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.)

@font-face and Web Performance

Some time in 2009, Firefox and Opera began shipping @font-face support with the former behavior: text would render with fallback fonts until downloadable font resources became available. But this choice frustrated many users (see the Firefox bug report) and was quickly dubbed FOUT, the Flash of Unstyled Text . Articles were written about fighting the @font-face FOUT. It wasn’t long before most browsers were hiding text while fonts downloaded. Unfortunately, the main issue with @font-face now is what many wanted to avoid years ago: the FOIT, or Flash of Invisible Text.

Source: The @font-face dilemma | Viget

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.

Big Web Show No. 65 | Tim Brown of Typekit and Nice Web Type

Tim Brown of Typekit and Nice Web Type

IN EPISODE NO. 65 of The Big Web Show (“everything web that matters”), I interview Tim Brown of Typekit and Nice Web Type on where we are with web fonts, real web type in real web context, using Dribbble to develop a tone of voice, how saving small snippets of other people’s content can turn you into a blogger, Samantha Warren’s Style Tiles, molten leading orbital content, pages versus chunks, the type-driven design, web font fallbacks, the connection between leading and font family, transitioning from university work to Typekit, and much more.

Listen to The Big Web Show #65: Tim Brown.

Show Links

Links mentioned in this show are numerous, enlightening, and available for your pleasure.

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Web type links from an interview with Typekit and Nice Web Type’s Tim Brown

Tim Brown

MY BIG WEB SHOW INTERVIEW with Tim Brown of Typekit and Nice Web Type will be posted tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are some of the links our rapid-fire idea exchanged touched upon:

FacitWeb on Typekit:

Responsive typography:

Modular scales — meaningful numbers for layout:

More Meaningful Typography:

Build talk:

Web Font Specimen:

Real Web Type in Real Web Context:

How I use Twitter:

On leaving Vassar:

Font Events – Typekit Blog:

Ffffallback – a webfont fallback app:

Nice Web Type:



The Articulate Web Designer of Tomorrow – 24 Ways:

Orbital Content – A List Apart:

Fonts in Use:

Facit web font:

Typekit blog:

Nice Web Type:

Build Conference:

Design by Front:

Typecast app:

Style Tiles – Samantha Warren:

Responsive Summit:

Molten Leading – Nice Web Type:

Tim Brown on Dribbble:

Principles of Typography on the Web:

A Better Franklin

I’VE TWEAKED the layout here with ITC Franklin Condensed from Webtype.

It’s funny. My daughter always asks what’s my favorite color, and I can never answer, ’cause I love them all. With color, it depends on context and it’s all about combination. But a favorite font? You bet I’ve got one. It’s Franklin Gothic, and especially Franklin Gothic Condensed. Has been for years.

For several years now I’ve used a licensed Franklin Gothic web font by someone other than Webtype here. It was good but not perfect.

Webtype’s Franklin Condensed is as close to perfect as web fonts can come in October, 2011. (And as they improve it, the look and feel here will improve as well.) The font is so good that it emboldened me to apply it to other parts of the page that formerly had to make do with Helvetica. See, for instance, my footer. It’s not a work of art, but it’s now much more pleasant to read in every environment I’ve tested.

I’m still conservative about web fonts (primarily because of bandwidth issues); this site’s body text is still set in Georgia, one of the world’s most beautiful screen fonts as we all agree. This morning, simply to break away from the herd, I tried replacing Georgia with Palatino, an engaging, readable, widely available font that comes with Windows 2000/XP (“Palatino Linotype”) and the Macintosh (“Palatino”). On its own, the Palatino was lovely. But it couldn’t stand up to the heavier elements of this site’s somewhat cartoonish look and feel. So back to Georgia I went.

The site is overdue for a redesign: the last redesign (e.g. the current look and feel) was a retro tribute to the site’s 1990s look. A new look is coming, but for the interim, I’m grateful to my friends at Webtype for their craftsmanship.