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Typography on the Web: A Q&A with Jim Webb

Typography on the Web: A Q&A with Jim Webb image
Typography on the Web: A Q&A with Jim Webb

Design instructor, Jim Webb, will be leading a session—sponsored by Aquent and Vitamin T—on May 21 at Internet Week New York 2013 (IWNY) entitled, "Make the Web Beautiful, One Font at a Time." In this session, Jim aims to address what's new in typography on the web and the sorts of things that you can now do with fonts and type, that you couldn't do before. A preview:

Fonts and Control

Jim explained to us, it used to be the case that you didn't have much control over fonts on the web at all. 

"You could only use typefaces that were on the end user's computer," he told me, "If you wanted a way around that, there there were these clunky, awkward workarounds using Flash and Javascript (and some other stuff) to make typefaces other than the standard Times or Arial."

Today, as Jim will discuss in his session at IWNY, such issues can be addressed thanks to the emergence of "services [including Google Web Fonts and Adobe's Typekit] that let you use different typefaces on your website—some for free, some for pay." 

In addition to pointing designers and developers towards resources like these that can give them more direct control over web fonts, Jim's session will also cover technical issues such as "kerning," tracking, and copy-fitting, how typography works on high-res displays, and the future of web typesetting. If you are going to be at IWNY, you should check it out!

Beauty and the Web

Because Jim referred to making the web beautiful in his session title, we also asked him what made websites beautiful in the first place.

"Websites that follow the principals—the well-established principals—of graphic design like balance and proportion, contrast and hierarchy," he told me, "those are sites that we tend to find more pleasing."

"One of the reasons we find them more beautiful and pleasing," he continued, "is because we understand them."

Beyond these visual elements, Jim said, beauty on websites relies on the page content—including typography and graphics—and whether or not the site is easy to use. 

"You can't have a beautiful website," Jim insisted, "that's completely not understandable."

By the same token, he further suggested, you can't have a beautiful website that is impossible to use. And since beauty on the web calls for the marriage of form and function, web designers need to be thinking about both how websites look and how they work.

Coding for Designers

To help designers get there, Jim will also soon be offering a course on "coding for designers" as part of Aquent's online learning initiative, Gymnasium. 

This upcoming course, as Jim described it to me, is intended for "print designers who have to do websites, but don't know as much as they should know about how websites are built," as well as for "web designers who only work on the visual layer...who only work in Photoshop and would like to know or need to know more about the way websites work."

Jim put this course together in the belief that, just as print designers become more effective when they understand pre-press, web designers who understand the technology become better at web design. 

"You don't need to be a hardcore, back-end developer," he clarified, "in order to build or design websites, but you'll be better at your craft and more 'hire-able' and more valuable to employers if you know about the technology that's involved in making that design real."

Staying Focused

Given all the challenges, both technical and aesthetic, associated with digital design in an increasingly mobile age, I asked Jim what he considered to be the biggest challenge currently facing digital designers.

Interestingly enough, in Jim's view, that challenge is not technical. Rather, he believes it consists in "staying focused." Specifically, "staying focused on communicating information, communicating your client's message and/or doing the right thing by your user or your viewer."

This doesn't mean, of course, that designers should ignore the technical aspects of digital design—they have to stay on top of them—but they also have to "keep their eye on the ball...and that ball is 'communicating effectively'."

"It's important," Jim concluded, "for designers to keep up enough with technology that they're not Luddites, and that they know what they can and can't do, but not fall in love with it so much that they lose track of what they're really trying to do, which is to communicate visually."

We have uploaded our entire conversation with Jim below. If you are going to be at Internet Week New York 2013, we would love to see you at Jim's session!


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