one of those techniques that prove how "small things matter" (notice, however, that not all fonts have "special" ampersands):

If you would like to automate the use of fancy ampersands (enclosing them to proper classes, as well as having some advanced typographic help), I suggest looking up the WP-Typography plugin for Wordpress.

Additional JavaScript Enhancement

We could further improve our user's experience by enhancing the site with some simple JavaScript to test whether she has a particular font installed on her system. Then, it's simply a matter of picking a suitable fallback font, if the font isn't available (i.e., increase font size to make another font more readable, use image replacement, load additional fonts, etc.).

Note that you should still consider the fact that a small percentage of users browse the web with JavaScript turned off.

You could, perhaps, add a noscript class to the body if JavaScript is disabled and prepare some sensible typography for it, accordingly.

That said, there are a few, essentially equal, techniques for discovering if a particular font is installed on the user's system. I'm going to use a slightly modified version of Lucas Smith's code:

Upon pasting the code into your JavaScript file, you can simply test whether a particular font is installed on the users' computer by using conditional statements:

One of the more interesting uses of this technique would possibly be linking to a font-loading file (@font-face, Google Webfonts…), in the case our preferred fonts aren't available on the user's system. That way, we improve performance, and don't force the user to download extra ~30kb for no reason:

Further Reading and Resources

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I hope that you now have a better understanding of typography on the web. There's definitely more to the matter, and I'll enjoy hearing what you have to say about it in the comments!

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