Flexible Typesetting

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Genuine enthusiasm is hard to come by but especially when it comes to the web. As I sit here in this fabulously raucous café though, reading a real-life book about the web, I find myself cheering quietly to myself. And I can’t stop smiling.

I’m reading Tim Brown’s Flexible Typesetting and I realize it should be the textbook definition for the word enthusiasm itself. And it’s one of those rare examples of a book that’s overwhelmingly charming from start to finish. In fact it’s the sort of book that reminds you that the web is a precious thing worth building, and that the web is, and can still be, ours for the making.

Flexible Typesetting is a book about how the web has fundamentally changed the art of typesetting and the best practices that designers have followed for hundreds of years. In the introduction Tim writes:

…the web has catalyzed the single biggest change in typographic history — a change that has profoundly affected not only the experience of reading but also the practice of designing that experience: typesetting.

Granted, typography and typesetting have changed before. These practices have existed for centuries, over which time new technologies, new media, and new ideas have bloomed, flourished, and withered. […] However, the web is neither a new technology, nor a new medium, nor a new idea; the web represents an evolutionary step for all technologies, all media, and all ideas.

This is thanks to the sheer number of devices and experiences that are possible when someone views a website we’ve typeset. They could be reading it on a 2G or 3G network, they could be reading our websites in the dark on their phone, on large billboards from a great distance, or on the dashboards of their cars. Because of these infinitely variable conditions, Tim argues that typography on the web is only a suggestion and rather than us truly understanding our designs, he argues that we’re building experiences “by manipulating their shadows” instead.

Tim opens up the first chapter with another one-two punch:

Typography may now be optional, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Typographic choices contribute to a text’s meaning. But on the web, text itself (including its structural markup) matters most, and presentational instructions like typography take a back seat. Text loads first; typography comes later.

Although many designers will flinch at this lack of control, I think it’s rather something to be inspired by. It differentiates the web from everything else and makes text on the web special, universal, accessible to everyone. And I think that Tim makes the case in this book that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, about the connection between text and design and how you can’t really do the text justice if you don’t care about it.

Or, as Tim puts it rather more succinctly:

The better you know your text, the better your typesetting will be.

So! I would highly recommend that you go and pick up your own copy of the book as there’s a lot of interesting information in there around how to build outstanding, resilient, and wondrously typographic interfaces for the web.