On Web Typography

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Jason Santa Maria is that his book On Web Typography is changing my handwriting.

Every morning I read, pray, and journal for a few minutes—and I recently noticed that I’ve been tweaking my script. I’ve adjusted my margins, fiddled with the space between lines, and tweaked the size of my letters. I’ve tested different pens with varying stroke widths.1 It’s as if reading the book opened up a subchannel in my brain where I examine the form of my handwritten words in the light of ideas pulled from Jason’s book.

To say that I eagerly anticipated this book would be an understatement—as far back as early 2013, I had it as a bullet point in my Wish List note in nvALT. I had to wait a bit longer than expected, but it proved to be very well worth the extra time. I’ve read the book about three times: first on my phone, then the paperback, and now I’m revisiting it on my Kindle.2 Compare that to my copy of Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, which I have yet to finish despite many attempts.

I’m no stranger to typography, but it still often feels like a second language to me. As a developer I have a pretty good grasp of the technical aspects of CSS and its properties with respect to setting type, but I’ve always lacked a method for the step that comes before that: choosing and pairing type. I’ve relied on intuition and gut feeling, going with what looked right. That’s a process that can sometimes produce good results, but mostly I just end up burning up time. What I like about the book is that it welcomes people like me into the fold, peeling back how Jason approaches type. His “type for a moment, type to live with” distinction is so simple, but it clarified something I’ve struggled with for years.

There’s an easygoing generosity to the book, and as I re-read it I’m struck with how little Jason holds back: it’s like being invited to hover over his shoulder as he explains how he goes about his work. That’s no small thing, and it’s difficult to pull off in a way that feels authoritative, natural, and humble.3 There is nothing I find more inspiring than talented people simply opening a door into the things that they love. You feel that joy in this book, and it’s infectious.

I still find choosing and pairing type challenging, but at least Jason has answered the basic question—What am I hoping to communicate?—and explained his approach to evaluating and selecting type. The properties of type aren’t treated in abstract, but are approached in the context of the typeface’s potential purpose. For me this helped transform typography from an arcane pursuit into something more approachable, now marked with handy guide posts to anchor my own explorations.

Above all, Jason reminded me that typography is there to serve a purpose. Writing about type to live with, he says:

You want that clear goblet. Help people forget that they’re staring at a screen and instead immerse them in the words and the story you’re telling. The type you use should be smooth, removing as much friction as possible between the reader and the text.

In a way that passage sums up this book for me: it lessened the friction introduced by technical components like x-heights and stroke contrast, and situated those components in a story about type. I can’t help but hope for a follow-up volume.


  1. Uniball Signo DX (.38) vs Pilot Hi-Tec C (.3), lately. 
  2. Ironically, that experience underscores how terribly the Kindle executes basic typography. 
  3. I should pause here and thank editor Tina Lee for this.