March, 2017. We were still living in the United States. It was a time of great anxiety for us. Just a couple weeks earlier I had been laid off from my previous job in California, Donald Trump had become the president, and we were suddenly living in this foreign country without valid Visas and no plans for the future whatsoever.
At the same time, in the middle of everything, I had this crazy idea to start up my own design studio when we’re back in Europe.
There we were, about to have a baby, not able to fly back to Europe anymore and trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. The company I used to work for got sold and our previous Visas couldn’t be transferred, which basically got us here. Just a week before all this started, I remember discussing with my wife how I could see us growing old in this country.
For a moment it felt like a bad dream in which we were fugitives living on enemy soil. In some ways, that dream felt real and vivid to us. I mean, it sounds frankly awkward when saying it out loud now, but back then so many things happened at once. I wasn’t even sure if it was legal for us to stay in the country after our Visas expired, so I tried to keep my mouth shut as well as I could. If anyone asked; It was good. It was all going so good.
For the past year(s) I’ve been chasing for answers. Looking for new tools, thinking about design processes and figuring out what design really means to me. At times I’ve felt so disconnected with our processes that I’ve wondered if my career choice was right.
Our canvas is infinite, but the tools we use force us into thinking about pages instead of systems of components or materials to build with.
For a field rooted in the fine arts this period of change has been increasingly hard and is about to get even harder. We’ve moved away from designing static pages to creating digital systems of components, but we’ve done that mostly by using the same static design tools like Illustrator, Sketch, or even Figma. Tools that haven’t changed on a fundamental level in the past three decades.
Now, I think there’s something wrong with that picture. Our design products are becoming more and more dynamic, but our tools still treat them as blank canvases to paint on. Why?
We love typefaces. They give our sites and applications personalized feel. They convey the information and tell a story. They establish information hierarchy. But they’re also full of problems. Typefaces make our websites slow. They produce FOUT — or FOIT if you prefer. They render in unpredictable ways. Why should we live with inflexible type that doesn’t scale, when the core nature of our medium is fluid and responsive?
Why should we live with inflexible type that doesn’t scale, when the core nature of our medium is fluid and responsive?
TLDR; We don’t have to. Three weeks ago, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Adobe introduced a new font format called Variable Fonts. In a gist, Variable Fonts provide the flexibility of multiple fonts in a single file that can adapt fluidly to any type of screen or device. One font, near infinite variations.
When using web fonts today, you have to load separate font files for each style and weight, resulting in long download times and FOUT/FOIT. With Variable Fonts, we can request just one highly optimized file including all the weights and styles of a typeface. This is a tremendous shift that I see leading to richer, more responsive typographic experiences and vastly expanding the possibilities for web typography.
Our interfaces are written, text being the interface, and typography being our main discipline.
In 2008, browsers started eventually supporting the new CSS3 @font-face rule. It had already been a part of the CSS spec in 1998, but later got pulled out of it. I remember the excitement when I managed to convince one of our clients to utilize the new @font-face and rely on progressive enhancement to deliver an enhanced experience for browsers which already supported this feature.
Since my early days in the industry, I’ve grown to love type and all the little nuances that go into setting it. In this article, I want to share some of the fundamentals that I’ve learned, and hopefully help you get better at setting type for user interfaces.
The first GUIs
While the history of typography dates back about five thousand years, we’ve had graphical user interfaces for mere four decades. One of the key turning points was in 1973, when Xerox introduced Alto, which in essence created the foundation for today’s graphical UIs. Alto was born a decade before any other GUI hit the mass market, and was seen as the future of computing.
This early development for Alto evolved to Xerox Star in the 80s and became the first commercial operating system with GUI.
Although neither Alto nor Star never really took off the ground, they greatly influenced the future development at Apple and Microsoft with their revolutionary mouse-driven GUI. A couple years later, in 1984, Steve Jobs introduced the first Mac OS.
The release of the Macintosh meant custom typography suddenly becoming available to the masses for the first time ever. The original Mac came pre-installed with many iconic typefaces, and over the next few years, multiple type foundries started releasing more and more digital versions of their popular typefaces.
When inspecting these early graphical user interfaces closer, we realize that most of their elements are written language. These GUIs are essentially pure text — collections of singular words displayed in isolation from one another.
We can make a similar observation by inspecting almost any modern interface too. Our interfaces are written, text being the interface, and typography being our main discipline.