is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
The latest in A Book Apart’s indispensable guides to the art and science of Web design and development is Jason Santa Maria’s “On Web Typography.” It clocks in at less than 150 pages but it nevertheless offers a comprehensive, thoughtful and highly readable primer on how to approach typography in today’s browsers. Jason, an old friend and fellow Brooklynite, was kind enough to answer a few questions about it over email.
When I opened the book for the first time I realized that you spend a lot its pages covering typography in the broadest sense. Did you originally set out with such an ambitious plan?
When I really started digging into it, I kept coming back to the idea that good typographic practice is almost universal across mediums. The basics stay the same, but the refinements and detailed tuning for a specific medium are what require special attention. Just as putting 10-ft. tall type on the side of a building is different than on a business card or phone in very specific ways, the foundation of what makes good typography work remains the same.
Did you find that the current state of the art made it easy for you to translate typography fundamentals into Web typography fundamentals? Or was it still harder than you’d like, in spite of how far along browsers have come?
Yes and no. Things like fine control over hyphenation or kerning are so common in print design as to be an afterthought, but that kind of fine control on a Web page doesn’t reliably exist yet. Or at least the means to approximate that kind of control can leave you frustrated. On the other hand, the amount of control we already have on the Web to have our typography adapt to better suit a reader’s environment is remarkable, and only getting better. The fundamentals are exactly that in either medium, but the upper end of control or adaptability are exciting and maddening.
How much of your motivation behind this book was about pushing people to work more in that “upper end of control or adaptability”?
My main motivation was really to find a way to talk about the uncomfortable stuff beyond putting a typeface on a page. To pull typefaces apart and look at how they’re constructed, or to reason out why one typeface works better aesthetically than another. Those topics can be uncomfortable because there are really no right answers, just different forms of good. And that’s okay, but I wanted people to get to a point where they could embrace that discomfort, rather than being frustrated by a lack of prescriptive pathways. Because of that, this book ended up being more about my personal process than an academic one.
That personal aspect was a pleasant surprise. Some of the concepts that you float, like “type for a moment” and “type to live with,” were really interesting and reflect a particular way of looking at typography. To what extent is this book “Jason Santa Maria’s Type Manifesto”?
I guess in as much as it’s just my personal approach, warts and all. I don’t profess to have it all figured out, but I tried to unpack my thought process for typography so that it might be helpful to others. I know that type can feel like an impenetrable wall to newcomers, like some cryptic art form that only designers who have practiced for decades can understand. My hope is that I can help make typographic learning more welcoming with what I’ve picked up over the years. So, maybe it’s not so much a manifesto but one designer’s process for working with type.
So is the book intended primarily for newcomers who are looking to develop their own personal process for working with type?
Yes, but really anyone who is new to design or came to design without formal training. I’ve worked with so many great folks over the years who are smart and confident in their skills, but still feel confounded when it comes to typography. I wanted to write enough of a primer for that kind of person that would give them a good foundation and open a door for them to learn more on their own.
For those who are already skilled students of typography, this book might not have new material. But when you get to that point, most of your further learning probably comes from hands-on work rather than books. Regardless, no matter what skill level I consider myself in different areas of design, I always enjoy reading about someone else’s process. Sometimes to glean new methods for work, and sometimes just to reaffirm what I’m already doing.
When you finished writing, were there any ideas left on the cutting room floor that might suggest a second book?
Absolutely! There were lots of topics I wanted to delve deeper into that had to be trimmed—like icon fonts, or a more thorough exploration of responsive typography. Bcause it’s a brief book, and in order to try and paint a well rounded picture, I needed to start closer to the beginning. But I think that’s fine. It leaves the door open for another book on the next few steps in typography for the Web, or better yet, deeper learning by getting your hands dirty. If this book can make type more approachable as a practice to anyone whose work overlaps typography in some way, I’m happy with that.
“On Web Typography” is available in just about any form you like from A Book Apart.