On a more mundane level the typographic challenges presented in a work like We Feel Fine are the daily challenges that face all designers of electronic media, namely designing for dynamic content. Designing something as basic as a nav bar the first question you wonder is ‘what is the longest link?’ Designing more complex pages that contain multiple instances of dynamic data, (news pages et. al.) present even greater challenges. How long will the story title be? How much text will be in the abstract?
When designing for earlier browsers we often resorted to a lot of graphic text for our headings and navigation, indeed it was not uncommon to find complete homepages that were just one chopped up Photoshop image. What this boiled down to was the designer wanting 100% control over the look of the page and the technology not being quite there (or the designers having to design and produce the page). This was never going to be a sustainable approach to web design. Taking a random sample (courtesy of the Way Back Machine we can compare the Novell homepage of 2000 to the present. Not only was the overuse of graphic text clumsy for rapid updates it also rendered your site invisible to the ever more important search engine spiders.
As designers become more familiar with CSS and we all, designers, clients and engineers alike, realise that better websites are a collaboration between designers and technologists greater typographic control over dynamic text is now being achieved. It could be argued that the underlying technology, be it of the delivery (CSS/XML driven websites) or the development tool (Flash, Photoshop) is responsible for the look and feel (I would argue to a degree of 60-90%). In a random survey of Basecamp users by 37 signals one telling response to the question ‘What is Web 2.0’ was ‘It means rounded corners, gradients,…’ As design ‘control’ of the web ebbs and flows between designers and technologists it is interesting to trace these parallel aesthetic shifts.
Traditionally good typographic design has been all about control of the page, but designing for ever changing content on multiple screen types running multiple browsers set to multiple widths on multiple OS’s offers anything but control. This is the challenge of designing for electronic media, it is all about maintaining control in an environment where you have no control at all.
David Suttle has been designing electronic media since 1991.