Digital Typography Needs to Move Forward

Jun 11 2014 by Justina Bakutyte | 2 Comments

Digital typography is relatively old. With digital type having been around for 30 years, it’s surprising to me that we still haven’t moved much outside of the concepts we have borrowed from print.

I deal with text on the Web every day. Whether it’s creating it or reading it. Both of these tasks reveal to me how underdeveloped digital typography is compared to other digital technologies.

Typography is a key element of the reading experience.

Throughout history, typographers were always searching for opportunities to improve and further understand their craft.

For example, semiotic typography (PDF) introduced new ideas for experiencing written material. In semiotics, the concept is a letter is realized as a symbol (signifier) which carries a number of connotations based on its style, size, and color. Words go beyond their linguistic (denoted) meaning and into visual (connoted) meaning.

Look at the following example. The text blocks have the same literal meaning, yet the impression they make on the reader is different.

The reason for this difference is our brain reads text like a photograph, automatically processing any contextual information it can find.

As for the artistry side of typography, in the 19th century, poet Guillaume Apollinaire was greatly known for his calligrams, a manner of arranging typography to create a visual image.

Later on, De Stijl introduced the concepts of typographic hierarchy and text emphasis (bolds, italics, capitalization, etc.) which was widely acquired and popularized by the Bauhaus and Constructivist movements.

Futurists and dadaists took a more risky approach by defying the existing concepts of a page structure.

Neville Brody applied some elements of that rebellion in his own work for print and for Web.

Source: researchstudios.com

What About Digital Typography?

Let’s get back to digital typography.

With the shift from paper to screen, it’s been long-discussed which one is superior over the other.

While "superiority" can be measured using a number of factors, one remains to be the most important: readability.

An article on Scientific American by Ferris Jabr reports on a couple of studies about readability in digital screens. This is what Jabr said in the article:

"…modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way."

According to the piece, reading on a digital device actually inhibits reading comprehension and makes it harder to remember what you’ve just read, compared to reading from traditional paper.

Moving Forward

We need to start innovating instead of adapting.

For example, we know people on the Web don’t read; they scan.

To adapt to the situation, we use all sorts of tricks like headings, bullet points, cutting out details about the subject, lowering the difficulty level of the words we use and so on.

The problem is that we are focusing on trying to hold on to those tiny bits of our readers’ attention, instead of looking for ways to get people to engage with and read online content more fully and more deeply.

We are adapting to the current reality, when we should be trying to reshape the way people interact and experience the written word on their screens.

Check out this example at Stories For Your Screen, a brilliant way of leveraging modern Web technologies and user interactions to make reading lengthy texts more captivating.

Yet another example is this interactive tutorial by Code School called Try Git.

For a technical and code-heavy system like Git, Code School’s interactive guide has made the act of learning about the subject more engaging, enjoyable and, most importantly, more learnable.

There is so much potential for innovation in the art and science of digital typography. We need to explore opportunities that could enhance the reading experience on digital devices.

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About the Author

Justina Bakutyte works for ImpressPages. She’s a self-proclaimed typography nerd running a street art and vernacular typography oriented blog Reading the City. You can read more stories by Justina on Medium and follow her on Twitter @justinabaku.

2 Comments

christian kahr

June 11th, 2014

it’S nice attempt what you want to say justina, but in fact it’s not typography you are thinking to reinvent. (sorry for my english) but you desribe more the coded elements around typography, so that typography can be in the center of the attention. i believe that with google fonts and other web libraries for fonts it’s really cool to design pages with that new possibilities on screen. i believe typography on the web is on a good way, and nevertheless how you stay to big companies like google or that adobe has a lot of rights on fonts (that should be free by now) more people are conciuous about their web-pages and how they look like. just some thoughts, best regards christian kahr

Gregg DesElms

June 12th, 2014

You lose at least the mature and experienced reader with this ridiculousness: “Digital typography is relatively old. With digital type having been around for 30 years, it’s surprising to me that we still haven’t moved much outside of the concepts we have borrowed from print.”

So what? Oxygen is old, too. With what would you propose we replace that? Hmm?

Tradition is the worst reason to do anything…

…that is, except when it remains the best. Change, just for its sake, is actually destructive.

Moreover, readability, and typography’s contribution (or not) thereto has nothing to do with interactivity and how that may or may not “engage” the reader. You’re combining uncombinable concepts. You wrote: “…reading on a digital device actually inhibits reading comprehension and makes it harder to remember what you’ve just read, compared to reading from traditional paper.”

I’ve read such studies… apparently more carefully than have you. When the size and shape and luminance of the screen approximates an actual book page; and the reader need not vertically scroll; and the act of page turning is sufficiently closely electronically replicated — as is true with a Kindle Paperwhite, for example — no such inhibition exists. It simply doesn’t. Please don’t pee on our collective leg, and then tell us it’s raining.

You wrote that “we know people on the Web don’t read; they scan.” We know no such thing… at least not across the board. What we know is that today’s young people think they can multi-task, and the studies show that that’s a myth: no one can really and truly do that. But young people’s trying is why they scan; and all the studies show that all they achieve by so doing is breadth and not depth. They also think the world can be covered in 140 characters or less, and so a typical New Yorker Magazine length article would just about *KILL* most of ‘em. No amount of “tricks” like cutting headings, or bullet points, will fix that.

As for your “cutting out details about the subject, lowering the difficulty level of the words we use and so on,” that’s what’s called “dumbing down,” and it’s the whole reason why today’s high school graduates can’t spell or write or read at a college level. Your playing into that is just enabling their bad habits, and is lowering society’s expectations of them.

Your “brilliant way of leveraging modern Web technologies and user interactions to make reading lengthy texts more captivating” is simply irritating, and requires the reader to click on things just to move forward…

…a common and particularly repugnant technique used by webmasters to break-up into multiple screens that which should actually be on a single and vertically-scrollable screen, just so they can get more pageviews to show advertisers (and for which to be paid when payment is based on said pageviews). Again with the peeing on our leg thing.

More importantly, though, interaction hasn’t the slightest thing to do with readability. Not the slightest. They’re two entirely different areas. The only thing about which you’ve written which can influence readability is typography, and even then only partly. Layout, use of white space, and other things which have nothing to do with actual typography also play huge roles in readability.

Nothing, with respect to digital typography, needs to change. Nothing…

…especiall not just for change’s sake. It matters not how many years digital typography has been what it is; just as it mattered, not, what useless novelties Apollinaire, or De Stijl, or futurists and dadaists did contrived. They were curiosities then, and they’re even less interesting now.

And what Brody did (and still does) is more about layout than about typography. Just because text is involved doesn’t make it about text.

This kind of article is misleading and irresponsible… nay, reckless. It misguides readers and introduces them to non-issues.

If you have nothing about which to write, then don’t write.

It’s more kind and civic-minded.

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