Journal tags: graph

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Wildlife Photographer Of The Year on the Clearleft podcast

Episode three of the Clearleft podcast is here!

This one is a bit different. Whereas previous episodes focused on specific topics—design systems, service design—this one is a case study. And, wow, what a case study! The whole time I was putting the episode together, I kept thinking “The team really did some excellent work here.”

I’m not sure what makes more sense: listen to the podcast episode first and then visit the site in question …or the other way around? Maybe the other way around. In which case, be sure to visit the website for Wildlife Photographer Of The Year.

That’s right—Clearleft got to work with London’s Natural History Museum! A real treat.

Myself and @dhuntrods really enjoyed our visit to the digitisation department in the Natural History Museum. Thanks, Jen, Josh, Robin, Phaedra, and @scuff_el!

This episode of the podcast ended up being half an hour long. It should probably be shorter but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut any of the insights that Helen, James, Chris, and Trys were sharing. I’m probably too close to the subject matter to be objective about it. I’m hoping that others will find it equally fascinating to hear about the process of the project. Research! Design! Dev! This has got it all.

I had a lot of fun with the opening of the episode. I wanted to create a montage effect like the scene-setting opening of a film that has overlapping news reports. I probably spent far too long doing it but I’m really happy with the final result.

And with this episode, we’re halfway through the first season of the podcast already! I figured a nice short run of six episodes is enough to cover a fair bit of ground and give a taste of what the podcast is aiming for, without it turning into an overwhelming number of episodes in a backlog for you to catch up with. Three down and three to go. Seems manageable, right?

Anyway, enough of the backstory. If you haven’t already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, you should do that. Then do these three things in whichever order you think works best:

Photograph

Do you have a favourite non-personal photograph?

By non-personal, I mean one that isn’t directly related to your life; photographs of family members, friends, travel (remember travel?).

Even discounting those photographs, there’s still a vast pool of candidates. There are all the amazing pictures taken by photojournalists like Lee Miller. There’s all the awe-inspiring wildlife photography out there. Then there are the kind of posters that end up on bedroom walls, like Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss.

One of my favourite photographs of all time has music as its subject matter. No, not Johnny Cash flipping the bird, although I believe this picture to be just as rock’n’roll.

In the foreground, Séamus Ennis sits with his pipes. In the background, Jean Ritchie is leaning intently over her recording equipment.

This is a photograph of Séamus Ennis and Jean Ritchie. It was probably taken around 1952 or 1953 by Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, when Jean Ritchie and Alan Lomax were in Ireland to do field recordings.

I love everything about it.

Séamus Ennis looks genuinely larger than life (which, by all accounts, he was). And just look at the length of those fingers! Meanwhile Jean Ritchie is equally indominatable, just as much as part of the story as the musician she’s there to record.

Both of them have expressions that convey how intent they are on their machines—Ennis’s uilleann pipes and Ritchie’s tape recorder. It’s positively steampunk!

What a perfect snapshot of tradition and technology meeting slap bang in the middle of the twentieth century.

Maybe that’s why I love it so much. One single photograph is filled with so much that’s dear to me—traditional Irish music meets long-term archival preservation.

Sass and clamp

CSS got some pretty nifty features recently. There’s the min() and max() functions. If you use them for, say, width you can use one rule where previously you would’ve needed to use two (a width declaration followed by either min-width or max-width). But they can also be applied to font-size! That’s very nifty—we’ve never had min-font-size or max-font-size properties.

There’s also the clamp() function. That allows you to set a minimum size, a default size, and a maximum size. Again, it can be used for lengths, like width, or for font-size.

Over on thesession.org, I’ve had some media queries in place for a while now that would increase the font-size for larger screens. It’s nothing crucial, just a nice-to-have so that on wide screens, the font is bumped up accordingly. I realised I could replace all those media queries with one clamp() statement, thanks to the vw (viewport width) unit:

font-size: clamp(1rem, 1.333vw, 1.5rem);

By default, the font-size is 1.333vw (1.333% of the viewport width), but it will never get smaller than 1rem and it will never get larger than 1.5rem.

That works, but there’s a bit of an issue with using raw vw units like that. If someone is on a wide screen and they try to adjust the font size, nothing will happen. The viewport width doesn’t change when you bump the font size up or down.

The solution is to mix in some kind of unit that does respond to the font size being bumped up or down (like, say, the rem unit). Handily, clamp() allows you to combine units, just like calc(). So I can do this:

font-size: clamp(1rem, 0.5rem + 0.666vw, 1.5rem);

The result is much the same as my previous rule, but now—thanks to the presence of that 0.5rem value—the font size responds to being adjusted by the user.

You could use a full 1rem in that default value:

font-size: clamp(1rem, 1rem + 0.333vw, 1.5rem);

…but if you do that, the minimum size (1rem) will never be reached—the default value will always be larger. So in effect it’s no different than saying:

font-size: min(1.rem + 0.333vw, 1.5rem);

I mentioned this to Chris just the other day.

Anyway, I got the result I wanted. I wanted the font size to stay at the browser default size (usually 16 pixels) until the screen was larger than around 1200 pixels. From there, the font size gets gradually bigger, until it hits one and a half times the browser default (which would be 24 pixels if the default size started at 16). I decided to apply it to the :root element (which is html) using percentages:

:root {
  font-size: clamp(100%, 50% + 0.666vw, 150%);
}

(My thinking goes like this: if we take a screen width of 1200 pixels, then 1vw would be 12 pixels: 1200 divided by 100. So for a font size of 16 pixels, that would be 1.333vw. But because I’m combining it with half of the default font size—50% of 16 pixels = 8 pixels—I need to cut the vw value in half as well: 50% of 1.333vw = 0.666vw.)

So I’ve got the CSS rule I want. I dropped it in to the top of my file and…

I got an error.

There was nothing wrong with my CSS. The problem was that I was dropping it into a Sass file (.scss).

Perhaps I am showing my age. Do people even use Sass any more? I hear that post-processors usurped Sass’s dominance (although no-one’s ever been able to explain to me why they’re different to pre-processers like Sass; they both process something you’ve written into something else). Or maybe everyone’s just writing their CSS in JS now. I hear that’s a thing.

The Session is a looooong-term project so I’m very hesitant to use any technology that won’t stand the test of time. When I added Sass into the mix, back in—I think—2012 or so, I wasn’t sure whether it was the right thing to do, from a long-term perspective. But it did offer some useful functionality so I went ahead and used it.

Now, eight years later, it was having a hard time dealing with the new clamp() function. Specifically, it didn’t like the values being calculated through the addition of multiple units. I think it was clashing with Sass’s in-built ability to add units together.

I started to ask myself whether I should still be using Sass. I looked at which features I was using…

Variables. Well, now we’ve got CSS custom properties, which are even more powerful than Sass variables because they can be updated in real time. Sass variables are like const. CSS custom properties are like let.

Mixins. These can be very useful, but now there’s a lot that you can do just in CSS with calc(). The built-in darken() and lighten() mixins are handy though when it comes to colours.

Nesting. I’ve never been a fan. I know it can make the source files look tidier but I find it can sometimes obfuscate what you’re final selectors are going to look like. So this wasn’t something I was using much any way.

Multiple files. Ah! This is the thing I would miss most. Having separate .scss files for separate interface elements is very handy!

But globbing a bunch of separate .scss files into one .css file isn’t really a Sass task. That’s what build tools are for. In fact, that’s what I was already doing with my JavaScript files; I write them as individual .js files that then get concatenated into one .js file using Grunt.

(Yes, this project uses Grunt. I told you I was showing my age. But, you know what? It works. Though seeing as I’m mostly using it for concatenation, I could probably replace it with a makefile. If I’m going to use old technology, I might as well go all the way.)

I swapped out Sass variables for CSS custom properties, mixins for calc(), and removed what little nesting I was doing. Then I stripped the Sass parts out of my Grunt file and replaced them with some concatenation and minification tasks. All of this makes no difference to the actual website, but it means I’ve got one less dependency …and I can use clamp()!

Remember a little while back when I was making a dark mode for my site? I made this observation:

Let’s just take a moment here to pause and reflect on the fact that we can now use CSS to create all sorts of effects that previously required a graphic design tool like Photoshop.

It feels like something similar has happened with tools like Sass. Sass was the hare. CSS is the tortoise. Sass blazed the trail, but now native CSS can achieve much the same result.

It’s like when we used to need something like jQuery to do DOM Scripting succinctly using CSS selectors. Then we got things like querySelector() in JavaScript so we no longer needed the trailblazer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the goal of any good library should be to get so successful as to make itself redundant. That is, the ideas and functionality provided by the tool are so useful and widely adopted that the native technologies—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—take their cue from those tools.

You could argue that this is what happened with Flash. It certainly happened with jQuery and Sass. I’m pretty sure we’ll see the same cycle play out with frameworks like React.

Utopia

Trys and James recently unveiled their Utopia project. They’ve been tinkering away at it behind the scenes for quite a while now.

You can check out the website and read the blog to get the details of how it accomplishes its goal:

Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

I may well be biased, but I really like this project. I’ve been asking myself why I find it so appealing. Here are a few of the attributes of Utopia that strike a chord with me…

It’s collaborative

Collaboration is at the heart of Clearleft’s work. I know everyone says that, but we’ve definitely seen a direct correlation: projects with high levels of collaboration are invariably more successful than projects where people are siloed.

The genesis for Utopia came about after Trys and James worked together on a few different projects. It’s all too easy to let design and development splinter off into their own caves, but on these projects, Trys and James were working (literally) side by side. This meant that they could easily articulate frustrations to one another, and more important, they could easily share their excitement.

The end result of their collaboration is some very clever code. There’s an irony here. This code could be used to discourage collaboration! After all, why would designers and developers sit down together if they can just pass these numbers back and forth?

But I don’t think that Utopia will appeal to designers and developers who work in that way. Born in the spirit of collaboration, I suspect that it will mostly benefit people who value collaboration.

It’s intrinsic

If you’re a control freak, you may not like Utopia. The idea is that you specify the boundaries of what you’re trying to accomplish—minimum/maximum font sizes, minumum/maximum screen sizes, and some modular scales. Then you let the code—and the browser—do all the work.

On the one hand, this feels like surrending control. But on the other hand, because the underlying system is so robust, it’s a way of guaranteeing quality, even in situations you haven’t accounted for.

If someone asks you, “What size will the body copy be when the viewport is 850 pixels wide?”, your answer would have to be “I don’t know …but I do know that it will be appropriate.”

This feels like a very declarative way of designing. It reminds me of the ethos behind Andy and Heydon’s site, Every Layout. They call it algorithmic layout design:

Employing algorithmic layout design means doing away with @media breakpoints, “magic numbers”, and other hacks, to create context-independent layout components. Your future design systems will be more consistent, terser in code, and more malleable in the hands of your users and their devices.

See how breakpoints are mentioned as being a very top-down approach to layout? Remember the tagline for Utopia, which aims for fluid responsive design?

Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

Unsurprisingly, Andy really likes Utopia:

As the co-author of Every Layout, my head nearly fell off from all of the nodding when reading this because this is the exact sort of approach that we preach: setting some rules and letting the browser do the rest.

Heydon describes this mindset as automating intent. I really like that. I think that’s what Utopia does too.

As Heydon said at Patterns Day:

Be your browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

The idea is that you give it rules, you give it axioms or principles to work on, and you let it do the calculation. You work with the in-built algorithms of the browser and of CSS itself.

This is all possible thanks to improvements to CSS like calc, flexbox and grid. Jen calls this approach intrinsic web design. Last year, I liveblogged her excellent talk at An Event Apart called Designing Intrinsic Layouts.

Utopia feels like it has the same mindset as algorithmic layout design and intrinsic web design. Trys and James are building on the great work already out there, which brings me to the final property of Utopia that appeals to me…

It’s iterative

There isn’t actually much that’s new in Utopia. It’s a combination of existing techniques. I like that. As I said recently:

I’m a great believer in the HTML design principle, Evolution Not Revolution:

It is better to evolve an existing design rather than throwing it away.

First of all, Utopia uses the idea of modular scales in typography. Tim Brown has been championing this idea for years.

Then there’s the idea of typography being fluid and responsive—just like Jason Pamental has been speaking and writing about.

On the code side, Utopia wouldn’t be possible without the work of Mike Reithmuller and his breakthroughs on responsive and fluid typography, which led to Tim’s work on CSS locks.

Utopia takes these building blocks and combines them. So if you’re wondering if it would be a good tool for one of your projects, you can take an equally iterative approach by asking some questions…

Are you using fluid type?

Do your font-sizes increase in proportion to the width of the viewport? I don’t mean in sudden jumps with @media breakpoints—I mean some kind of relationship between font size and the vw (viewport width) unit. If so, you’re probably using some kind of mechanism to cap the minimum and maximum font sizes—CSS locks.

I’m using that technique on Resilient Web Design. But I’m not changing the relative difference between different sized elements—body copy, headings, etc.—as the screen size changes.

Are you using modular scales?

Does your type system have some kind of ratio that describes the increase in type sizes? You probably have more than one ratio (unlike Resilient Web Design). The ratio for small screens should probably be smaller than the ratio for big screens. But rather than jump from one ratio to another at an arbitrary breakpoint, Utopia allows the ratio to be fluid.

So it’s not just that font sizes are increasing as the screen gets larger; the comparative difference is also subtly changing. That means there’s never a sudden jump in font size at any time.

Are you using custom properties?

A technical detail this, but the magic of Utopia relies on two powerful CSS features: calc() and custom properties. These two workhorses are used by Utopia to generate some CSS that you can stick at the start of your stylesheet. If you ever need to make changes, all the parameters are defined at the top of the code block. Tweak those numbers and watch everything cascade.

You’ll see that there’s one—and only one—media query in there. This is quite clever. Usually with CSS locks, you’d need to have a media query for every different font size in order to cap its growth at the maximum screen size. With Utopia, the maximum screen size—100vw—is abstracted into a variable (a custom property). The media query then changes its value to be the upper end of your CSS lock. So it doesn’t matter how many different font sizes you’re setting: because they all use that custom property, one single media query takes care of capping the growth of every font size declaration.

If you’re already using CSS locks, modular scales, and custom properties, Utopia is almost certainly going to be a good fit for you.

If you’re not yet using those techniques, but you’d like to, I highly recommend using Utopia on your next project.

Web standards, dictionaries, and design systems

Years ago, the world of web standards was split. Two groups—the W3C and the WHATWG—were working on the next iteration of HTML. They had different ideas about the nature of standardisation.

Broadly speaking, the W3C followed a specification-first approach. Figure out what should be implemented first and foremost. From this perspective, specs can be seen as blueprints for browsers to work from.

The WHATWG, by contrast, were implementation led. The way they saw it, there was no point specifying something if browsers weren’t going to implement it. Instead, specs are there to document existing behaviour in browsers.

I’m over-generalising somewhat in my descriptions there, but the point is that there was an ideological difference of opinion around what standards bodies should do.

This always reminded me of a similar ideological conflict when it comes to language usage.

Language prescriptivists attempt to define rules about what’s right or right or wrong in a language. Rules like “never end a sentence with a preposition.” Prescriptivists are generally fighting a losing battle and spend most of their time bemoaning the decline of their language because people aren’t following the rules.

Language descriptivists work the exact opposite way. They see their job as documenting existing language usage instead of defining it. Lexicographers—like Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary—receive complaints from angry prescriptivists when dictionaries document usage like “literally” meaning “figuratively”.

Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive.

I’ve seen the prescriptive/descriptive divide somewhere else too. I’ve seen it in the world of design systems.

Jordan Moore talks about intentional and emergent design systems:

There appears to be two competing approaches in designing design systems.

An intentional design system. The flavour and framework may vary, but the approach generally consists of: design system first → design/build solutions.

An emergent design system. This approach is much closer to the user needs end of the scale by beginning with creative solutions before deriving patterns and systems (i.e the system emerges from real, coded scenarios).

An intentional design system is prescriptive. An emergent design system is descriptive.

I think we can learn from the worlds of web standards and dictionaries here. A prescriptive approach might give you a beautiful design system, but if it doesn’t reflect the actual product, it’s fiction. A descriptive approach might give a design system with imperfections and annoying flaws, but at least it will be accurate.

I think it’s more important for a design system to be accurate than beautiful.

As Matthew Ström says, you should start with the design system you already have:

Instead of drawing a whole new set of components, start with the components you already have in production. Document them meticulously. Create a single source of truth for design, warts and all.

An nth-letter selector in CSS

Variable fonts are a very exciting and powerful new addition to the toolbox of web design. They was very much at the centre of discussion at this year’s Ampersand conference.

A lot of the demonstrations of the power of variable fonts are showing how it can be used to make letter-by-letter adjustments. The Ampersand website itself does this with the logo. See also: the brilliant demos by Mandy. It’s getting to the point where logotypes can be sculpted and adjusted just-so using CSS and raw text—no images required.

I find this to be thrilling, but there’s a fly in the ointment. In order to style something in CSS, you need a selector to target it. If you’re going to style individual letters, you need to wrap each one in an HTML element so that you can then select it in CSS.

For the Ampersand logo, we had to wrap each letter in a span (and then, becuase that might cause each letter to be read out individually instead of all of them as a single word, we applied some ARIA shenanigans to the containing element). There’s even a JavaScript library—Splitting.js—that will do this for you.

But if the whole point of using HTML is that the content is accessible, copyable, and pastable, isn’t a bit of a shame that we then compromise the markup—and the accessibility—by wrapping individual letters in presentational tags?

What if there were an ::nth-letter selector in CSS?

There’s some prior art here. We’ve already got ::first-letter (and now the initial-letter property or whatever it ends up being called). If we can target the first letter in a piece of text, why not the second, or third, or nth?

It raises some questions. What constitutes a letter? Would it be better if we talked about ::first-character, ::initial-character, ::nth-character, and so on?

Even then, there are some tricksy things to figure out. What’s the third character in this piece of markup?

<p>AB<span>CD</span>EF</p>

Is it “C”, becuase that’s the third character regardless of nesting? Or is it “E”, becuase techically that’s the third character token that’s a direct child of the parent element?

I imagine that implementing ::nth-letter (or ::nth-character) would be quite complex so there would probably be very little appetite for it from browser makers. But it doesn’t seem as problematic as some selectors we’ve already got.

Take ::first-line, for example. That violates one of the biggest issues in adding new CSS selectors: it’s a selector that depends on layout.

Think about it. The browser has to first calculate how many characters are in the first line of an element (like, say, a paragraph). Having figured that out, the browser can then apply the styles declared in the ::first-line selector. But those styles may involve font sizing updates that changes the number of characters in the first line. Paradox!

(Technically, only a subset of CSS of properties can be applied to ::first-line, but that subset includes font-size so the paradox remains.)

I checked to see if ::first-line was included in one of my favourite documents: Incomplete List of Mistakes in the Design of CSS. It isn’t.

So compared to the logic-bending paradoxes of ::first-line, an ::nth-letter selector would be relatively straightforward. But that in itself isn’t a good enough reason for it to exist. As the CSS Working Group FAQs say:

The fact that we’ve made one mistake isn’t an argument for repeating the mistake.

A new selector needs to solve specific use cases. I would argue that all the letter-by-letter uses of variable fonts that we’re seeing demonstrate the use cases, and the number of these examples is only going to increase. The very fact that JavaScript libraries exist to solve this problem shows that there’s a need here (and we’ve seen the pattern of common JavaScript use-cases ending up in CSS before—rollovers, animation, etc.).

Now, I know that browser makers would like us to figure out how proposed CSS features should work by polyfilling a solution with Houdini. But would that work for a selector? I don’t know much about Houdini so I asked Una. She pointed me to a proposal by Greg and Tab for a full-on parser in Houdini. But that’s a loooong way off. Until then, we must petition our case to the browser gods.

This is not a new suggestion.

Anne Van Kesteren proposed ::nth-letter way back in 2003:

While I’m talking about CSS, I would also like to have ::nth-line(n), ::nth-letter(n) and ::nth-word(n), any thoughts?

Trent called for ::nth-letter in January 2011:

I think this would be the ideal solution from a web designer’s perspective. No javascript would be required, and 100% of the styling would be handled right where it should be—in the CSS.

Chris repeated the call in October of 2011:

Of all of these “new” selectors, ::nth-letter is likely the most useful.

In 2012, Bram linked to a blog post (now unavailable) from Adobe indicating that they were working on ::nth-letter for Webkit. That was the last anyone’s seen of this elusive pseudo-element.

In 2013, Chris (again) included ::nth-letter in his wishlist for CSS. So say we all.

Flexibility

Over on A List Apart, you can read the first chapter from Tim’s new book, Flexible Typesetting.

I was lucky enough to get an advance preview copy and this book is ticking all my boxes. I mean, I knew I would love all the type nerdery in the book, but there’s a bigger picture too. In chapter two, Tim makes this provacative statement:

Typography is now optional. That means it’s okay for people to opt out.

That’s an uncomfortable truth for designers and developers, but it gets to the heart of what makes the web so great:

Of course typography is valuable. 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. Readers are free to ignore typographic suggestions, and often prefer to. Services like Instapaper, Pocket, and Safari’s Reader View are popular partly because readers like their text the way they like it.

What Tim describes there isn’t a cause for frustration or despair—it’s a cause for celebration. When we try to treat the web as a fixed medium where we can dictate the terms that people must abide by, we’re doing them (and the web) a disservice. Instead of treating web design as a pre-made contract drawn up by the designer and presented to the user as a fait accompli, it is more materially honest to treat web design as a conversation between designer and user. Both parties should have a say.

Or as Tim so perfectly puts it in Flexible Typesetting:

Readers are typographers, too.

Workshops

There’s a veritable smörgåsbord of great workshops on the horizon…

Clearleft presents a workshop with Jan Chipchase on field research in London on May 29th, and again on May 30th. The first day is sold out, but there are still tickets available for the second workshop (tickets are £654). If you’ve read Jan’s beautiful Field Study Handbook, then you’ll know what a great opportunity it is to spend a day in his company. But don’t dilly-dally—that second day is likely to sell out too.

This event is for product teams, designers, researchers, insights teams, in agencies, in-house, local and central government. People who are curious about human interaction, and their place in the world.

I’m really excited that Sarah and Val are finally bringing their web animation workshop to Brighton (I’ve been not-so-subtly suggesting that they do this for a while now). It’s a two day workshop on July 9th and 10th. There are still some tickets available, but probably not for much longer (tickets are £639). The workshop is happening at 68 Middle Street, the home of Clearleft.

This workshop will get you up and running with web animation in less time than it would take to read all the tutorials you have bookmarked. Over two days, you’ll go from beginner or novice web animator to having expert level knowledge of the current web animation landscape. You’ll get an in-depth look at animating with CSS, JavaScript, and SVG through hands-on exercises and learn the most efficient workflows for each.

A bit before that, though, there’s a one-off workshop on responsive web typography from Rich on Thursday, June 29th, also at 68 Middle Street. You can expect the same kind of brilliance that he demonstrated in his insta-classic Web Typography book, but delivered by the man himself.

You will learn how to combine centuries-old craft with cutting edge technology, including variable fonts, to design and develop for screens of all shapes and sizes, and provide the best reading experiences for your modern readers.

Whether you’re a designer or a developer, just starting out or seasoned pro, there will be plenty in this workshop to get your teeth stuck into.

Tickets are just £435, and best of all, that includes a ticket to the Ampersand conference the next day (standalone conference tickets are £235 so the workshop/conference combo is a real bargain). This year’s Ampersand is shaping up to be an unmissable event (isn’t it always?), so the workshop is like an added bonus.

See you there!

Famous first words

Variable fonts

We have a tradition here at Clearleft of having the occasional lunchtime braindump. They’re somewhat sporadic, but it’s always a good day when there’s a “brown bag” gathering.

When Google’s AMP format came out and I had done some investigating, I led a brown bag playback on that. Recently Mark did one on Fractal so that everyone knew how work on that was progressing.

Today Richard gave us a quick brown bag talk on variable web fonts. He talked us through how these will work on the web and in operating systems. We got a good explanation of how these fonts would get designed—the type designer designs the “extreme” edges of size, weight, or whatever, and then the file format itself can extrapolate all the in-between stages. So, in theory, one single font file can hold hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of potential variations. It feels like switching from bitmap images to SVG—there’s suddenly much greater flexibility.

A variable font is a single font file that behaves like multiple fonts.

There were a couple of interesting tidbits that Rich pointed out…

While this is a new file format, there isn’t going to be a new file extension. These will be .ttf files, and so by extension, they can be .woff and .woff2 files too.

This isn’t some proposed theoretical standard: an unprecedented amount of co-operation has gone into the creation of this format. Adobe, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all contributed. Agreement is the hardest part of any standards process. Once that’s taken care of, the technical solution follows quickly. So you can expect this to land very quickly and widely.

This technology is landing in web browsers before it lands in operating systems. It’s already available in the Safari Technology Preview. That means that for a while, the very best on-screen typography will be delivered not in eBook readers, but in web browsers. So if you want to deliver the absolute best reading experience, look to the web.

And here’s the part that I found fascinating…

We can currently use numbers for the font-weight property in CSS. Those number values increment in hundreds: 100, 200, 300, etc. Now with variable fonts, we can start using integers: 321, 417, 183, etc. How fortuitous that we have 99 free slots between our current set of values!

Well, that’s no accident. The reason why the numbers were originally specced in increments of 100 back in 1996 was precisely so that some future sci-fi technology could make use of the ranges in between. That’s some future-friendly thinking! And as Håkon wrote:

One of the reasons we chose to use three-digit numbers was to support intermediate values in the future. And the future is now :)

Needless to say, variable fonts will be covered in Richard’s forthcoming book.

The typography of a web book

I’m a sucker for classic old-style serif typefaces: Caslon, Baskerville, Bembo, Garamond …I love ‘em. That’s probably why I’ve always found the typesetting in Edward Tufte’s books so appealing—he always uses a combination of Bembo for body copy and Gill Sans for headings.

Earlier this year I stumbled on a screen version of Bembo used for Tufte’s digital releases called ET Book. Best of all, it’s open source:

ET Book is a Bembo-like font for the computer designed by Dmitry Krasny, Bonnie Scranton, and Edward Tufte. It is free and open-source.

When I was styling Resilient Web Design, I knew that the choice of typeface would be one of the most important decisions I would make. Remembering that open source ET Book font, I plugged it in to see how it looked. I liked what I saw. I found it particularly appealing when it’s full black on full white at a nice big size (with lower contrast or sizes, it starts to get a bit fuzzy).

I love, love, love the old-style numerals of ET Book. But I was disappointed to see that ligatures didn’t seem to be coming through (even when I had enabled them in CSS). I mentioned this to Rich and of course he couldn’t resist doing a bit of typographic sleuthing. It turns out that the ligature glyphs are there in the source files but the files needed a little tweaking to enable them. Because the files are open source, Rich was able to tweak away to his heart’s content. I then took the tweaked open type files and ran them through Font Squirrel to generate WOFF and WOFF2 files. I’ve put them on Github.

For this book, I decided that the measure would be the priority. I settled on a measure of around 55 to 60 characters—about 10 or 11 words per line. I used a max-width of 27em combined with Mike’s brilliant fluid type technique to maintain a consistent measure.

It looks great on small-screen devices and tablets. On large screens, the font size starts to get really, really big. Personally, I like that. Lots of other people like it too. But some people really don’t like it. I should probably add a font-resizing widget for those who find the font size too shocking on luxuriously large screens. In the meantime, their only recourse is to fork the CSS to make their own version of the book with more familiar font sizes.

The visceral reaction a few people have expressed to the font size reminds me of the flak Jeffrey received when he redesigned his personal site a few years back:

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.

I wonder how the people who complained then are feeling now, a few years on, in a world with Medium in it? Jeffrey’s redesign doesn’t look so extreme any more.

Resilient Web Design will be on the web for a very, very, very long time. I’m curious to see if its type size will still look shockingly large in years to come.

Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger

Andy’s been playing Devils Advocate again, defending the much-maligned hamburger button. Weirdly though, I think I’ve seen more blog posts, tweets, and presentations defending this supposed underdog than I’ve seen knocking it.

Take this presentation from Smashing Conference. It begins with a stirring call to arms. Designers of the web—cast off your old ways, dismiss your clichés, try new things, and discard lazy solutions! “Yes!”, I thought to myself, “this is a fantastic message.” But then the second half of the talk switches into a defence of the laziest, most clichéd, least thought-through old tropes of interface designs: carousels, parallax scrolling and inevitably, the hamburger icon.

But let’s not get into a binary argument of “good” vs. “bad” when it comes to using the hamburger icon. I think the question is more subtle than that. There are three issues that need to be addressed if we’re going to evaluate the effectiveness of using the hamburger icon:

  1. representation,
  2. usage, and
  3. clarity.

Representation

An icon is a gateway to either some content or a specific action. The icon should provide a clear representation of the content or action that it leads to. Sometimes “clear” doesn’t have to literally mean that it’s representative: we use icons all the time that don’t actually represent the associated content or action (a 3.5 inch diskette for “save”, a house for the home page of a website, etc.). Cultural factors play a large part here. Unless the icon is a very literal pictorial representation, it’s unlikely that any icon can be considered truly universal.

If a hamburger icon is used as the gateway to a list of items, then it’s fairly representative. It’s a bit more abstract than an actual list of menu items stacked one on top of the other, but if you squint just right, you can see how “three stacked horizontal lines” could represent “a number of stacked menu items.”

If, on the other hand, a hamburger icon is used as the gateway to, say, a grid of options, then it isn’t representative at all. A miniaturised grid—looking like a window—would be a more representative option.

So in trying to answer the question “Does the hamburger icon succeed at being representative?”, the answer—as ever—is “it depends.” If it’s used as a scaled-down version of the thing its representing, it works. If it’s used as a catch-all icon to represent “a bunch of stuff” (as is all too common these days), then it works less well.

Which brings us to…

Usage

Much of the criticism of the hamburger icon isn’t actually about the icon itself, it’s about how it’s used. Too many designers are using it as an opportunity to de-clutter their interface by putting everything behind the icon. This succeeds in de-cluttering the interface in the same way that a child putting all their messy crap in the cupboard succeeds in cleaning their room.

It’s a tricky situation though. On small screens especially, there just isn’t room to display all possible actions. But the solution is not to display none instead. The solution is to prioritise. Which actions need to be visible? Which actions can afford to be squirrelled away behind an icon? A designer is supposed to answer those questions (using research, testing, good taste, experience, or whatever other tools are at their disposal).

All too often, the hamburger icon is used as an excuse to shirk that work. It’s treated as a “get out of jail free” card for designing small-screen interfaces.

To be clear: this usage—or misusage—has nothing to do with the actual icon itself. The fact that the icon is three stacked lines is fairly irrelevant on this point. The reason why the three stacked lines are so often used is that there’s a belief that this icon will be commonly understood.

That brings us to last and most important point:

Clarity

By far the most important factor in whether an icon—any icon—will be understood is whether or not it is labelled. A hamburger icon labelled with a word like “menu” or “more” or “options” is going to be far more effective than an unlabelled icon.

Don’t believe me? Good! Do some testing.

In my experience, 80-90% of the benefit of usability testing is in the area of labelling. And one of the lowest hanging fruit is the realisation that “Oh yeah, we should probably label that icon that we assumed would be universally understood.”

Andy mentions the “play” and “pause” symbols as an example of icons that are so well understood that they can stand by themselves. That’s not necessarily true.

I think there are two good rules of thumb when it comes to using icons:

  1. If in doubt, label it.
  2. If not in doubt, you probably should be—test your assumptions.

Results

Now that we’ve established the three criteria for evaluating an icon’s effectiveness, let’s see how the hamburger icon stacks up (if you’ll pardon the pun):

  1. Representation: It depends. Is it representing a stacked list of menu items? If so, good. If not, reconsider.
  2. Usage: it depends. Is it being used as an excuse to throw literally all your navigation behind it? If so, reconsider. Prioritise. Decide what needs to be visible, and what can be tucked away.
  3. Clarity: it depends. Is the icon labelled? If so, good. If not, less good.

So there you go. The answer to the question “Is the hamburger icon good or bad?” is a resounding and clear “It depends.”

Full Meaning Ampersand

In the space of one week, Brighton played host to three excellent conferences:

  1. FF Conf on Friday, November 6th,
  2. Meaning on Thursday, November 12th, and
  3. Ampersand on Friday, November 13th.

I made it to two of the three—alas, I couldn’t make it to Meaning this year because it clashed with Richard’s superb workshop on Responsive Web Typography.

FF Conf and Ampersand were both superb. Despite having very different subject matter, the two events have a lot in common. They’re both affordable, one-day, single-track, focused gatherings.

Both events really benefit from having a mastermind overseeing the line-up: Remy in the case of FF Conf, and Richard in the case of Ampersand. That really paid off. Both events were superbly curated, with a diverse mix of speakers and topics.

It was really interesting to see both conferences break out of the boundary of what happens inside web browsers. At FF Conf, we were treated to talks on linguistics and inclusivity. At Ampersand, we enjoyed talks on physiology and culture. But of course we also had the really deep dives into the minutest details of JavaScript, SVG, typography, and layout.

Videos will be available from FF Conf, and audio will be available from Ampersand. Be sure to check them out once they’re released.

Marcy Sutton FFConf 2015 Playing to be different marks with Marcin

100 words 056

I did not take any photographs today. There was a moment when I thought about it. Standing in the back garden, looking up through the leaves and branches of an overhanging tree, I almost reached for my phone.

The sky was a rich clear cerulean blue. The leaves of the tree were a deep maroon colour. The sunlight shining through the leaves showed a branching system of vein-like lines.

If I had taken a photograph, I probably would’ve pointed the camera lens straight up, filling most of the frame with pure blue, and the purple leaves encroaching into the picture.

100 words 052

There was a Clearleft outing to Bletchley Park today. I can’t believe I hadn’t been before. It was nerdvana—crypto, history, and science combined in one very English location.

Alan Turing’s work at Station X is rightly lauded, but I can’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the way we make heroes of those who work in the shadows. After the war, England’s fictional hero was James Bond, the creation of former Bletchley worker Ian Fleming. And now we have GCHQ spying on its own citizens.

Righteousness in the past doesn’t earn a country a free pass for the future.

100 words 043

It wasn’t that long ago I mentioned a new book about learning HTML and CSS from scratch, published online for free. Well, now there’s another one. This time the subject is typography on the web.

It’s called Professional Web Typography by Donny Truong. It’s a fairly quick read but it squeezes in plenty of handy practical advice with chapters on delivering web fonts, selecting body text, setting type in the browser, choosing headings, picking type for UI, seeing typographic details, and practicing typography.

Needless to say, the book is itself very nicely typeset. And you can pay what you want.

Billboards and Novels by Jon Tan

Jon is at An Event Apart in Atlanta to talk about Billboards and Novels. That means: impact vs. immersion.

Who in the audience has ever had to explain layout and design decisions? And who has struggled to do that? Jon has. That’s why he wants to talk about the differences between designing for impact—to grab attention—and immersion—to get out of the way and allow for absorbing involvement.

Jon examines the difference between interruption and disruption. You want to grab attention, but the tone has to be right. This is how good advertising works. So sometimes impact is a good thing, but not if you’re trying to read.

The web is reading.

Understanding how people read is a core skill for anyone designing and developing for the web. First, you must understand language. There’s a great book by Robert Bringhurst called What Is Reading For?, the summation of a symposium. Paraphrasing Eric Gill, he says that words are neither things, nor pictures of things; they are gestures.

Words as gestures …there are #vss (very short stories) on Twitter that manage to create entire backstories in your mind using the gestures of words.

A study has shown that aesthetics does not affect perceived usability, but it does have an effect on post-use perceived aesthetics. Even though a “designed” and “undesigned” thing might work equally well, our memory the the designed thing is more positive.

Good typography and poor typography appear to have no affect on reading comprehension. This was tested with a New Yorker article that was typeset well, and the same article typeset badly. The people who had the nicely typeset article underestimated how long it had taken them to read it. Objectively it had taken just as long as reading the poorly-typeset version, but because it was more pleasing, it put them in a good mood.

Good typography induces a good mood. And if you are in a good mood, you perform tasks better …and you will think that the tasks took less time. Time flies when you’re having fun.

What about type on screens?

  • David Berlow describes the web as “crude media.”
  • Jonathan Hoefler describes how he produces fonts differently for different media: the idea (behind the typeface) gives rise to a variety of forms.
  • Matthew Carter designed Bell Centennial to work at one size in one environment: the crappy paper of the telephone book. He left gaps in the letterforms for the ink to spread into.
  • The Siri typeface was redrawn anew as SiriCore specifically for the screen.

When Jon is evaluating typefaces, he is aware that some fonts are more optimised for the screen than others. He tests the smallest text first, in the most adverse environment: a really old HP machine running Windows XP. He also looks at language support, and features and variants like lining numerals: what are the mechanics of the font?

We take quiet delight in the smallest details of a typeface.

Legibility is so important. Kevin Larson analysed how we read. We take a snapshot of a bunch of letters, and our brains rearrange them into a word. We read by skipping along lines in “saccades” with pauses or “fixations” that allow us to understand a group of letters before reading on.

Jon tells the story of how Seb was fooled by a spoof Twitter account for the London Olympics. The account name was London20l2 (with a letter L), not London2012 (with the letter one). Depending on the typeface, that difference can be very hard to spot. Here’s a handy string:

agh! iIl1 o0

Stick that into Fontdeck and you’ll get a good idea of the mechanics of the font you’re looking at. You’re looking out for ambiguities that would interrupt the reader.

The same goes for typesetting: use the right quotes and apostrophes; not primes. Use ligatures when they help. But some ligatures are just showing off and they interrupt your reading. Typesetting should help reading, not interrupt or disrupt.

You can use text-rendering: optimizeLegibility but test it. You can use hyphens: auto but test it. You can add a non-breaking space before the last two words in a paragraph to prevent orphans. It will improve the mood.

A good example of interruption is the Ampersand 2012 website. There’s a span on the letter that should receive a flourish. But you can also use expert subsets. You can use Opentype features. There are common and discretionary ligatures. Implement them wisely. Use discretionary ligatures when you want to draw attention, like in a headline.

Scantastic readability. We wander around the page or screen in the same way as we read with saccades: our eyes jump around the place. Our scan path is a roughly Z-shaped pattern. You can design for this scan path: deliberately interrupt …but not disrupt. Jon uses the squint test when he is designing, to see what jumps out and interrupts.

Measure (line-length) is really important. Long lines tire us out. Bringhurst mentioned 45-75 character measures. But the measure is also bound to the prose: the content might be very short and snappy.

Contrast can give you careful, deliberate interruptions. Position, density, size …these are all tools we can use to interrupt without disrupting. The I Love Typography article on The Origins of ABC is a beautiful example of this. Compare it to the disruption of faddish parallax sites.

But there are no rules, just good decisions.

It’s all so emotional. Sometimes there are no words. Think of the masterful storytelling of the first twenty minutes of Wall-E.

We react incredibly quickly to faces. We can see and recognise a human face in 40 milliseconds, before we even consciously process that we’ve seen a face.

When we try to write about music, the result can be some really purple prose.

We have an emotional reaction to faces, colour, music …and type.

Jon demonstrates the effect on us that a friendly typeface has compared to a harsh typeface …even though the friendly typeface is used for the Malay word for “hate” and the harsh typeface is used for the Malay word for “love.” Our amygdala is reacting directly. It’s a physiological, visceral reaction we have before we even understand what we’re looking at.

Fonts are wayfinding apps for emotions. There’s a difference between designing places and designing postcards of places.

The Milwaukee Police News website is very impactful …but there’s no immersion. It doesn’t communicate beyond the initial reaction.

Places are defined by type and form: New York, London, Paris. A website for Barcelona or Brooklyn should reflect the flavour of those places.

All these things combine: impact, immersion, contrast, colour, type. We can affect people’s experiences. We can put them in a better mood.

Type shapes our experience. It paints pictures that echo in our memory long after we’ve left.

Eric Spiekermann said:

Details in typefaces are not to be seen, but felt.

Those details have to work in the greater context (of colour, contrast, layout).

Bruce Lee said:

Don’t think; feel.

Long time

A few years back, I was on a road trip in the States with my friend Dan. We drove through Maryland and Virginia to the sites of American Civil War battles—Gettysburg, Antietam. I was reading Tom Standage’s magnificent book The Victorian Internet at the time. When I was done with the book, I passed it on to Dan. He loved it. A few years later, he sent me a gift: a glass telegraph insulator.

Glass telegraph insulator from New York

Last week I received another gift from Dan: a telegraph key.

Telegraph key

It’s lovely. If my knowledge of basic electronics were better, I’d hook it up to an Arduino and tweet with it.

Dan came over to the UK for a visit last month. We had a lovely time wandering around Brighton and London together. At one point, we popped into the National Portrait Gallery. There was one painting he really wanted to see: the portrait of Samuel Pepys.

Pepys

“Were you reading the online Pepys diary?”, I asked.

“Oh, yes!”, he said.

“I know the guy who did that!”

The “guy who did that” is, of course, the brilliant Phil Gyford.

Phil came down to Brighton and gave a Skillswap talk all about the ten-year long project.

The diary of Samuel Pepys: Telling a complex story online on Huffduffer

Now Phil has restarted the diary. He wrote a really great piece about what it’s like overhauling a site that has been online for a decade. Given that I spent a lot of my time last year overhauling The Session (which has been online in some form or another since the late nineties), I can relate to his perspective on trying to choose long-term technologies:

Looking ahead, how will I feel about this Django backend in ten years’ time? I’ve no idea what the state of the platform will be in a decade.

I was thinking about switching The Session over to Django, but I decided against it in the end. I figured that the pain involved in trying to retrofit an existing site (as opposed to starting a brand new project) would be too much. So the site is still written in the very uncool LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.

Mind you, Marco Arment makes the point in his Webstock talk that there’s a real value to using tried and tested “boring” technologies.

One area where I’ve found myself becoming increasingly wary over time is the use of third-party APIs. I say that with a heavy heart—back at dConstruct 2006 I was talking all about The Joy of API. But Yahoo, Google, Twitter …they’ve all deprecated or backtracked on their offerings to developers.

Anyway, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately: evaluating technologies and services in terms of their long-term benefit instead of just their short-term hit. It’s something that we need to think about more as developers, and it’s certainly something that we need to think about more as users.

Compared with genuinely long-term projects like the 10,000 year Clock of the Long Now making something long-lasting on the web shouldn’t be all that challenging. The real challenge is acknowledging that this is even an issue. As Phil puts it:

I don’t know how much individuals and companies habitually think about this. Is it possible to plan for how your online service will work over the next ten years, never mind longer?

As my Long Bet illustrates, I can be somewhat pessimistic about the longevity of our web creations:

The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.

But I really hope I lose that bet. Maybe I’ll suggest to Matt (my challenger on the bet) that we meet up on February 22nd, 2022 at the Long Now Salon. It doesn’t exist yet. But give it time.

Canvas sparklines

I like sparklines a lot. Tufte describes a sparkline as:

…a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution.

Four years ago, I added sparklines to Huffduffer using Google’s chart API. That API comes in two flavours: a JavaScript API for client-side creation of graphs, and image charts for server-side rendering of charts as PNGs.

The image API is really useful: there’s no reliance on JavaScript, it works in every browser capable of displaying images, and it’s really flexible and customisable. Therefore it is, of course, being deprecated.

The death warrant for Google image charts sets the execution date for 2015. Time to start looking for an alternative.

I couldn’t find a direct equivalent to the functionality that Google provides i.e. generating the images dynamically on the server. There are, however, plenty of client-side alternatives, many of them using canvas.

Most of the implementations I found were a little heavy-handed for my taste: they either required jQuery or Processing or both. I just wanted a quick little script for generating sparklines from a dataset of numbers. So I wrote my own.

I’ve put my code up on Github as Canvas Sparkline.

Here’s the JavaScript. You create a canvas element with the dimensions you want for the sparkline, then pass the ID of that element (along with your dataset) into the sparkline function:

sparkline ('canvasID', [12, 18, 13, 12, 11, 15, 17, 20, 15, 12, 8, 7, 9, 11], true);

(that final Boolean value at the end just indicates whether you want a red dot at the end of the sparkline).

The script takes care of normalising the values, so it doesn’t matter how many numbers are in the dataset or whether the range of the numbers is in the tens, hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands.

There’s plenty of room for improvement:

  • The colour of the sparkline is hardcoded (50% transparent black) but it could be passed in as a value.
  • All the values should probably be passed in as an array of options rather than individual parameters.

Feel free to fork, adapt, and improve.

The sparklines are working quite nicely, but I can’t help but feel that this isn’t the right tool for the job. Ideally, I’d like to keep using a server-side solution like Google’s image charts. But if I am going to use a client-side solution, I’m not sure that canvas is the right element. This should really be SVG: canvas is great for dynamic images and animations that need to update quite quickly, but sparklines are generally pretty static. If anyone fancies making a lightweight SVG solution for sparklines, that would be lovely.

In the meantime, you can see Canvas Sparkline in action on the member profiles at The Session, like here, here, here, or here.

Update: Ask and thou shalt receive. Check out this fantastic lightweight SVG solution from Stuart—bloody brilliant!

Iconic imagery

There’s been some fantastic collaborative work done recently on the tricky issue of responsive images. Witness the community group and its attendant website, complete with logo.

Meanwhile, there’s been some great research into dealing with high-DPI displays (which the world and its dog have decided to label “retina”). There’s the in-depth analysis by Daan Jobsis which looks at what you can get away with when it comes to compression and quality for “retina” displays: quite a lot, as it turns out.

In fact, you may well be able to double the dimensions of an image while simultaneously bringing down its quality and end up with an image that is smaller in file size than the original, while still looking great on high-DP..“retina” displays. The guys over at Filament group have labelled this Compressive Images. Nice.

I like that approach. No JavaScript polyfills. No lobbying of standards bodies.

I’m generally fan of solutions that look for ways of avoiding the problem in the first place. Hence my approach to image optimisation for all devices, widescreen or narrow.

Of course this whole issue of responsive (or compressive) images should really only apply to photographic imagery. If you’re dealing with “text as images” …don’t. Use web fonts. If you’re dealing with logos or icons, there are other options, like SVG.

Then there’s the combination of web fonts and iconography. Why not use a small web font containing just the icons you need?

I tried this recently, diligently following Josh’s excellent blog post detailing how to get icon shapes out of Fireworks, into a font editor, and then into an actual font. It works a treat, although I concur with Josh’s suggestion that the technique should really only be implemented using the ::before and ::after pseudo-elements in combination with base-64 encoding the font file. That means it won’t work in every single browser, but that’s the point: these icons should be an enhancement, not a requirement.

Having gone through the tortuous steps required to get my Mac all set up with the software required to follow Josh’s tutorial, I then spotted the note at the end of his article that pointed to Icomoon. That turns out to be a fantastic service. You can pick and choose from the icons provided or you can upload your own vector shapes. Then you can assign the unicode slots you want to use for the icons and you can get the resulting font file base-64 encoded. Very, very cool!

There’s a whole slew of icon-font services like that out there now: Pictos, Web Symbols, and Symbolset with its ingenious use of ligatures to allow for an accessible fallback.

Jenn is currently casting a critical eye over each of these service over on the Nerdary: part one, part two, and part three are all deserving of your time and attention.