Tags: type

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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.

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.

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.

Typorn

My geek social calendar has been quite full over the past few days. On Saturday, I—along with half of the web developers in the land—went to Maidenhead for Drew and Rachel’s wedding.

Just as with Norm!’s wedding a few weeks ago, ‘twas a lovely, heartwarming affair. The pièce de résistance was the wedding “cake”: a tower of the finest British cheeses. Needless to say, I took many pictures and dutifully tagged them with the official wedding tag.

The weekend’s shenanigans extended into the start of the week. Rather than spending Monday at work, the Clearleft team made an outing to Ditchling Museum.

Despite its small size, the village of Ditchling looms large in the world of typography. and both lived and worked there. As a result, the museum’s collection is veritable treasure trove of typey goodness.

But we didn’t just spend the day ooh-ing and ah-ing over the wonderful pieces on display. We rolled up our sleeves and started using the printing press for ourselves, under the tutelage of Phil Baines. You may remember him from such websites as Public Lettering and such books as Penguin by Design.

It was a lot of fun. I can only echo what Stan said of his experience with the tactile inkiness of movable type:

I adore the way I can touch the past through the old metal type and really appreciate typography on a new level. I really can’t recommend classes like this enough. If you are a lover of type, you really owe it to yourself to spend some time with letterpress printing.

I was practically giggling with glee as I set 60pt Baskerville with Richard—my font of choice for Huffduffer. Handling the metal, smelling the ink, operating the printing press …it was simultaneously rough and sensual.

If you share my fetishism for the printed word, feel free to browse through my stash on Flickr. More delights are on display from Relly, Cennydd and James.