Typewise

*** Apr172010

Typewise, by Kit Hinrichs of Pentegram, contains a nice dialog about some of Hinrich’s typographic philosophy, as well as a number of elegant case studies of Pentegram projects. But what does it have to say about web design?

Well, this is stating the obvious, but the answer is: web typography is not print typography. There are such fundamental differences that no matter how sophisticated typography on the web gets, it will never be the same practice as in print design. By the end of this book, I was quite envious of designers working on paper.

Lack of capabilities

The typography tools available to web designers are primitive compared to those of print designers. In fact, primitive is not even the right word, since in many ways, everyone from 6th-century Egyptian scribes (FIG 1, A history of Graphic Design, p. 15) to 20th-century Constructivists (FIG 2, p. 276), all pre-digital age, had more freedom and control over their final designs than do web designers.

Just a few of the things demonstrated in this book which are difficult or impossible to accomplish on the web, or just look plain lousy in most browsers, include:

  • columns
  • vertical or angled text
  • precise kerning
  • drop caps
  • text-wrap around irregular forms
  • justified text (yes, text-align:justify, but it rarely looks too good)

Some of these capabilities are on the horizon, but there are also other, less surmountable barriers to delivering the kinds of layouts on the web that one can produce in print.

What meets the eye

Not so catchy as “whizzywig”, but print is WYSIWTI: “What you see is what there is”. What you see on the web, however, is the result of the complex interaction of markup (html), which describes the role content elements fill, stylesheets (css), which indicate how those elements should look and be placed, and possibly javascript, which determines how those elements might behave and interact. Finally, this is all put through the filter of the “browsing environment” (operating system, browser, screen size/resolution, zoom level, etc.), which ultimately determines what the viewer sees.

Thus, a user/viewer has more control over the web page she’s viewing, and the designer less.

Interaction

Some of the case studies presented, especially in the section called “Informational Type” show how Pentegram’s designers took relatively dry documents such as annual reports and made them engaging and beautiful. The designs did not have to compel the reader to click anything or fill out a form, they simply had to communicate. But on the web these days, everything is about calls to action: get the user to buy, sign up, subscribe, follow.

Tracking interaction

When a print design does aim to manipulate the viewer (and of course many do), how is its success judged? I’m sure marketers have some methods for tracking such things, but they must pale in comparison to the rich and near-immediate data available via something like Google Analytics. The ease with which users’ interaction with websites can be tracked in minute detail brings website design closer to science than art. Different layouts can be split-tested, and the one that most successfully induces the site’s visitors to complete the call to action wins, not the one that is most inventive or beautiful or original.

Conclusion

Is this book valuable to web designers? Yes. The case studies should inspire you to push the boundaries of typography on the web, and to consider how it differs from the printed page.

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Author(s)Kit Hinrichs with Delphine Hirasuna
PublisherNorth Light Books
Pages160
Published1990
ISBN-100891343563
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