Typography for the Web of Information

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Web Type Technologies

Typography on the Web is often a flexible affair.  Font choice is limited, and on-screen text isn't anti-aliased. Designers have tried numerous strategies to employ sophisticated type, with varying degrees of success.  It has generally become realized that Typography for the Web requires a unique approach; malleable.

The lingua franca of the Web is HTML, which began as Tim Lee's simple SGML subset for easy markup and description of page elements.  The first browsers had little support for complex formatting, but as the popularity of the web grew, and software giants began investing in Web browser and server technologies, HTML would become increasingly complex.  The current HTML specification is a combination of structural markup, visual markup, and proprietary media extensions. 

Typography on the Web can be created using a variety of techniques.  The most common is the display of ASCII text through the Browser and Operating system's native text rendering engines.  Essentially this means that any font installed on the Client machine should be renderable in the browser.  Unfortunately, the nature of the web means that most systems have vastly differing font installations.  In the case of a screen reader or text browser, font choice is meaningless.  Common practice is to specify a specific font family or face, then an alternate face or family, and finally a default system font, should no suitable font be found. At the most basic level, the font choices may be restricted to simply 'serif or sans-serif'.

Page layout is controlled by markup elements which represent both semantic and visual elements.  For example:

<P> denotes the beginning of a Paragraph.
<HR> denotes a Horizontal Rule
<TD> denotes Table Data, in a TABLE.

Each of these tags has different purposes: the <P> was placed by the author of the written content, the <HR> may have been placed by a designer, and the <TD> auto-generated as apart of a Web-based spreadsheet.  On the surface, this makes sense, but when this data is introduced to the machine-readable environment, it fails.  All tags are treated equally, essentially.  The computer cannot distinguish between page layout and written content.

If computer programs cannot understand and delineate information from layout, then much information will go undiscovered, lost in the maze of the Web. In this way, text and typography must work together to provide effective communication within these limitations.

A Web developer or designer wishing to engage in Typographic design will turn to a variety of tools, but few more useful than CSS (Cascading Style Sheets).  This specification allows for instance-independent styling of tags, meaning that simple, structural tags can be used to style text, while design and layout-specific tags can be styled separately.  In this way, manuscripts are left independent of the Web's requirements: text can be styled in multiple ways based on the same original texts.  Similarly, by using style sheets, a designer has greater layout control without needing to alter and 'hard code' design elements.

The CSS specification also allows for much finer-grained control of HTML element display. Padding, spacing, line widths and heights can be specified with CSS: impossible with straight HTML tags.  The Web Typographer can take advantage of complex selectors within CSS to perform conditional or rule-based styling as well.

Unfortunately, CSS support remain spotty across many browsers, but is generally much better than past generations.  In the environment of the CMS (Content Management System), CSS is indispensable.

Web Designers, developers, and other implementors of Web Typography are more often involved in large-scale projects.  Large organizations are increasingly turning to the web as a cheap and easy mass-publishing solution.  In these cases, where the CMS handles the interchange of information, the Web Designer must utilize site-wide techniques to manage layout and Typography.

In the CMS environment, CSS is often paired with XML (eXtensible Markup Language), a data-descriptive language similar to HTML is style but radically different in purpose.  XML seeks to redefine the lingua franca of not only the Web, but of information storage as a whole. While the details beyond the scope of this document, understanding the relationships of data-centered XML markup alongside presentation-level XHTML will be paramount to next-generation Web Designers.

As corporate and government Web publishing efforts grow into the millions of pages,  effective Typographic design will again become indispensable, just as the information displayed is indispensable.