Web Performance Today

WEB DESIGNERS have cared about web performance since the profession’s earliest days. When I started, we saved user bandwidth by employing GIF images that had the fewest possible colors—with no dithering, when possible, and by using actual web text instead of pictures of web text. (Kids, ask your parents about life before CSS enabled, type designers created formats for, browsers finally supported, and Typekit quickly popularized web fonts.)

Later, we learned to optimize JPEGs and blur their backgrounds: the blurrier large swathes of a JPEG image can be, the lower the bandwidth requirements for the image. We found the optimally performant size for repeating background tiles (32 x 32 and 64 x 64 were pretty good) and abandoned experiments like single-pixel-wide backgrounds, which seemed like a good idea but slowed browsers, servers, and computers to a crawl.

We developed other tricks, too. Like, when we discovered that GIF images optimized better if they possessed repeating patterns of diagonal lines, we worked diagonal background images into a design trend. It was the trend that preceded drop shadows, the wicked worn look, and skeuomorpic facades, which were themselves a retro recurrence of one of the earliest styles of commercial web design; that trend, which was always on the heavy side, performance-wise, eventually gave way to a far more performant grid-driven minimalism, which hearkened back to classic 1940s Swiss graphic design, but which our industry (sometimes with little knowledge of design history) called “flat design” and justified as being “born digital” despite its true origins going back to pixels, protractors, and a love of Greek mathematics.

All of this nostalgia is prelude to making the obvious comment that web design today is far more complex than it was in those golden years of experimentation; and because it is so much more complex, front-end performance is also far more complicated. You didn’t need an engineering degree to run DeBabelizer and remove needless elements from your markup, but, boy, does front-end design today feel more and more like serious coding.

All of which is to say, if you’re a front-end designer/developer, you should probably read and bookmark Nate Berkopec’s “Ludicrously Fast Page Loads – A Guide for Full-Stack Devs.” While you’re at it, save it to Pocket, and as a PDF you can read on your tablet.

I cannot verify every detail Nate provides, but it is all in line with recommendations I’ve heard over and over at top conferences, and read in articles and books by such performance mavens as Jake Archibald, Lara Hogan, Scott Jehl, and Yesenia Perez-Cruz.

You should also pick up these great books on performance:

(It’s not why I wrote this post, but if you order Scott’s book today, you can save 10% when you enter discount code ABAHARVEST at checkout.)

Even the most complex site should work in any device that reads HTML. It should work if stylesheets fail to load or the device doesn’t recognize CSS. It should work if JavaScript fails to load or the device doesn’t recognize JavaScript. The principles of standards-based design will never change, no matter how complex our web becomes. And as it becomes more complex (and, arguably, much richer), it behooves us to squeeze every byte of performance we can.

Websites can never be too rich or too thin.

A Helvetica For Readers

A Helvetica for readers–introducing Acumin.

ACUMIN by Robert Slimbach is a new type family from Adobe that does for book (and ebook) designers what Helvetica has always done for graphic designers. Namely, it provides a robust yet water-neutral sans-serif, in a full suite of weights and widths. And unlike the classic pressing of Helvetica that comes on everyone’s computers—but like Helvetica Neue—Acumin contains real italics for every weight and width.

Reading about the design challenges Slimbach set himself (and met) helps you appreciate this new type system, whose virtues are initially all too easy to overlook, because Acumin so successfully avoids bringing a personality to the table. Enjoying Acumin is like developing a taste for exceptionally good water.

Nick Sherman designed the website for Adobe, and its subtly brilliant features are as easy to miss at first look as Acumin’s. For starters, the style grid on the intro page dynamically chooses words to fit the column based on the viewport size. Resize your browser and you’ll see how the words change to fill the space.

Heaps of behind-the-scenes calculation allow the page to load all 90 (!) fonts without breaking your pipes or the internet. Developer Bram Stein is the wizard behind the page’s performance.

Nick uses progressively enhanced CSS3 Columns to create his responsive multi-column layout, incorporating subtle tricks like switching to a condensed font when the multi-column layout shrinks below a certain size. (This is something A List Apart used to do as well; we stopped because of performance concerns.) In browsers like IE9 and earlier, which do not support CSS3 Multiple Column specification, the layout defaults to a quite readable single column. Nick adds:

It’s the first time I’ve used responsive CSS columns for a real-world project. This was both frustrating and fun because the CSS properties for controlling widows and orphans are very far behind what’s possible in InDesign, etc. It also required more thinking about vertical media queries to prevent a situation where the user would have to scroll up and down to get from the bottom of one column to the top of the next. If the viewport is too short to allow for easy reading across columns, it stays as a single column.

He describes the challenges of creating the site’s preview tool thusly:

We had to do some behind the scenes trickery in order to get the sliders to work for changing widths and weights. It’s a good way to allow people to type their own text and get a feeling for how the family can be used as a system for body text and headlines (unlike Helvetica, which is more limited to the middle range of sizes). Chris Lewis helped out a lot with getting this to work. It even works on a phone!

Book designers have long had access to great serif fonts dripping with character that were ideal for setting long passages of text. Now they have a well-made sans serif that’s as sturdy yet self-effacing as a waiter at a great restaurant. Congratulations to Robert Slimbach, Adobe, and the designers and developers mentioned or interviewed here. I look forward to seeing if Acumin makes it into new website designs (perhaps sharing some of Proxima Nova‘s lunch), especially among mature designers focused on creating readable experiences. And I pray Acumin makes its way into the next generation of ebook readers.

(Just me? In both iBooks and Kindle, I’m continually changing typefaces after reading any book for any period of time. All the current faces just call too much attention to themselves, making me aware that I am scanning text—which is rather like making filmgoers aware that they are watching projected images just when they should be losing themselves in the story.)

This Week In The Death of Publishing & The Web


Apple, like Facebook, has entered into a standoff with the publishing industry and the open, if for-profit, web. And it’s being done under the aegis of design: choose a better reading experience on our curated platform, they offer, or let us clean up that pesky advertising on the open web.

Source: Apple Saves Publishing… For Itself

N.B. This is not the first time this conversation has arisen, nor will it be the last. Off the top of my head, see also:

⇛ Is the web under threat? Will Facebook or Apple kill or save journalism? Share your thoughts or your favorite links on the subject. Bonus points for older articles.

From NYPL to DC Comics: the lettering of Ira Schnapp

Action Comics logo, 1938

Superman, 1940

HE DESIGNED the lettering on The New York Public Library and the James Farley Post Office (“neither snow nor rain…”), created titles for silent movies, movie posters, and pulp magazines in the 1920s, and started working for DC Comics in 1938, where he designed the masthead for Action Comics, refined the Superman logo, and brought dozens of DC Comics texts and titles to life. A new exhibit at The Type Directors Club honors Ira Schnapp and sheds light on his decades of influential work.

Web Design Manifesto 2012

THANK YOU for the screen shot. I was actually already aware that the type on my site is big. I designed it that way. And while I’m grateful for your kind desire to help me, I actually do know how the site looks in a browser with default settings on a desktop computer. I am fortunate enough to own a desktop computer. Moreover, I work in a design studio where we have several of them.

This is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Designers with personal sites should experiment with new layout models when they can. Before I got busy with one thing and another, I used to redesign this site practically every other week. Sometimes the designs experimented with pitifully low contrast. Other times the type was absurdly small. I experimented with the technology that’s used to create web layouts, and with various notions of web “page” design and content presentation. I’m still doing that, I just don’t get to do it as often.

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind—although nobody until you has suggested I simply didn’t have access to a computer and therefore didn’t know what I was designing. This design may be good, bad, or indifferent but it is not accidental.

A few people who hate this design have asked if I’ve heard of responsive web design. I have indeed. I was there when Ethan Marcotte invented it, I published his ground-breaking article (and, later, his book, which I read in draft half a dozen times and which I still turn to for reference and pleasure), and I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ethan lecture and lead workshops on the topic about 40 times over the past three years. We’ve incorporated responsive design in our studio’s practice, and I’ve talked about it myself on various stages in three countries. I’m even using elements of it in this design, although you’d have to view source and think hard to understand how, and I don’t feel like explaining that part yet.

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

This redesign is deliberately over the top, but new ideas often exaggerate to make a point. It’s over the top but not unusable nor, in my opinion, unbeautiful. How can passages set in Georgia and headlines in Franklin be anything but beautiful? I love seeing my words this big. It encourages me to write better and more often.

If this were a client site, I wouldn’t push the boundaries this far. If this were a client site, I’d worry that maybe a third of the initial responses to the redesign were negative. Hell, let’s get real: if this were a client site, I wouldn’t have removed as much secondary functionality and I certainly wouldn’t have set the type this big. But this is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. And on this one, I get to try designs that are idea-driven and make statements. On this one, I get to flounder and occasionally flop. If this design turns out to be a hideous mistake, I’ll probably eventually realize that and change it. (It’s going to change eventually, anyway. This is the web. No design is for the ages, not even Douglas Bowman’s great Minima.)

But for right now, I don’t think this design is a mistake. I think it is a harbinger. We can’t keep designing as we used to if we want people to engage with our content. We can’t keep charging for ads that our layouts train readers to ignore. We can’t focus so much on technology that we forget the web is often, and quite gloriously, a transaction between reader and writer.

Most of you reading this already know these things and already think about them each time you’re asked to create a new digital experience. But even our best clients can sometimes push back, and even our most thrilling projects typically contain some element of compromise. A personal site is where you don’t have to compromise. Even if you lose some readers. Even if some people hate what you’ve done. Even if others wonder why you aren’t doing what everyone else who knows what’s what is doing.

I don’t think you will see much type quite this big but I do think you will see more single-column sites with bigger type coming soon to a desktop and device near you. For a certain kind of content, bigger type and a simpler layout just make sense, regardless of screen size. You don’t even have to use Typekit or its brothers to experiment with big type (awesome as those services are). In today’s monitors and operating systems, yesterday’s classic web fonts—the ones that come with most everyone’s computer—can look pretty danged gorgeous at large sizes. Try tired old Times New Roman. You might be surprised.

The present day designer refuses to die.