A designer once argued that typography is 95% of web design. I disagree but I understand the argument. Websites are not an art form. Websites are repositories for information. If you consider this as an inherent truth then the 95% argument holds weight. I don’t but I will discuss the merits of good typographic practices anyways.
Typography in relation to the web is less about the art of letterforms and more about the quick conveyance of hierarchy and information. I once read a quote from David Oglivy that stressed his belief that the printed words on an advertisement were more important than the imagery. After all, nothing says what you want to say better than words. This thinking is why typography is so vital to web design. So what are good typographic practices for web design? I mentioned one already and that is hierarchy. Large type dominates small type. Thicker weights dominate thinner weights. Contrast is king so make the most important elements stand out against the rest. Volumes of text have been written on how to accomplish this and while there are agreed upon guidelines there are no rules so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Rhythm. Rhythm is a new one for me. Rhythm refers to how easy it is for your eye to glide down the page from paragraph to paragraph, headline to headline. Rhythm instills comfort in the viewer. It strips away unnecessary visual jolts that would give pause. It helps maintain a pleasing flow so the user enjoys the act of reading and is therefore more able to easily absorb the actual words. Good rhythm is built on two typographic elements. Type size and line height. This concept can be explored further and in greater detail through the links presented below.
One special consideration for the web is line length. Printed books have physical constraints that allow the designer to plot out paragraph sizes with god like accuracy. The web is malleable and web designers are not afforded that comfort so it’s a good idea to keep line length to a pleasing range of 120-140 characters.
Font rendering is something new to web typography. New in that as new fonts are created and web browsers are charged with displaying them then font rendering becomes an issue. Font rendering is the technology behind the computer drawing the font on the computer screen. I’ve attached an article at the end for those interested in this highly technical aspect of web typography.
It’s important to understand typography as it has evolved through the ages and frame that knowledge in the context of the web. It is not as important to understand how current web technologies allow designers to manipulate typography to suit their needs, but it is important. While not everything is possible to accomplish with the current generation of web technology I can say that the possibilities are vast and if you can think it you can find a way to do it. I’ve included an article that discusses the CSS properties dedicated to helping you achieve good web typographic practices.
The links below are in no particular order but upon careful inspection should reveal the information contained within. All topics of typography and the web would be impossible to cover completely but these can provide a good starting point not only on theory but also execution. Enjoy and have fun. Remember, there are no rules; only tools.