A Helvetica For Readers
Jeffrey Zeldman
1783

This site’s going in our Designer/Developer curriculum. And I don’t even really like Helvetica (though that’s the subject of another internet flame war). But I can certainly see that it’s a well constructed typeface; but more importantly it’s a very well constructed set of web fonts. The attention to detail in OpenType features (look at the kerning in the headings: annoyingly perfect), the thoughtfully Humanist touches like angled baseline terminals (see the bottom stroke of the capital E), and the gentle nudges outside the base- and top-lines (lower case ‘i’ and capital ‘J’ are good examples) keep this from being as dry and uninspiring to me as something like Helvetica, and shows that it was created with the web not just in mind, but at the forefront of consideration.

Nick Sherman and Bram Stein have, as is not surprising, paired to create a truly beautiful way to showcase the typeface. That’s why I’m including it in our internal curriculum at Fresh Tilled Soil. The design of the site convinced me through thoughtful presentation of details, technically produced to help make me forget I was looking at a web page. While they’ve made some decisions about the technology they’ve used that limit the audience who can fully appreciate the design, they don’t leave anyone behind as browsers less capable still render a compelling experience.

As a designer and participant in the ‘typography versus performance’ debate, I applaud them for packing so much into what ends up being a pretty reasonable delivery even on slower networks: according to webpagetest.org, even over a 3G connection the site loads in around 11 seconds with around 1.3MB downloaded. I’ve seen a lot of corporate sites that take longer and download more to much less effect. And truth be told, sitting at home on my cable company wifi I didn’t even notice the load. They’ve managed the loading process so well that even though they’ve gone completely bonkers with the number of web fonts they’re loading, it doesn’t make the experience feel sluggish at all.

The decisions they made about maximum line length, use of columns, consideration of the width and height of the screen all speak to their consideration of the reading experience as any user may encounter it. Designers who don’t understand the medium in which they’re working could never reach these conclusions. And developers who don’t, well, develop a sense of appreciation for why these details are important will continue to perpetuate decisions like ‘let’s just hide the content for a while until this font loads’ or ‘let’s just not load the web fonts on small screens.’ Technical decisions made without consideration of the whole experience are just as bad as design created without thought for delivery.

Collaboration like that which is seen in this site is the best we can hope to inspire in our own team.

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