Monday, April 11, 2011

An Event Apart - Seattle (Day 1, part 2)

Moved here


Web Typography

Jason Santa Maria, self-described font geek, gave a talk on fonts in general and the huge opportunities sites like TypeKit give for improving the look and feel of your own sites. As recently as three years ago, we were still stuck using the 18 Web Fonts or hacks like sIFR to get real fonts on websites. Publications like the New Yorker, who are instantly recognizable from the typefaces they use, have had a hard time carrying that brand identity to their websites. Many have resorted to rendering each headline in the correct font into images, creating a maintenance nightmare. With the ability to use things like font-face, existing publications can carry their brand identity with them to the web, and new publications can enhance their own identity with their font selections. Even simple things like the ability to use condensed fonts on the web has totally changed the way well-designed sites look.

How do I choose the right typeface?

There is a difference between display typefaces, which are most useful for headlines and titles, and text typefaces, which are best for body text. A display typeface like Bodoni can be great for an article's title, but can be difficult to read in a smaller size. Most people will have the best bet finding a few good fonts with many faces, like FF Meta or Proxima that can be used successfully in many different scenarios. Good typography is about building contrast, texture, and feeling on the page that help with comprehension and enjoyment of the thing being read. "Good typography is invisible."

When using typography, there are a few guidelines that can be useful, but should be broken when appropriate:

  • All things being equal, err on the side of the text size being too big
  • Contrast is the most important tenet of good design - make parts of the text that differ in some way look different. Play with size, weight, coler, etc. to build the right amount of contrast.
  • Line spacing should be directly proportional to the line length and color of the font

There are lots of things to consider when picking the right fonts, but there are ways to help choose among them. Noting the qualities you want your site and your content to convey will help you narrow long lists of fonts down. Finding fonts that come in both serif and sans serif faces can make pairing simpler and will help create contrast where it's needed. Fonts that have the same feel as a commonly used font can help you pick similar but more interesting fonts. And finally, trying different fonts out by setting some text in a range of typefaces and playing with them will almost always be really helpful. Jason left us with a few sites that use web typography well: Lost World's Fairs and Voltage: Fashion Amplified.

Why Designers Fail

Scott Berkun was next, with a talk about design failures and how to learn from them. Mindful practice and studying other people are the two primary ways people learn new things, and studying failure in particular is an incredible untapped resource of knowledge. In the design world, it's difficult to find good analysis of design failures. Especially in fields like architecture, where highly in-demand designers tend to move on to new projects frequently, it's sometimes difficult for these designers to see and hear the feedback that only comes from using the product. How do you avoid falling into common design traps? Understand that all designers fail most of the time (whether it's on the drawing board or in the real world), own the mistakes that you do make, analyze the cause (whether it's setting the wrong goals or failing to meet them), and studying common causes of failure and possible mitigations.

Scott showed an amazing video of designer Matt Wiley laying out a magazine article, and how many intermediate failure states he went through in the process of coming up with a great design. These are the things that many people don't see when they look at a finished product. There's a constant process of experimenting, failing, and revising that is absolutely critical to the creative process, but isn't visible at all in the final product.

So why do designers fail? Some of it comes from falling into common traps: problem-solving for its own sake (Puzzle traps), obsessively categorizing (Category traps), confusing measurements with reality (Number traps), and loving the sketch more that what it actually represents (Drawing traps). Some of it is related to skill: there's often a mismatch between the skills that designers have and the skills that an organization needs, especially around persuading decision-makers that good ideas are good ideas. Designers should be "ambassadors for good ideas", and that involves knowing how to sell these ideas to decision makers. Luckily, persuasion, like most skills, can be learned, and it is something that designers should take the time to learn.

Scott did some research to discover which of these failures were the most common and the most important. By far, the biggest overall issue was organizational: "Non-designers making design decisions." Others were psychological: Not seeking enough data before designing, and not being receptive to feedback. Less common and important were skill-related issues, with the top being lack of awareness of business fundamentals, and lack of idea-pitching skills. Scott publicly posted his data, which is really worth a look, and his slides are also available. Hopefully, being able to identify these causes of failure will help us, as a profession, avoid them in our future work.

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