Excuse me, does my font look big?

If you’re an internet denizen or professional, you may have noticed sites throwing away the standard size 13-16pt native font in exchange for a much larger, in your face, type size. Showing up sometime around mid last year, this bold statement is still mostly championed by independent design blogs and small agency websites – and seems to be growing. As a UX and readability obsessor, I am thrilled! Before getting into why, here is a brief background.

The technical background: better screens, better browsers

The improved screen sizes, browser capabilities, and GPU performance of today make Bi Level Rendering a distant… nightmare. For most of the web’s life, only a select few native fonts were guaranteed good performance across all browsers – the “fallback fonts” like times, georgia, verdana, arial, etc (all specifically reworked/designed to perform on screen). However, the more pixels, the bigger the resolution – which means all the more detail to put into the subtlety and complexity of a font that previously looked distorted – and poor for reading. Since the relatively recent inclusion of font downloading to the CSS3 module, webfont availability and variety has bloomed over the last couple years thanks to big font servers like Google WebFonts and Typekit. Now armed with extensive typeface choices and plenty of white space pixels galore, the early adopters are starting to speak up. One of these early adopters, Jeffery Zeldman of A List Apart, wrote in defense of his big type redesign in May last year “I was actually already aware that the type on my site is big. I designed it that way.” Now the why.

Reading experience conscientiousness

There’s plenty to read online – about 23,633,010,000 pages (according to Google). Why do we pick one over the other? Of that minute amount we actually see, consuming quality content is the objective – and for which content, we are especially selective. However, no matter what we are reading, it’s on the terms of the content creator (unless you’re an Instapaper/Readability fan). For example, I would argue that most tech news is a commodity. I used to be an avid TechCrunch reader, but when The Verge came out, it wasn’t long before I realized I could get more or less same content but with much better delivery, design, and experience. Everything is bigger, there is more whitespace, and tremendous thought went in to the layout of the homepage. The advertising model is exactly the same, but they wrapped and presented their content with me, the reader, more in the center of focus. It’s built with more empathy for the reader than the almighty click through. Enter… the big type. The sites who are doing this best can do so because they are not restrained by right rail/analytics obligations like Tech Crunch and The Verge. Trent Walton of Paravels’ blog is one of my favorite examples. It’s minimal, immersive, and immediately commands attention.

Excuse me, does my font look big?

As a professional blog, this is a pro bono, for the passion of the craft publication. No revenue, yes, but also no constraints. The content is as excellent as the design and it’s built for the open web, completely responsive with fluid type and breakpoints (Informaiton Architects have an excellent article about responsive typography, link in the footer). It’s this blog and many other like it that are making the big web publishers eager to shake off the baggage and shackles that keep their experiences from delighting readers. Zeldman caught flak for his redesign alost a year ago, claiming:

“We can’t keep designing as we used to if we want people to engage with our content. We can’t keep charging for ads that our layouts train readers to ignore. We can’t focus so much on technology that we forget the web is often, and quite gloriously, a transaction between reader and writer.”

I believe this is the mantra of the future for big and small publishing alike. We’ll see this more and more in subscription based publications like the coming New York Times article redesign and the New Republic. The last (and biggest) hurdle for the web at large to adopt a new reading experience conscientiousness is, oh yes… advertising. Recently, some brave pioneers like Quartz from The Atlantic have already ventured into this murky and untested territory, but that’s a whole other story. More on that to come.

For Further Reading
Information Architects – Responsive Typography: The Basics
Jeffrey Zeldman – Web Design Manifesto 2012
Trent Walton – Fluid Type
New Republic
NYT Article Redesign