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Designing a website

Step 2 - Designing your site

Typography on the web

The art and science of typography offers different challenges in different media: Type choices for a brochure will differ from those for a highway billboard or a television commercial. And the web presents its own set of challenges.


6 challenges of web typography:

  1. Font availability. On the Web, you must use fonts that your users have installed on their computers. Otherwise, your site won't look the way you designed it. The problem is: Most users have only the limited choice of fonts that came with their computer.

  2. Screen legibility. Most digital typefaces were designed to print well on a page; not much attention was paid to on-screen legibility. As a result, most fonts are hard to read online, especially at small point sizes.

  3. Cross-platform inconsistencies. Different fonts come installed on the Mac and the PC, and fonts with the same name may display differently on the two platforms, making precision typography difficult.

  4. Lack of precise positioning. HTML is a ham-handed tool for type placement. This has improved greatly with the advent of stylesheets, but advanced effects—like overlapping letters or text wrapped around an image—can be maddeningly difficult, if they're possible at all.

  5. Larger type size. Type must be relatively large on screen to be readable. This eats into the available real estate and restricts design options.

  6. The failure of classic typefaces. Typefaces that appear beautifully on the printed page often break down on the screen, appearing broken and fuzzy.

So typography on the web is a severely constrained art. The fonts used on most websites can be counted on one hand, and many of the most popular sites employ typographic "techniques" that make designers cringe.


No, precision typesetting isn't the web's strength. The web offers cross-platform distribution, flexible displays, and user control—all of which run quite counter to the goals of typographic artistry. So what's evolved is an aesthetic of constraint—one that highlights usability and readability.

Choosing a typeface

In the early days of HTML, type choices were massively restricted...in that you didn't have any choice at all. Users controlled the font displayed on their browsers, but most users didn't even know they controlled them. As a result, most people saw web pages written in the default font, Times New Roman, which is a sub-optimal choice, at best.


Thankfully, times have changed, and HTML now allows the designer to specify the font used for any particular page or word or headline, if she so desires. But the choices are still restricted to those typefaces your users have installed on their computers.


And since most users stick with the small number of system fonts that come bundled with their computers, and since different fonts come with the Mac and the PC, and since very few of those fonts are appropriate for on-screen reading, your choices are limited indeed.


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