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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Typography Matters

Despite the prevailing wisdom that “users don’t read,” discussions about online typography do get a lot of attention and space—There are numorous websites out there that has run half a dozen articles about presenting text effectively on the web.

So if you’ve been paying attention, you probably already know the basics of online typography: legible fonts are good, CSS is essential, and relative font sizing is tricky.

There’s another aspect of online typography, however, that’s been almost entirely ignored: well-formed punctuation. Not just grammatically correct (that’s a good first step), but typographically correct punctuation.

A brief history of bad browsers

A few years ago, there were good reasons for web developers to take the easy way out: an HTML spec that lacked recommendations for appropriate symbols, combined with browers that frequently ignored what standards existed, made that level of precision next to impossible.

So it made sense to use double hyphens (--) instead of em dashes and double primes (") instead of quotation marks. In any case, those workarounds were already familiar to anyone who’d grown up with typewriters, and readers adapted to ascii-only typography during the early days of the Internet when usenet, email, and the web all shared the same primitive markup and text display.

These days, standards-compliant browsers can handle entity names, and evenNetscape 4.x can manage numeric entity codes—but why should you care?After all, using the technically correct punctuation marks would mean a dozen newentities to be memorized and a lineup of well-meaning but under-informed editorsand teammates to win over—and retrofitting any significant amount of copyis always a hassle.

Since most people don’t know or care about the difference between an em dash and an Emmy, why bother to make the switch? In some cases, switching to correct typography may honestly not make sense. For all the rest, two arguments: usability and style.

Getting readers to read

The web doesn’t provide an ideal reading situation. Low-contrast monitors with matching slow refresh rates make it work to read on-screen, and even when a user has an optimal display, the structure of the web encourages a degree of scanning and link-hopping.

To compensate, we spend hours figuring out clever ways to make our content easier to read: we break long passages of text into shorter chunks, use subheaders to facilitate scanning, and—frequently—agonize over the byzantine tangle of cross-browser compatibility to make sure that our text displays the way we want it to.

Providing helpful cues

Given all that, it would be a shame to diminish the relatively simple tool we have in punctuation marks.

Typography, at the root, is all about providing asmany helpful cues for the reader’s eye as possible. Punctuation marks, like fonts, have undergone a process of natural selection to make sure that they do just that.

Curly quotes are curly in part because they make it instantly clear ifyou're at the beginning or the end of a quotation, and partly because theysmoothly guide the eye into the passage:

"Omit needless words."
“Omit needless words.”

Correct em dashes likewise draw the reader’s eye smoothly from clause toclause without the visual break of a clunky double-hyphen.

Primitive punctuation looks sloppy--why not be stylish?
Primitive punctuation looks sloppy—why not be stylish?

Particularly in a medium that invites a thousand distractions, anything thatwe as web developers can do to maintain the reader’s focus and keep her eyes moving smoothly over our text can only benefit our content.

A matter of style

Cary Grant, that most stylish of British gentlemen, warned: “it takes five hundred small details to make one favorable impression.”

Ill-formed punctuation detracts from an otherwise well-designed website in subtle but accumulative ways. Single primes acting as apostrophes and double hyphens serving as em dashes belong to the era of grey backgrounds and monospaced default fonts—it’s time for online typography to grow up.

Time to grow up

Ever more sophisticated specifications and browsers have enabled webdevelopers to create more appealing web interfaces, and web design standards have risen accordingly.

Conscientious graphics designers don’t let incorrectlyoptimized or sloppily cropped versions of their images go live, nor do goodcopywriters or editors publish websites with typos or grammatical errors. Norshould web developers who aspire to professionalism leave the typographicaldetails of their sites incomplete and unconsidered.

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