Fluid layouts have been a normal part of front-end development for years. The idea of fluid typography, however, is relatively new and has yet to be fully explored. Up until now, most developers’ idea of fluid typography is simply using Viewport units maybe with some minimum and maximum sizes.
In this article, we are going to take it to another level. We are going to examine how to create scalable, fluid typography across multiple breakpoints and predefined font sizes using well-supported browser features and some basic algebra. The best part is that you can automate it all by using Sass.
Hand lettering has taken the world by storm. It has become the beautiful connection — a juxtaposition — between design and words. The letter forms in the typography have been broken down into their shapes, flourishes, and textures.
Hand lettering speaks volumes. This is an art form which allows us to see the space between the letters, and the style of the lettering as a piece of art that can deeply evoke emotions and bring meaning — nostalgia, happiness, joy, and love.
Having the ability to set legible body copy is an absolute must, and we’ve come a long way with web typography since the dawn of web design. However, I feel like we have allowed the lack of variety prior to the rise of web fonts to dampen our creativity now that thousands of web fonts are at our disposal. Have usability conventions and the web’s universality steered us away from proper art direction? Have we forgotten about art direction altogether? I believe so.
As designers, we can achieve much more with type, and with just a little more thought and creativity, we can finally start to take full advantage of the type systems available. Let’s look at ways we can push typographic design on the web further, beyond the status quo of today.
The Benton Modern brochure website3 (a project I was involved in) is a perfect example for showcasing how a large type family can be utilized to improve legibility and readability across breakpoints, while at the same time evoking emotion and providing a pleasant experience. We shall explore the ideas introduced to push the boundaries of typographic design on the web and get practical, too, with a key focus on responsive web typography.
First, The Basics Of Responsive Web Typography
You’re probably aware of responsive web typography by now and how it can solve challenges outside of core responsive web design. However, as the focus of this article isn’t on the ins and outs of responsive web typography, we shall not be exploring it in any great detail.
If you’re interested in learning more about general typesetting for the web and how to approach certain issues, many4 resources exist5 to help you.
Furthermore, my “Responsive Typography6” talk and chapter in Smashing Book 47, in which I propose reusing “traditional” typography rules and translating them to the language of CSS, should help kickstart any aspiring web typographer to improve their typography game.
To also help you on your way, here’s a quick rundown of some of the methods I’ve been advocating in recent years, methods that were applied to the Benton project, too:
Provide different font sizes for different reading distances, currently achievable by detecting a device’s form factor using @media queries. Long term, this is probably not ideal — that is, until reading distance-detection techniques8 become more feasible. In the meantime, use Size Calculator9 by Nick Sherman10 and Chris Lewis11 to calculate the physical or perceived font size when factoring in reading distance.
Maintain perfect proportions in a paragraph with letter spacing, word spacing and line height properties for each breakpoint. Universal Typography’s demo12 by Tim Brown13 of Nice Web Type14 is a very useful tool that can help you experiment with and adjust your paragraph proportions accordingly.
For small screens, indent paragraphs and separate page sections with white space. For large screens, use block paragraphs and separate page sections with graphical elements (lines, shapes, color).
Use graded fonts to normalize rendering across different pixel densities. Font grades are very subtle font weights used to compensate for different ink and paper qualities, as well as for different pixel densities on screen. This method is explained in detail in iA19’s article “New Site With Responsive Typography20.” In short, lighter grades are used for low-DPI screens and heavier grades for high-DPI screens, while graded fonts will also compensate for different sub-pixels’ direction between portrait and landscape mode on mobile and tablet devices.
Use different font widths according to the width of the screen (see what happens with the subheads on the Benton website23 when you resize the browser window). For instance, use a condensed font for small screens and a wider font for larger desktop screens, just like on the brochure website for Input24 (again, resize the window). In the case of the Benton project, we set different font widths manually for each breakpoint, but there’s also a solution for automatic swapping using Font-To-Width25 (by Sherman and Lewis) that takes advantage of multiple-width type families to fit pieces of text snugly within their containers.
Here’s another tip: If you intend to use Georgia or Verdana on large screens, replace them with Georgia Pro Condensed or Verdana Pro Condensed26 on mobile screens. The reason why Georgia Pro and Verdana Pro’s condensed widths work well at small sizes is because they aren’t extremely condensed and, hence, can still be read comfortably.
With this basic primer on responsive web typography out of the way, let me walk you through the process of designing a web page that is meant not only to inform, but to amaze!
Show, Don’t Tell
Webtype27 commissioned us to build a brochure website for Benton Modern soon after Indra Kupferschmid28 had seen my talk on responsive web typography at Smashing Conference in Oxford. The brief was to showcase what could be achieved typographically with a versatile type family coupled with responsive web typography using as many responsive techniques as possible, essentially putting into practice the elements presented and demonstrated in my talk. With Indra Kupferschmid as the chief type savant and Nick Sherman as the onboard quality assurance director, there was certainly to be no trouble with experimenting and pushing the boundaries.
From the very start, we wanted the user to experience the type family through the design and not just through a full page of body copy. That being said, in searching for the right metaphor to use, we eventually settled on creating two distinctive designs — the formal29 and the expressive30. Both are fully responsive, utilizing the same HTML, and for all intents and purposes showcase the benefits of separating structure from presentation, so don’t forget to resize your browser and inspect the HTML and CSS.
Learning About The Typeface
Indra’s elaborate copy was a good starting point to get to know the typeface. When you receive content up front, as was the case in this project, it’s so much easier to create semantic HTML and to explore different styles. Here’s how we started our investigative testing, bearing in mind that Benton Modern comprises 48 styles in total:
First, we tested all of the styles at large and small sizes, stretching and squeezing every which way possible. We used Reading Edge optical sizes31 (designed for 9- to 14-pixel font sizes) as subheads, and display optical sizes (designed for headlines) for body copy. We wanted to see what could go wrong and challenge the intended use for each style. However, the solution that we settled on was still pretty much in line with the intended use for each optical size.
Next, we tested how different styles behave in narrow columns versus wider blocks of text. Hyphenated and justified verus left-aligned. Tightly spaced versus loosely spaced.
Lastly, we analyzed all of the glyphs one by one, searching for little hidden gems. Apart from the ampersand — which is always an obvious choice — another good candidate was the uppercase R.
From there, the next step was to apply some basic styles to the page. One of the early ideas was to adopt a traditional newspaper column layout, which we tried. With the exception of this high-level concept, we still didn’t have a definitive layout concept by this point.
Indented paragraphs in columns were too narrow to be justified and hyphenated34 properly, so we just kept the hyphenation to improve the texture a little bit.
.columns p + p
We used columns only when there was enough horizontal space. But we also wanted to avoid columns bleeding out of the screen vertically, because that would require scrolling up and down during reading when moving from column to column. That’s why we introduced another @media query to test the height of the screen before applying columns.
@media only screen and (min-height: 25em)
@media only screen and (min-width: 40em) and (max-width: 59.9375em)
@media only screen and (min-width: 60em)
The next step was to analyze the content in more detail. That way, we were able to establish what the different sections were and adjust the details as we went along.
The formal version was the first to be developed. We created a huge headline to reflect newspaper headlines and added the year that the series started. The deck was the obvious element to style next. We experimented with a condensed version, and to our surprise it worked immediately. At that stage, the page navigation still didn’t exist and was only included much later on to improve overall usability, as well as to demonstrate the use of brackets as graphic elements.
The sections were a little dull, though. The hierarchy and arrangement of subhead, intro paragraph and columns were quickly established using the rules explained previously, but something was still missing. After some trial and error, we decided to separate the different sections with dotted borders to further emphasize the fine detail in the design of the Benton Modern series, and we introduced the section sign § (Alt + 6 on a Mac) to mark the sections. However, that still wasn’t good enough, so we again previewed numerous glyphs to find suitable candidates for other sections. We ended up using § for “About,” • for “Optical Sizes,” an italic i for “How to Use,” + for “Bonus Features” and * for “Pairings.” Some of these characters are rarely used in web design, so introducing them as decorations felt natural.
At this point the design was pretty solid, but we still needed to highlight the most impressive facts to showcase to the reader the inherent versatility of the family. So we established a no-nonsense look and feel by enlarging the important numbers: 3 optical sizes, 48 styles to choose from, and 4 widths in display styles.
The first version of pairing swatches was set in Pinterest37-inspired columns, as with the rest of the sections. Yet we had a need to change it — at least slightly — because this section was not about Benton Modern, but about its companions. Benton Modern RE fonts38 are really great at small sizes, so introducing the pairs as contrasting large headlines made sense. Indra’s selection of pairings worked very well without many additional adjustments. The only areas that required special attention were the custom sizes for each headline, especially if we wanted the headlines to resize with the screen.
Viewport Width For Smooth Type Scaling
The only CSS units that support smooth scaling are vw (1% of the viewport’s width), vh (1% of the viewport’s height), vmax (1% of the longest side) and vmin (1% of the shortest side). The resulting CSS for one headline is composed of three font-size declarations — values in pixels, root ems39 (rems) and viewport widths — one for each flexible breakpoint (small to medium screens) that covers older browsers, too:
@include rem(font-size, #208/16);
@media only screen and (max-width: 29.9375em)
@include rem(font-size, #57/16);
@media only screen and (min-width: 30em) and (max-width: 61.9375em)
@include rem(font-size, #86/16);
As you can see, we’re using a Sass mixin here. It returns the given property with values in pixels, as well as in root em units.
Whenever you need to showcase important details within the content — in this case, OpenType features such as the alternate R, the ligatures and the small caps — it’s always good to highlight these features in an interesting way. We didn’t want to use CSS images for graphic details, so we simply enlarged the type and brought the details to focus. The difference between ligatures and default glyphs is clear, and comparing small caps with uppercase and lowercase counterparts is easy.
If you were wondering how to enable OpenType features in CSS, here are a couple of examples with vendor prefixes:
There’s one piece of bad news. Safari on both Mac and iOS support OpenType features but ignores any assigned value46. The safest way to use alternate characters or small caps in Safari is by loading subset fonts (subset fonts contain only a subset of glyphs from the full font file). For the Benton Modern project, we decided to test browser capabilities with @support before applying small caps, and we provided a fallback for browsers that don’t support font-feature-settings:
The Formal newspaper-inspired style looked really great. It was well organized, with plenty of small details. But we wanted to push the design a little further. How about creating a magazine-inspired design? We retained the same emphasis on elements as in the formal version but fed the opening section and all section subheads with steroids using pseudo-elements (for example, the R and the asterisk on the “cover” page), and we created a specific arrangement for each subhead by repositioning each word in a subhead in a Lubalinesque47 manner.
var dropcaps = document.querySelectorAll(‘.drop-cap’);
if (window.innerWidth < 600)
window.Dropcap.layout(dropcaps, 5, 3);
Flipped and Rotated Type
All elements that needed special treatment were wrapped in their respective spans and given dedicated class names. This meant adding non-semantic markup, but there was no other way around it, especially if we wanted to take full control over the presentation.
We flipped parts of the pairings section subhead with the transform: scale rule. The great thing is that if the transform property is not supported by the browser, nothing will happen.
The same applies to the O in the “Bonus Features,” which we rotated with the transform: rotate rule. When rotating letters, you might want to readjust the positioning after rotation (watch out for the aforementioned vertical metrics issues). The values will vary from typeface to typeface and glyph to glyph, so there’s no generic rule.
Elements inside the container can be repositioned either absolutely or using negative margins. If you’re using absolute positioning, then it’s best to fix the aspect ratio of the h1, thus retaining proportions. If you’re fixing the aspect ratio, you can also use percentages instead of ems, because now you have a height reference for vertical properties in place.
Now you hopefully see how far we can take typography on the web. To take full advantage of the methods discussed in this article, look for type families with multiple font styles and optical sizes. The only reason we were able to make all of these responsive adjustments is that the Benton Modern is such a versatile typeface family with so many variants.
View the HTML and CSS source on Benton Modern65, use those techniques to improve typography in your own projects, and let us know if you come up with something different. Setting type on the web still involves a lot of manual labor, especially for the smaller, more delicate details, but typographic tools are emerging66 to speed up the process. Until then, don’t be intimidated because there is always a solution to a given problem. The next time you are offered a challenging project, bite the bullet, test like crazy, and do whatever it takes.
Kerning sounds simple, largely because it is. But when kerning is applied over the broad spectrum of variables like font faces, copy blocks, line spacing, etc., it is an issue of enormous significance.
The difference lies between the kerning adjustment that the SERP displays for the query “kerning” as compared with “typography kerning.”
What impact does kerning have?
Kerning sounds so simple. It’s such a pervasive part of our everyday Web experience. You are experiencing the impact of kerning at this very moment as you look at the letters and words in this article.
Kerning can make or break a message.
Kerning gone wrong makes it obvious why kerning is so important.
Take a look at these examples, and look for the kerning mistakes.
As awful as these kerning mistakes are, there are plenty of opposite examples of kerning done right. But the great examples are hard to spot. Kerning is like a pair of great shoes. You are not constantly thinking, “Wow. These shoes are amazing!” But when you wear a pair of cheap shoes, you realize how good you had it with the other shoes.
Good kerning is highlighted by the presence of bad kerning.
Kerning is everywhere.
Every time you see more than one letter or symbol together, you’re seeing kerning in action.
This seemingly little change — a simple presence or absence of space — has such enormous impact in every area of the Web.
Kerning affects readability, and readability affects everything else.
Instapage puts it like this: “[If] the kerning is too minimal your visitors will find it harder to understand your message…they’ll just mozy on over to some other service instead of squinting their eyes to understand what you have written for them.”
There are many sources of friction on landing pages and conversion-oriented pages. Friction is anything that gets in the way of a user doing what you want them to do on the page — read it, click something, etc.
The readability of your pages is a significant area where friction can creep up. The reason is simple. If the user can’t read your copy, misreads your copy, has to work hard to read your copy or otherwise stumbles over your copy, then they are experiencing friction.
Not persuaded? Just take a look again at those examples above.
Kerning affects conversions.
You may already know that seemingly tiny changes in web copy can have a major impact on conversions. A little word switch in a CTA, or even the placement of a headline and WHAM! conversions explode by 2,000%!
What about kerning? This is one of those often-overlooked, often-untested, often-forgotten elements of landing page design that may very well boost your conversion rates by a healthy percentage.
What does kerning communicate?
Kerning affects the way we read and, therefore, the way that we perceive certain phrases or words.
Tight kerning creates a strong and secure feeling.
Adidas’s logo uses a very tight kerning, which increases the feeling of strength that the brand wants to communicate:
UnderArmour also has a very tight kerning in their text logo. This plays strategically into the way that the brand positions itself as a strong and protective performance wear provider.
One of the most recognized brands, FedEx, uses the same technique. All the letters touch each other. This allows the brand to feature the negative spaced arrow between the E and X.
The Washington Post combines the power of font face and kerning to create their iconic, classic, and confidence-building logo:
Loose kerning creates an airy, fresh, fun, and relaxed feeling.
A difference in kerning, combined with other typographical factors, can completely reverse the whole feel of a phrase, sentence, logo, or headline.
Sunsilk, a hair care brand has loose kerning, which helps contribute to the fresh, easy, airy, and breezy hair look that they want to advance.
HTC’s log is also loosely kerned.
Clear advances their brand objectives by using an open custom kerning for their logo.
Notice how Land Rover’s kerning subtly emphasizes the word “Land” in the logo. The position, shading, and placement of the word provides its emphasis, but kerning does play a role.
How to learn more about kerning.
The best way to learn more about kerning is to actually experiment with it.
The goal of the game is to adjust the letters for the best kerning, as compared to a typographer’s preset solutions. The game features different fonts and words, both of which have a major impact on kerning.
Once you get a few words under your belt, you’ll start to get the hang of kerning, and — more importantly — understand how it impacts your web copy, readability, and even conversions.
Be careful, though. Once you learn about kerning, you can’t unlearn it. Worse, you can’t unnotice bad kerning.
“After you learn about kerning, your life will change. Suddenly you will start seeing uneven spacing everywhere which will most likely irk you. Some people might see you as a snob for bringing it up, but don’t pay attention to them. Just because you know something they don’t, does not make you the bad guy…”
When should you mess with kerning?
Kerning seems like such a minute detail, it’s tempting to just forget about it and let fonts automatically kern themselves.
That’s okay, to a certain extent.
I would argue, however, that the impact of kerning is significant enough to at least test in some situations. Here are a few areas in which adjusting kerning may be a good idea.
When you go to create your business logo, talk to your designer about kerning. If you’re designing it yourself, then talk to yourself about kerning.
Kerning can change the entire look and feel of a logo, as you saw from the examples above. Ask yourself what mood or feel you’d like to communicate with your logo, and then determine what impact kerning has on that mood or feel.
Landing page headings
Make adjustments to the headlines on your landing pages. A landing page headline is the most important element on the page. If your headline can more effectively gain and attract readers, then your landing page will be that much more effective.
Graphics with text
Graphic design programs give you the greatest amount of control over kerning, and these are places where kerning has a highly nuanced impact. When you bring in the elements of color, graphics, background, etc., kerning increases in significance.
The shocking truth on kerning is this: It seems so little, but it has a huge impact on every interaction with text on the screen.
Once you grasp the significance of kerning, you can start to make changes:
Adjust kerning on your logo to influence the way your brand is perceived, and the attitude or emotion that you want to express.
Adjust kerning on headlines to make a bigger impact or enhance readability, increase attention, and even improve conversion rates.
Adjust kerning on areas where simple statements or phrases need to have a bigger impact. For example, CTA buttons.
These are big changes. Branding? Landing pages? Conversions? That’s money.
You’ll also be able to spot the tragic occurrences of bad kerning, and put a stop to anything that could damage your brand or copy.
A simple understanding of kerning can produce a major improvement in the way you do business.
Have you noticed the impact of kerning in the way that you do web design or conversion optimization?
As we refine our methods of responsive web design, we’ve increasingly focused on measure (another word for “line length”) and its relationship to how people read.
The popularization of the “ideal measure” has led to advice such as “Increase font size for large screens and reduce font size for small screens.” While a good measure does improve the reading experience, it’s only one rule for good typography. Another rule is to maintain a comfortable font size.
How People Read
People read online text to serve their own needs: to find the information they seek, to discover new ideas and to confirm their notions about life.
People Read in Three Ways
In 2006, the Nielsen Norman group released images of heat maps from eye-tracking studies. The areas where people looked at the most while reading are red, areas with fewer views are yellow, and the least-viewed areas are blue. As you can see below, the red and yellow areas form three variations of an F-shaped pattern. These variations aren’t surprising because people read in three different ways.
People read casually, skimming over text, reading words and sentences here and there to get a sense of the content. The heat map below shows the eye movements of someone casually reading about a product. The reader spent time looking at the image of the product, reading the first couple of sentences, then scanning through the bulleted list.
1 The Nielsen Norman Group explored the F-shaped pattern for casual reading in 2006. (View large version2)
People also scan with purpose, jumping from section to section, looking for a particular piece of information. They might only read a word or the first couple of characters of a word as they scan the screen. The heat map below shows the eye movements of someone scanning the results of a Google search with purpose. The person read the first two results more slowly. Then, their eyes jumped from section to section, looking for the search term. Therefore, we do not see a strong vertical stroke along the left edge of the text.
3 The Nielsen Norman Group explored the F-shaped pattern for purposeful scanning in 2006. (View large version4)
Finally, people read in an engaged manner. When they find an article or blog post they are interested in, they will slow down and read the whole text, perhaps even going into a trance-like state. The heat map below shows the eye movements of a person reading in an engaged manner. The tone is more continuous. There is more red (meaning more time spent reading) and less jumping around the page. When the intensity of reading dwindled because they lost interest (the corporate “About us” page might not have aligned with their interests), their eyes continued along the left edge of the text.
5 The Nielsen Norman Group explored the F-shaped pattern for reading in an engaged manner in 2006. (View large version6)
Reading Is a Complex Process
We know that people read in three different ways, but let’s look more closely at how people read — how the F-shaped patterns are formed.
We know that people. Don’t. Read. Each. Individual. Word. Instead, they use their foveal (or central) vision to focus on a word, while using their peripheral vision to find the next spot on which to focus.
People don’t read each word individually.
People use their foveal (central) and peripheral vision to read.
We also know that people don’t fixate on every word, but tend to skip words (their eyes take little leaps, called “saccades”) and fill in the rest. This is especially true of those who read casually or scan with purpose.
People skip words and fill in the rest.
Finally, we know that readers anticipate the next line while moving their eyes horizontally along a line; so, their eyes are drawn down the left edge of the text. This constant struggle between horizontal and vertical motion contributes to the F-shaped reading patterns.
The constant struggle between horizontal and vertical eye movement results in the F-shaped patterns .
Line Length (Measure) And Reading
Typographers have been writing about the relationship between horizontal and vertical eye motion for almost a century. In 1928, Jan Tschichold dismissed centered text and advocated for left-aligned text. He argued that this would assist readers by providing a consistent left (vertical) edge for the eye to return to after finishing each (horizontal) line.
The Ideal Measure: 45 to 75 Characters
We have multiple “rules” for facilitating a horizontal reading motion, one of which is to set text at a reasonable measure. As James Craig wrote in his book Designing With Type (originally published in 1971, now it its fifth edition):
Reading a long line of type causes fatigue: the reader must move his head at the end of each line and search for the beginning of the next line.… Too short a line breaks up words or phrases that are generally read as a unit.
If a casual reader gets tired of reading a long horizontal line, then they’re more likely to skim the left edge of the text. If an engaged reader gets tired of reading a long horizontal line, then they’re more likely to accidentally read the same line of text twice (a phenomenon known as “doubling”).
65 characters (2.5 times the Roman alphabet) is often referred to as the perfect measure. Derived from this number is the ideal range that all designers should strive for: 45 to 75 characters (including spaces and punctuation) per line for print. Many web designers (including me) apply that rule directly to the web. I’ve found, however, that we can reliably broaden the range to 45 to 85 characters (including spaces and punctuation) per line for web pages.
The most recent (and, dare I say, exciting) development in measure? Its role in responsive web design. More designers are using line length to help determine break points in a responsive structure! Chris Coyer recently developed his bookmarklet to test line length in order to help responsive web designers keep an eye on their measure (“Bookmarklet to Colorize Text Between 45 and 75 Characters9”).
But a good measure is only one rule for setting readable text.
Font Size And Reading
A good, comfortable font size is also necessary for setting readable text. This rule is old news. But given the number of responsive websites out there that make text too small or too big in order to achieve an ideal measure, the rule bears repeating.
Static Web Pages and Font Size
One benefit of a responsive web structure is readable text — text that people on hand-held devices don’t have to pinch and zoom to read. If a structure is static (like the two-column page shown below), then an ideal measure won’t do the trick. The text will simply be way too tiny to read on a small device such as a phone.
Left: The main column has a good measure (45 to 85 characters are highlighted in yellow). But without a responsive structure, the text is too small to read on a small device without pinching and zooming. Right: The font size (13-pixel Verdana for the left column, 18-pixel Georgia for the introduction and 16-pixel Georgia for the article) is comfortable to read on a laptop.
Small Devices and Font Size
When designing a responsive website, start with a comfortable font size and an ideal measure to help determine break points. But when the time comes (as it always does), let the ideal measure go.
Text already looks smaller on hand-held devices than on larger devices. This is fine because people tend to hold small devices closer when reading. Current popular wisdom is to preserve the measure by further reducing the font sizes for held-held devices. In practice, retaining a comfortable font size as much as possible better preserves readability. The result will be a less-than-ideal measure but a more comfortable reading experience.
A responsive structure won’t help if small text on a hand-held device encourages readers to pinch and zoom!
Left: To retain an ideal measure, the font size is reduced to 12-pixel Verdana and 14-pixel Georgia for hand-held devices. The text is harder to read. Right: The font size is 13-pixel Verdana and 17-pixel Georgia for hand-held devices. The measure is no longer ideal, but the text is easier to read.
Large Devices and Font Size
When designing a responsive website, remember that measure and font size affect not only people using hand-held devices. The majority of people still use larger devices, such as laptops and desktop computers.
Some simple responsive structures keep text in a single column that expands and contracts with the size of the device. This can be an elegant, appropriate solution — except when the font size (instead of the column’s width) is used to preserve the ideal measure.
We’ve learned not to set text too small, but text that’s too big also poses a problem. When type gets too big, the reader’s eyes try to follow their usual pattern. But a font size that’s too large takes up more horizontal space, and it interferes with the horizontal flow that readers have established using their foveal vision and their pattern of skipping words.
We’re used to setting online text larger than printed text. This is fine because people tend to place large devices on their lap or on a desk while reading. But overly large text forces the reader to slow down and adjust how far they skip ahead as they read. Reading horizontally becomes cumbersome, and the reader will start to skip vertically down the left edge of the text.
When type gets too big, the reader tries to follow their usual horizontal rhythm. This forces them to read parts of words instead of entire words and to slow down and adjust their reading pattern.
Current popular advice is to preserve the measure by increasing the font size for large devices. For example, the one-column structure below has an ideal measure. But to achieve this ideal measure on large devices, we’ve had to set the text to 19-pixel Verdana, 22-pixel Georgia for the article, and a whopping 26-pixel Georgia for the introduction!
10 In the layout above, details show the text at 100% size. The text on this web page is way too big for comfortable reading! Simple one-column responsive structures should use a narrower column on large devices, keeping the font size smaller and easier to read. (View large version11)
In practice, retaining a comfortable font size as much as possible and simply narrowing the column’s width instead are better. Look at what happens to A List Apart12 when it’s viewed on a hand-held device and on a laptop.
13 A List Apart is perfectly readable on a hand-held device. But on a laptop, the text gets too big to be comfortably read. A shorter measure and a smaller font size would help people follow their usual horizontal rhythm. (View large version14)
Bonus Section: Line Height And Reading
So far, our focus has been on the relationship between font size and measure in responsive web structures. But line height also affects how people read.
Line Height Affects Horizontal Motion
Because readers scan content both horizontally and vertically, lines of text should feel like horizontal lines, not like woven fabric.
A line height that is too tight could undermine horizontal eye movement and encourage scanning down the left edge. It could also force people to reread lines of text. On the other hand, a line height that is too loose could make lines of text visually “float away” from each other. The lines will no longer feel like a cohesive unit, and vertical scanning becomes more difficult.
While there is no perfect line height, a good rule of thumb is to set it at approximately 150% of the font size.
While there is no perfect line height, a good rule of thumb is to set it at approximately 150% of the font size.
Top: When the line height is too tight, it undermines the horizontal reading flow and increases doubling. Bottom: When the line height is too loose, lines of text visually float away from each other.
Line Height and Font Size
Setting line height is a complex balance of variables (font family, measure, font size, language). The most important variable when creating a responsive web structure is — surprise! — font size.
Smaller type tends to need more line height, not less. A generous line height helps the eye to recognize small word shapes more easily, and it encourages horizontal motion when the eye gets tired of reading small text.
Left: A line height set at 150% is a bit too tight on an iPhone. Right: The exact same text with a slightly looser line height promotes horizontal movement and helps the reader to recognize word shapes.
Look Closely, Break Rules
When we design a responsive structure, testing it on a large device is easy; we can change a desktop browser’s size quickly. But designing on a desktop or laptop browser means that we are spending most of our time at an arm’s length from the text, and we don’t spend much time seeing how the text renders on small devices.
If you’re using measure to find break points in your responsive website, then you probably care about type and reading. Keep using measure! It’s a great starting point. But to see whether your type truly works, spend some time looking at it closely, on a smaller device. Balance measure, line height and font size as needed.
Remember that all rules are meant to be broken. Heck, Jan Tschichold broke his own rule and used centered text for much of his career. When the time comes, sacrifice measure for a comfortable font size. A good font size (not too small) is readable. A good font size (not too big) promotes horizontal eye motion. A good font size with the proper line height will help your readers find what they’re looking for.