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Learn how to choose fonts for a web site and create beautiful, legible type. Author Laura Franz shares how to create designs that maximize readability (and keep visitors on the page) by paying attention to details in size, line-height, line length, alignment, color, vertical space, and more. Laura also demonstrates how to incorporate web fonts, style type with CSS, and pick fonts that work well together.
We know that things that are closer together are seen as belonging together. This is the theory of proximity. We can use proximity to improve the visual chunking on the page. A chunk can be a paragraph or a group of paragraphs within a section. In fact, a chunk can even be a group of sections within a larger long page, like if our page had image resources and color resources on it too, but on our page we have primarily got resources and sections of resources.
In our bibliography we have sort of a double chunk for each resource. One is the title and author, the other is the description, but nothing feels like it belongs together yet. All the elements flit away from each other. A default vertical spacing system does not work. Looking at our current page using a default spacing system we can see the space between the title and author is too loose. They don't feel like they belong together. In fact, the title, Nice Web Type, is actually closer to the description for the resource above it then it is to the author.
We need to tighten this vertical space. When we tighten up the space between the title and author, we can see that they are still too far from the description and they all belong together in a single chunk. The title and author are still slightly closer to the description for the resource above them. We can tighten the relationship between author and description but we still need to add a bit more space above the titles to really separate the resources from each other, like this. The chunking looks pretty good. We can clearly see there are two resources and each resource has two parts in it, but what about the overall chunking? I know readers won't see this much of the page at once, but keeping a good vertical spacing system will help them as they scroll down the page.
This is what the page looked like before we fixed some of the spacing and here's what it looks like after we fixed the spacing. We can see there are six resources. But the section heading, our h2, it's too close to the resource about it and it belongs to the resources that come after it. We need more space here to improve chunking. When we add the space, we can more clearly see the two sections of resources. This looks good! But how do we know how much space to add or take out between title, authors, descriptions, resources, and sections? Well, part of it is experience and learning to recognize what feels right, but there is also recommendation you can follow.
It will get you started. When developing a system of vertical space, I recommend starting with a modular scale. A modular scale means the amounts of space are mathematically related to each other. For example if the line height is 20, base your vertical spacing on units of 4 or 5. Spaces could measure 4, 8, 12, 16, or 20 pixels or they could measure 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 pixels. If your line height is 18 pixels, you could base your vertical spacing system on 3.
Our line height is 22 pixels so we could base our spacing system on units of 2 or 11, which unfortunately is not really helpful. One unit is too small and the other is too big. If you have experienced setting type in print, you're probably familiar with the idea of creating a vertical spacing system using a modular scale. There are good reasons for using one. It gives you a place to start exploring spacing. It creates a pleasing mathematical relationship between the different amounts of space.
When working with multiple columns of text, lines of type will end up lining up, which is always good but when working with web type there are some reason why it's okay to not use a modular scale. We cannot measure space in units smaller than a whole pixel. So if a line height is 19 pixels we can't use one half, two thirds, or three quarters of the measurement elsewhere. Paragraph spacing needs to be a little bigger on the screen. Maybe it's the needs for fonts with larger x-heights or maybe it's the need for slightly larger font sizes to maintain readability, but where paragraph space and print often works at only about 50% of the line height, on the screen 66%-75% of the line height works much better.
The need for looser paragraph spacing can lead to really big spaces between sections if we forced ourselves to work with a modular scale. And readers will rarely see the entire page at one time. They will scroll up and down seeking what interests them. The subtle mathematical relationships in a modular scale bring a quiet attention to the printed page, but the subtlety gets lost in a long page meant to be scrolled. Web readers need us to first and foremost pay attention to legibility and readability.
If breaking the modular vertical spacing system by a pixel or two or even five improves chunking and improves readability, I hereby give you permission to break it. Having said that, our serif bibliography will not use a modular scale although I sort of started with one. I ended up with these measurements for the spacing. Above the h3 titles, I used 20 pixels and I started with 22 pixels. Below the author, I used 5 pixels but I had started with 8 pixels. Above the h2 section header, I used 40 pixels and I started with 44 pixels.
Below the h2 section header, I used 16 pixels although I started--- I did! I started with 16 pixels. Between the title and author, we are using 2 pixels and I had started without any space here at all. You can see I started with a sort of modular scale. The 22 and 44 are based on 11. The 8 and 16 fall on either side of 11 and are based on 2 and they are mathematically related to each other. You can also see a change to modular scale when needed to refine the chunking.
That's our vertical spacing system for the serif bibliography. Now we need to apply it in our HTML and CSS.
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