When I was offered the boo Type on Screen (edited by Ellen Lupton) to review I jumped at the chance. This is a follow-up to the book Thinking with Type (Buy on Amazon) which is an excellent primer on using type visually. So when I saw that she was editing a book on type for the screen, I was really excited. And this book does not disappoint.
The first chapter is by Christopher Clark. He provides a quick overview of web fonts and how they have changed over the years. But this chapter is more than a history of type online. In fact if that’s all it were I would have skimmed it or ignored it. No, this chapter teaches you how screens render type, details of type taxonomy and anatomy, and best of all, it gives you a survey of 14 of the best fonts for online use: five sans-serif, four serif, and five slab serif fonts. You will see all these fonts rated by legibility, readability, flexibility, showmanship, classiness, and amphibiousness (how well does it work on screen as well as print and on PCs as well as Macs).
And that’s just part of the first chapter!
Chapter two (by Young Sun Compton) starts looking at what you can do with the fonts you’ve chosen to use. This is not a chapter on how to use web fonts. You can learn about the mechanics to do that in chapter 11 (Hour 11: Fonts and Typography in HTML5) of my HTML5 book (Buy on Amazon). Instead, in this chapter you will learn about the design and layout of your screens so that you can place your type in ways that are most readable and legible for your customers. This chapter covers: grid systems, responsive typography, columns, leading, and even how to define a visual hierarchy using text. It even has details on specific HTML tags for type along with special characters you can use to keep your type effective.
Chapter three (also by Young Sun Compton) is where it gets interesting. This chapter acknowledges the fact that many web designers want to forget—type online is more than just web pages. There are now ebooks that read and display HTML as well as other devices. In many ways the digital landscape now is as wide open with possibilities as it was when I started writing about HTML and web design in 1997. And it’s great to see a book take that into account. One thing that I really like about this chapter is the reminder that not only do people consume digital content, but software programs and digital devices do too. And if those devices can’t read your type, then you’re missing out on an audience.
Chapter four, by Javier Lopez and Alice Hom, is all about type and interface. This chapter seemed dry at first, but as I dove deeper I realized how exciting it really is. It goes into wireframes, interaction elements, and even type as navigation. I love that it acknowledges that the vocabulary surrounding type is expanding as we use new and different devices and approaches to visual design and interactivity. There are also discussions of fun things in this chapter like drop shadows, gradients, and making your text disappear and reappear. One part I really like are the examples for visualizing data. Infographics are really fun to make and read these days and often they are primarily type, so knowing how to display that data well visually with your type is critical.
Chapters five and six go into the same amount of detail around type used in logos and icons and in animation and code. What I especially like about these chapters are the case studies that show you exactly what they mean and make it easy to visualize what you should do with your own logos, icons, and animations.
The Book Isn’t Perfect
Because this book is an edited collection of articles, sometimes the flow was a bit choppy between sections. It might have felt more cohesive if only one person had written it, but I think ultimately having the multiple authors helped the book. It made it more authoritative because it is difficult for one person to know everything there is to know about some of these complicated subjects.
My other issue was that while the title is Type on Screen there was very little discussion of how type on screen is different from type on the printed page. Most of us can make out the differences, but for design purposes it helps to know so that you don’t do something on a screen that works better in print and vice versa.
Finally, there is not a lot of actual code in the book. As I mentioned, chapter two discusses web fonts, but there is no explanation of how to do it using HTML or CSS. Since this book is a guide for design, not a how-to instruction manual, this didn’t bother me. But if you’re looking for the nuts and bolts of how to use and manipulate typography on screens, this is not the book for you.