Why web typography really does matter

An extract from the introduction to Web Typography, available now as a paperback and ebook.

Typography is what comes between the author and the reader. If a text has anything at all significant to say, it needs a typographer’s care, which will in turn be repaid by the reader’s attention.

The majority of content on the web consists of words. If our web of words is to be read, and for that reading experience to be good — to be elevated from poor, past satisfactory, to great — then it’s the details that will count. That’s what typography itself is all about: the little details adding up to something greater than the sum of the parts.

In 2006, the designer Oliver Reichenstein presented web designers with a call to arms. He notoriously wrote that ‘web design is 95% typography’. He based this on the supposition that 95% of the information on the web is written language, leading to his assertion that every web designer should get good training in the main discipline of shaping written information: that is, typography.

Whether or not 95% is a true figure, it is indisputable that much of the web is intended for reading: customer reviews, charity campaigns, industry reports, social network updates, blog posts, newspapers, magazines, books, wikis, email, and far more besides. It’s also clear that much of the written web is designed with the same uninspiring, uninviting, unreadable uniformity. This needn’t be so, and among the purposes of this book are to show how, and provide some of the training called for by Reichenstein.

The job of typography

The revered type designer Hermann Zapf said that, for designers, ‘typographic design is sometimes misconstrued as a form of private self-expression’. Typography is not art — it is craft and design with purpose. It is there to perform a service for the reader. Quoting another great designer, Emil Ruder said in 1969:

Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing. No argument or consideration can absolve typography from this duty. A printed work which cannot be read becomes a product without purpose.

A website which cannot be read is a product without purpose. Typography’s chief role is to ensure legibility and readability, but that’s not its only job. Typography should invite the reader into the text. It should honour and enhance the tone and message, and clarify the structure and relationships with other elements. Typography should create the ideal conditions for consuming the text, be it immersive reading, scanning for information, or somewhere in between.

Good typography induces a good mood

Typography has a direct, visceral influence on the reader. As well as the practical service of enabling readers to understand and absorb the text, it demonstrably affects their emotional and physical state in ways that few other forms of communication can.

In 2005, a report entitled ‘The Aesthetics of Reading’ was published by Dr Rosalind W. Picard of MIT, and Dr Kevin Larson, a cognitive psychologist on staff at Microsoft. This publication detailed research which revealed that while typographic quality has little measurable effect on reading speed and comprehension, ‘good quality typography is responsible for greater engagement during reading’.

The research showed that while the quality of typography didn’t necessarily have an impact on the actual reading speed, it did have a measurable effect on the perceived reading speed. With good typography, participants significantly underestimated the time taken to read a passage. There was also ‘reduced activation in the corrugator muscle’ with better typography, which in plain English means readers frowned less. These combined factors led scientists to conclude that ‘good typography induces a good mood’.

Until recently, the only evidence in favour of spending time and energy on good typography was our own empirical sense of design and aesthetic, combined with the weight of history and inherited typographic wisdom. Now there is a whole new wave of psychologists and typographers doing serious peer-reviewed experimental research on the effects of good typography and type design. For the most part, it is evident the old masters were right all along.

Typography on the web matters because typography matters.


Get more details and buying options for the ‘Web Typography’ book from book.webtypography.net.