Ampersand is a web typography conference. The first ever Ampersand conference last year was meant to be a one-off event. But the response from audience and type community as a whole was so great that it was decided to organise a second conference. Ampersand 2012 took place in Brighton on June 15 and I had the pleasure to be there. Here are my notes and thoughts.
Prof. Phil Bains: Keynote
The keynote speaker was meant to be Erik Spiekermann. Unfortunately, Erik had to pull out of the conference at the last minute due to personal reasons. Luckily, Phil Bains, professor of typography at Central Saint Martins and a co-author of a rather well known Type & Typography agreed to step in.
Phil had only a very limited time to prepare his speech, but his keynote was still very engaging and interesting. He focused on the state of web typography today and on a comparison between print and web typography in terms of their evolution and maturity. In Phil’s opinion, possibilities of web typography have significantly improved in the last few years, but, especially compared with the print world, are still quite limited. Phil also explained how, in his opinion, type and typography differ and added also a number of other points worth remembering:
Type is not typography. If type is like bricks then typography is about putting the bricks together to build something.
Regardless of the typeface chosen, you need to get leading, line width and font size right or you are screwed.
Type is only one part of the design equation. After all, what matters the foremost are the words.
Yves Peters: Detail in web typography
Yves is a graphic designer, typographer, blogger and drummer based in Gent, Belgium. He blogs on fontfeed.com. As the title of Yves’s talk suggests, he mostly spoke about detail in web typography and also about best practices around selecting fonts. Yves stressed that while typeface/font choices are of course critically important for the overall design it is rarely wise to start with it. Instead, Yves suggests, when selecting a typeface it is first worth considering the following aspects:
- what purpose was the typeface designed for
- historical context — is the typeface associated with a specific time period? When was the original version of the typeface designed?
- cultural references — many typefaces suggest a mood/atmosphere and have specific cultural correlations
- functional criteria
Among other things, it’s vital to understand what capabilities each typeface offers. Therefore, when choosing a typeface, it is vital to look beyond the basic keyboard characters. Does the font have all I need? What if I need ligatures, what about support of other languages?
Now, another of Yves’s points was around OpenType and the fact that it now offers enough capacity for 65k+ glyphs in a single typeface and provides advanced typographic features for character replacement, positioning etc. and it is thus very important to pay a close attention to details like smart quotes, using lining and old-style figures correctly, picking the right space types (thin, hair, figure etc.) for every respective context etc.
From Yves’s talk I also noted this point:
We read word shapes not letters.
Remembering this can help us to make the right choices when it comes to adjusting tracking, leading and font size. On the web, achieving great readability is in my opinion, absolutely critical. This very notion has been driving all typographical decisions on Vertical Paper. After attending Ampersand 2012 it is clear though that there is still a lot I need to do.
Veronika Burian & José Scaglione: Typographic Matchmaking
Veronika is, like me, originally from the Czech Republic while José is from Argentina. Together they formed Type Together foundry and started creating lovely typefaces. Veronica and José started with their own list of aspects to consider when selecting type:
- morphology and function — paragraph text vs. title, continuous vs. fragmented reading, simple vs. complex application
- technical — where is it going to be used, font format a compatibility, paper type (if applicable), hinting
- aesthetic — appearance vs. content, volume and visibility, relationship between fonts
- economical — price, amount of licences needed, efficiency
In terms of matching type, one should always ask: ‘Do I need to add a second typeface?’ Veronika and José suggest to start with a single typeface and try to be creative with it before adding an additional typeface. To support that, they have shown a number of examples in which the whole website is designed using a single typeface. They also reminded us that when it comes to combining typefaces it is critical to match the optical size rather then the actual point size. José and Veronika then gave a number of useful pieces of advise about matching/combining typefaces:
- if the contrast (or the difference between typefaces in general) is not sufficient, it may seem like a mistake and thus prove counterproductive to the original intention
- when a x-hight difference between two typefaces is significant enough, it is easier to gracefully combine even two very different typefaces that may otherwise not work so well
- on screens, the backlighting ‘eats’ into the letters whereas on paper the letters spill into the paper and this influences the overall perceived contrast
- It is not always safe to assume that fonts within super families will work together. It is necessary to judge each font combination individually.
Linotype: The film and the midday sessions
During a lunch break, we had a chance to watch Linotype: The Film an excellent documentary about this world-changing machine. I highly recommend it to anyone with at least a remote interest in type and its history. Linotype: The Film was then followed by a set of three shorter sessions.
In the first one Jason Smith first spoke about designing typefaces for television. He elaborated on his experience when working with Channel 4, bbc, Sky and described some of the specifics of designing for TV (e.g. font contrast looks different on different TV screens). He pointed out that in some situations a unique typeface on its own is enough to carry a brand (think Channel 4) while on the other hand, a single typeface like Helvetica can be associated with a number of different brands purely by changing the colour used (think m&s vs. Orange).
In the second session Laurence Penney gave a refreshing and informative presentation about css fallback. He reminded us that css fallback is character specific and that this very aspect can be used creatively by combining a number different fonts with specific character subsets (so called ‘expert subsets’) to easily and without a laborious manual editing do things like setting texts in two different alphabets, automatically combine italics with selected characters always in regular, replace lining fixtures with old style in fonts that don’t include them etc. Naturally, this method can also be used to insert custom symbols, arrows etc.
Finally, and this was by far the geekiest presentation of the day, Luc de Grool showed us what is involved in font hinting. It is an incredibly lengthy (‘I can do six characters in an hour’) and laborious process that requires a lot of experience and a number of special tricks to work around postscript and TrueType constraints. While Luc’s presentation did have also a number of funny moments, he must have shown over 60 slides and I can openly say that I lost track already after a couple of minutes. Overall my take on hinting is that, as an activity, it is like Marmite — you either love it or hate it. Personally, I hate Marmite.
In your @font-face: Jake Archibald
Overall, Jake’s presentation was the funniest and most engaging of them all. Hands down. Jake first spoke about web-font filetypes, their evolution and support and then moved to how different browsers load fonts, how efficient (or not) they are when doing it and how to optimise your webpage. He interleaved these topics with little funny anecdotes and stories which made the whole presentation really stand out. Jake then also spoke about optimising font files and named a number of specific Dos (reduce the character set as needed, gzip the font file etc.) and Don’ts (remove hinting). Overall, a very exciting and extremely informative talk given in a unique style.
Enhancing the future: Elliot Jay Stocks
Last presentation of the day was given by Elliot Jay Stocks a well know designer and blogger. His presentation was predominantly about a number of web typography ‘showcases’ from a series of his recent blog posts in which he is trying to push the boundaries of what is possible on the web today using some of the latest css3 features and font properties. Naturally, a number of these showcases work only in some browsers and some require additional media queries like lettering.js, but all show that a number of advanced techniques are available to designers already today. Indeed, it will still take a while before all these new properties will be standardised and fully supported by all main browsers. And Elliot repeatedly emphasised that a proper testing in a number of browsers and operating systems is still a must. In that context a good place to test OpenType features supported by your browser is Typotheque.com and also Gerhard Großmann’s OpenType test page.
I have never been to a typography conference before, but I enjoyed Ampersand 2012 immensely. It was great to be in a community that is passionate about typography as much as I am and to meet some of the most influential people around web typography today. The talks were very interesting and sometimes even really funny. It would be great if the conference had also a few hands-on breakout sessions focused on specific topics or areas. I guess that would require Ampersand to become a two-day event to provide enough time for both talks and break-out sessions and that would make things more logistically challenging and expensive. Nonetheless, as web typography’s future looks bright, I am positive there would be enough interest in the community of typographers, web designers and type enthusiasts to fill even a two-day event.
In any case, Ampersand was great and I sincerely hope that Ampersand 2013 is already in preparation. I will be there for sure!
Erik Spiekermann about type