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Friday, January 3rd, 2020

A short history of body copy sizes on the Web

A look at the trend towards larger and larger font sizes for body copy on the web, culminating with Resilient Web Design.

There are some good arguments here for the upper limit on the font size there being too high, so I’ve adjusted it slightly. Now on large screens, the body copy on Resilient Web Design is 32px (2 times 1em), down from 40px (2.5 times 1em).

Monday, November 11th, 2019

Cat encounters

The latest episode of Ariel’s excellent Offworld video series (and podcast) is all about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.

Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.

This is a timely discussion. There’s a new book by Daniel Oberhaus published by MIT Press called Extraterrestrial Languages:

If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?

You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:

Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.

Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.

It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.

But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.

The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:

  1. Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
  2. Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.

This is the raycat solution.

Thursday, October 3rd, 2019

A Modern CSS Reset - Andy Bell

Some very smart ideas in here for resetting default browser styles, like only resetting lists that have classes applied to them:

ul[class],
ol[class] {
  padding: 0;
}

I select only lists that do have a class attribute because if a plain ol’ <ul> or <ol> gets used, I want it to look like a list. A lot of resets, including my previous ones, aggressively remove that.

Saturday, August 3rd, 2019

Standard Ebooks: Free and liberated ebooks, carefully produced for the true book lover.

Books in the public domain, lovingly designed and typeset, available in multiple formats for free. Great works of fiction from Austen, Conrad, Stevenson, Wells, Hardy, Doyle, and Dickens, along with classics of non-fiction like Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Shackleton’s South!

Monday, July 1st, 2019

8 DOM features you didn’t know existed - LogRocket Blog

If you ignore the slightly insulting and condescending clickbaity title, this is a handy run-down of eight browser features with good support:

  1. extra arguments in addEventListener(),
  2. scrollTo(),
  3. extra arguments in setTimeout() and setInterval(),
  4. the defaultChecked property for checkboxes,
  5. normalize() and wholeText for strings of text,
  6. insertAdjacentElement() and insertAdjacentText(),
  7. event.detail, and
  8. scrollHeight and scrollWidth.

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites

1,841 instances of dark patterns on ecommerce sites, in the categories of sneaking, urgency, misdirection, social proof, scarcity, obstruction, and forced action. You can browse this overview, read the paper, or look at the raw data.

We conducted a large-scale study, analyzing ~53K product pages from ~11K shopping websites to characterize and quantify the prevalence of dark patterns.

Monday, June 10th, 2019

The CSS Mindset | Max Böck - Frontend Web Developer

This post absolutely nails what’s special about CSS …and why supersmart programmers might have trouble wrapping their head around it:

Other programming languages often work in controlled environments, like servers. They expect certain conditions to be true at all times, and can therefore be understood as concrete instructions as to how a program should execute.

CSS on the other hand works in a place that can never be fully controlled, so it has to be flexible by default.

Max goes on to encapsulate years of valuable CSS learnings into some short and snappy pieces of advices:

No matter what your level of CSS knowledge, this post has something for you—highly recommended!

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

Self-Host Your Static Assets – CSS Wizardry

Trust no one! Harry enumerates the reason why you should be self-hosting your assets (and busts some myths along the way).

There really is very little reason to leave your static assets on anyone else’s infrastructure. The perceived benefits are often a myth, and even if they weren’t, the trade-offs simply aren’t worth it. Loading assets from multiple origins is demonstrably slower.

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

Type in the digital era is a mess

Marcin explains why line height works differently in print and the web. Along the way, he hits upon this key insight about CSS:

Web also took away some of the control from typesetters. What in the print era were absolute rules, now became suggestions.

Remember that every line of CSS you write is a suggestion to the browser.

Friday, March 22nd, 2019

All you need to know about hyphenation in CSS | Clagnut by Richard Rutter

Everything you need to know about hyphenation on the web today, from Rich’s galaxy brain.

Hyphenation is a perfect example of progressive enhancement, so you can start applying the above now if you think your readers will benefit from it – support among browsers will only increase.

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

The CSS mental model - QuirksBlog

PPK looks at the different mental models behind CSS and JavaScript. One is declarative and one is imperative.

There’s a lot here that ties in with what I was talking about at New Adventures around the rule of least power in technology choice.

I’m not sure if I agree with describing CSS as being state-based. The example that illustrates this—a :hover style—feels like an exception rather than a typical example of CSS.

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

CSS Remedy

This is a really interesting approach that isn’t quite a CSS reset or a normalisation. Instead, it’s an experiment to reimagine what a default browser stylesheet would be like if it were created today, without concerns about backwards compatibility:

Applies basic styling to form elements and controls, getting you started with custom styling. We want to find the balance between providing a base for implementing a custom design, and allowing OS-level control over how form inputs work (like how a number pad works on iOS).

Provides a very lightweight starter file, with generic visual styling that you will want to replace. This isn’t as robust or opinionated as a starter-theme or framework. We’ve leaned toward specifying less, so you have less to override. (We haven’t defined any font families, for example.)

You can contribute by adding issues.

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Security Checklist

Exactly what it sounds like: a checklist of measures you can take to protect yourself.

Most of these require a certain level of tech-savviness, which is a real shame. On the other hand, some of them are entirely about awareness.

Monday, November 26th, 2018

Prototypes and production

When we do front-end development at Clearleft, we’re usually delivering production code, often in the form of a component library. That means our priorities are performance, accessibility, robustness, and other markers of quality when it comes to web development.

But every so often, we use the materials of front-end development—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—to produce something that isn’t intended for production. I’m talking about prototyping.

There are plenty of non-code prototyping tools out there, and our designers often reach for them to communicate subtleties like motion design. But when it comes to testing a prototype with real users, it’s hard to beat the flexibility of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Load it up in a browser and away you go.

We do a lot of design sprints, where time is of the essence. The prototype we produce on the penultimate day of the sprint definitely won’t be production quality, but it will be good enough to test.

What’s interesting is that—when it comes to prototyping—our usual front-end priorities can and should go out the window. The priority now is speed. If that means sacrificing semantics or performance, then so be it. If I’m building a prototype and I find myself thinking “now, what’s the right class name for this component?”, then I know I’m in the wrong mindset. That question might be valid for production code, but it’s a waste of time for prototypes.

So these two kinds of work require very different attitudes. For production work, quality is key. For prototyping, making something quickly is what matters.

Whereas I would think long and hard about the performance impacts of third-party libraries and frameworks on a public project, I won’t give it a second thought when it comes to a prototype. Throw all the JavaScript frameworks and CSS libraries you want at it (although I would argue that in-browser technologies like CSS Grid have made CSS libraries like Bootstrap less necessary, even for prototyping).

Alternating between production projects and prototyping projects can be quite fun, if a little disorienting. It’s almost like I have to flip a switch in my brain to change tracks.

When a prototype is successful, works great, and tests well, there’s a real temptation to use the prototype code as the basis for the final product. Don’t do this! I’ve made that mistake in the past and it always ends badly. I ended up spending far more time trying to wrangle prototype code to a production level than if I had just started from a clean slate.

Build prototypes to test ideas, designs, interactions, and interfaces …and then throw the code away. The value of a prototype is in answering questions and testing hypotheses. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy when it’s time to switch over into production mode.

Of course it should go without saying that you should never, ever release prototype code into production.

And yet…

More and more live sites seem to be built with a prototyping mindset. Weighty JavaScript frameworks are used regardless of appropriateness. Accessibility, if it’s even considered at all, is relegated to an afterthought. Fragile architectures are employed that rely on first loading and then executing JavaScript in order to render basic content. Developer experience is prioritised over user experience.

Heydon recently highlighted an article that offered this tip for aspiring web developers:

As for HTML, there’s not much to learn right away and you can kind of learn as you go, but before making your first templates, know the difference between in-line elements like span and how they differ from block ones like div.

That’s perfectly reasonable advice …if you’re building a prototype. But if you’re building something for public consumption, you have a duty of care to the end users.

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

Responsive Images on the Apple Watch — ericportis.com

Some tips for getting responsive images to work well on the Apple Watch:

  • test your layouts down to 136-px wide
  • include 300w-ish resources in your full-width img’s srcsets
  • art direct to keep image subjects legible
  • say the magic meta words

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

The State of Fieldset Interoperability - Bocoup

The long-standing difficulties of styling fieldset and legend are finally getting addressed …although I’m a little shocked that the solution involves extending -webkit-appearance. I think that, at this point, we should be trying to get rid of vendor prefixes from the web once and for all, not adding to them. Still, needs must, I suppose.

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

The Font Loading Checklist—zachleat.com

This checklist came in very handy during a performance-related workshop I was running today (I may have said the sentence “Always ask yourself What Would Zach Do?”).

  1. Start Important Font Downloads Earlier (Start a Web Font load)
  2. Prioritize Readable Text (Behavior while a Web Font is loading)
  3. Make Fonts Smaller (Reduce Web Font load time)
  4. Reduce Movement during Page Load (Behavior after a Web Font has loaded)

The first two are really straightforward to implement (with rel="preload" and font-display). The second two take more work (with subsetting and the font loading API).

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

The Complete CSS Demo for OpenType Features - OpenType Features in CSS

Every single font-feature-settings value demonstrated in one single page.

Friday, August 10th, 2018

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.