Network: Typography - a language in its own right

The right type helps to get your message across on the Web
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MANY THINK of text as just a way of recording spoken words, but typography adds a language to text that goes far beyond the spoken word. It affects how text looks by controlling the space, shape and sizes of letters. On the Web, typography is displaying text on the computer screen to wide audiences. But many of the challenges of this are a result of the Web's limitations. So it is important to understand how to classify type styles on the Web, and how text can be incorporated into a web page.

Type for the Web

A type style (called font families on the Web) is a category of typefaces with similar characteristics. There are five basic font "families":

Serif: small "ornamentation" at the end of a letter that helps distinguish it. Serifs are holdovers from the days of stone cutting and pen strokes, but they often improve legibility by making individual letters stand out. Serif fonts are often best for the display of larger text or for smaller printed text, and not so good for smaller text on a screen as they will often obscure the letter - eg. Times.

Sans-Serif: you guessed - without serifs. Characters are less distinctive, but these work better for smaller text on a screen - eg. Helvetica, Arial.

Monospace fonts can have serifs or not, but each letter occupies the same amount of space, ie. an "l" and "m". They work best for text that has to be exactly (but not necessarily quickly) read, such as programming code where typos can spell disaster - eg. Courier.

Cursive fonts try to mimic cursive handwriting, but usually in a highly stylised manner. Best for decoration and not very good for reading large chunks of text - eg. Zapf Chancery and Ribbon.

Fantasy are decorative fonts that don't fit any other category. Usually very ornamental or, in the case of Dingbats, actually illustrations or icons. Should be chosen carefully to reinforce the look and feel of your site - eg. Zapf Dingbats and Post Crypt.

Using type on the Web

While we can, in theory, use any font we want, there are three distinctive ways to present text, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

HTML Text is mostly like text in a word processor. Its advantages are that it is easily edited if changes are needed and the text can adjust to the width of the screen it is being viewed on. But it has severe design limitations. Most textual control is left to the visitor's browser, and you can't do things like run text vertically. And you are limited to fonts available on the visitor's machine.

Cascading Style Sheets (/ net/980407ne/story8.html) give greater control, but HTML text is still very limited, particularly for special effects. This is why many designers turn to...

Graphic Text is actually a graphic (GIF or JPEG) with text in it, so you can do anything you want to how it looks and use any font you want, no matter what the site visitor has. But graphics mean slower downloads and may be cut off if the visitor's screen is not large enough. Graphic text is usually difficult to edit.

Vector Text gives the best of both worlds. Like HTML text, it is easily changed and can dynamically position itself depending on the screen size, but, like graphic text, many special effects can be used, with any font you want. Currently, the only universal way to get it into a website is to use Macromedia's Flash plug-in (www.independent. 980727ne/story4.html ), but standards are being worked on by the World Wide Web Consortium ( that'll let browsers display vector text (and graphics).

Typography resources

Here are a few of my favourites.

Counterspace uses Flash to give lessons on typography, and recommend useful fonts. (www.

Typographic presents general information, and includes studies of how to use fonts more effectively - in print and online. (

Graphion's Online Type Museum has good information about typography basics. (www.

Swipe-Books on Typography. I recommend Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann & E M Ginger. (

E-mail comments or queries to