THIS paragraph has a lot of typographic elements to it. There is a drop cap, small capitals, text choices (both in font and style), and decisions about white space. A majority of these were created using HTML; some were automatically decided by my blog theme’s CSS. If I wanted to tweak them further, I would be able to do so—as long as I understood the basic coding involved.
For bloggers and online journalists, typography isn’t always the first thing on their mind. Content is, and always will be, king. For website developers, the need for responsive layouts and white space, and limiting the areas where users can “break the code,” is preferable. One of the biggest reasons designers do typographic adjustments in CSS is to keep content and design as separate as possible from each other. However, sometimes content creators need the ability to adjust layout in minor ways: poets for poetry, authors for long-form chapters, and instructors for mathematical formulas and HTML coding display.
For the purposes of this essay, I’ll be looking at the three platforms that corner the market on blogging: Blogger.com, WordPress.com, and Medium.com. While many articles often compare Medium to WordPress.org (a self-hosted framework), I find the comparison unfair: WordPress.org is a fully customizable site, with many plugins and CSS options, while this essay is focusing purely on “set” platforms with limitations for their free users (where the bulk of casual blogging takes place). To keep myself from having to write ‘.com’ after every mention of WordPress, I make the distinction now.
“Typography is the balance and interplay of letterforms on the page—a verbal and visual equation that helps the reader understand the form and absorb the substance of the page content. Typography plays a dual role as both verbal and visual communication. When readers scan a page they are subconsciously aware of both functions: first they survey the overall graphic patterns of the page, and then they parse the language and read. Good typography establishes a visual hierarchy for rendering prose on the page by providing visual punctuation and graphic accents that help readers understand relations between prose and pictures, headlines and subordinate blocks of text.”1
Most writers aren’t coders. Especially when it comes to journal, poetry and fiction writers, coding language is often something they’ve had very little experience with, beyond the basic <i>, <b>, <u> tags. And code isn’t something that they should have to learn to be able to use a blogging interface. Code should be limited, and having users manually inserting code all the time can bloat the system and break a site’s uniformity. (It also increases the risk that as the site or coding language changes, older posts will cease to be compliant.) Authors and publishers should be able to focus on their content, without having to learn an entire markdown language to present it in a satisfying way.
A fancy pull quote can
draw someone’s attention
to information that might
otherwise be skimmed over.
Enter Medium.com, founded in 2012 with a mission to be one of the sleekest, cleanest places to blog on the web. Medium, at least for free users, is about as bare bones as you can get (it’s even stripped some of its original functionality in the last two years, like full-bleed images wrapped behind text). Coders rejoice! The interface is a marvel, perfect for endless scrolling and distraction-free writing. There are no widgets and ads materialize then disappear, marrying the ad-savvyness of Spotify with the intent of WordPress—but advertised as a place for “ideas” over 140-characters. It’s an interesting pitch, but why not call themselves the next WordPress or Blogger, when Medium is clearly a place for blogs?
It may have something to do with that leanness coming at a cost. For free users, Medium’s typography options are actually quite slim. Some options, like buttons for creating a drop cap and small capitals (as shown in my post here), are like candy for an author. Unfortunately, the typography options basically end there. There is no justifying text, changing the color, or your fonts. There’s not even an HTML editor. Specialty articles on Medium (submitted to Publications) are the only posts on the site with the bells and whistles, and those layout options are under lock and key—you have to get through the slush pile first. So the comparison Medium made for itself as “long-form Twitter” is pretty apt: It’s a place to scroll through text, preferably quickly. It’s a place where skimming is more likely, just like on Twitter, where users may prefer to get the gist of an article over getting absorbed in its content. Visual punctuation is farther apart than on sites like Blogger.com and WordPress.com, and authors have little control over it, except to insert ‘• • •’ between sections of their piece. Medium’s editor is highly approachable, but its typography is not fully accessible.
Yet, that doesn’t mean that Blogger and WordPress are more accessible to their users. Blogger, which was acquired by Google in 2003, has not had any major interface improvements since then (besides the adoption of HTTPS in 2015). If a user wishes to do any sort of customization at all (like change the default theme) they must know code, or at least be able to fake their way through a lot of copy + paste. Independently-developed themes are plentiful, but if you want to “install” them, it can be a process (click one to see why). In terms of accessibility, Blogger fails at the user level. It is still a powerful platform with millions of active users, and its editor, which has a familiar, “Word-like” layout, is effective. People like it. But it could be more. The notification system, while not the focus of this essay, is exactly the same for users as it is for non-users unless they have installed a G+ integration—but again, these alterations are inaccessible (or incomprehensible) to the basic user. As far as typography goes, anything beyond basic style hot keys must be known in advance. It is a platform built for people already comfortable with computers, and doesn’t try to be more inclusive on that front.
WordPress takes the more humanist approach. Templates are one-click install and customization, as well as the editor, work in nearly full-WYSIWYG. Still, as someone who has taught over seventy-five writers how to create a blog on WordPress, it’s not necessarily intuitive. And just like Blogger, WordPress limits how much typography can be adjusted with a simple click of a button. Both of these platforms, however, offer a lot of typographical elements that Medium doesn’t, such as pre-formatted text (for poetry and code), pull quotes, columns, click-and-drag image resizing, up to seven header options, page jumps, and even pagination. Some of these elements can’t be applied with a button, and that should change. The first step to making the typography on the web more accessible is to stop making it hidden.
A poem, with special indentation:
Books are a Uniquely Portable Magic Pretend you are a book, Being opened from time to time; Your pages being flipped, They tell a comic, story, or rhyme. Satisfy your readers, and always get them hooked You can be anything, and today you are a book. Written by Sydney Veazie on Apr 24, 2015
Do You Really Need All Those Gimmicks?
What makes an aspect of typography essential, and what makes it a gimmick? It could be argued that the only real necessities for web typography are the ability to italicize or turn a text oblique, and the ability to block quote a text that makes it clear at a glance that it is just a quote. But what about bolding text for keywording, or using pull quotes to emphasis an important point in a long paragraph? Are they essential?
The short answer is no. Strong content writers could likely get all of their points across with only the most basic of typographical choices, just as a the best web designers will always strive to slim down a site’s code.
The long answer is yes. By its very nature, content is a creative process, and is constantly striving for ways to be “heard” in a deluge of similar content that is posted across the web every day. At the moment, articles fight for visibility through graphic elements, but most sites display images in the same way, and blogs aren’t necessarily the platform for image-heavy media. After all, blogs are about ideas. They are about communication between a (typically) like-minded set of people. Text is the fuel of blogging. So, shouldn’t text, therefore, be approachable and accessible for the basic content user?
Think of platforms like Instagram, wildly popular because it suddenly turned every phone into a virtual photography studio. The application of filters drives the app’s success. Customization in the hands of the consumer is a driving force behind many successful companies, like Google, Adobe, and Firefox, and could also be more of a force on the blogging web.
So what features should exist on sites like Medium, WordPress, and Blogger (in button form)?
- Remove justification or consolidate the buttons to save space. Add in margin options:
- 2-column (50/50 or 40/60) and wide margins for increased white space
- Drop caps. Drop caps are a classic typographic standard.
- Pull quotes. Code for this is complicated and imperfect. Platforms could use their site-wide CSS to make truly stunning pull quote styles, rather than the cobbled-together HTML I presented in this article.
- Post Templates. Many blogs have recurring series of content. Being able to save a template (not just copy a post) would ensure proper stylistic structures.
- Indents (as a paragraph style). Especially for long-form fiction, scenes with lots of dialogue end up looking pretty choppy on a screen. Having the ability to have a soft return (no white space between paragraphs) and an indent would make fiction more readable online.
- Footnotes (linkable). This one may be harder to achieve, but even offering a sup/superscript selection for text would go a long way to a more open, but researched web.
Typography for an Accessible Web
Ideally, a solution would be created where these common typographical elements were available right on the dashboard. StagTools, a plugin for WordPress.org, is an example of what regular, free interfaces could do to improve user experiences. Minimal and sleek design is good, but not at the cost of functionality (and there’s some logic that maybe people like cluttered interfaces more than we let on).
For content creators, some additional typography selections (especially pull quotes, which are important for journalism) could diminish the need for HTML tag memorization, but also keep the web developers happy, as less code would be written manually post-to-post. WordPress and Google could learn from Medium and Hypothesis’s take on commenting or taking notes “in the margins” of posts, rather than at the very end, allowing for contextual discourse on otherwise static blocks of text, which would then transform blogging (across the web) into the best version of itself: a true conversation of ideas. Medium’s decision to display reading time (like Longform) would also be a welcome addition to the rest of the blogging web. But when it comes to Typography, Medium could put more control back in the hands of their content creators, so at least those who wanted to design the experience around their writing could, without needing to depend on publications that might accept or reject their articles. (Self-publishing as an industry is only growing, and self-publishers have fought long and hard with every venue to have the same capabilities as the traditional presses.)
Typography exists to honor content. ~Robert Bringhurst
In closing, the key to an accessible web—not just a web that caters to those that know code or keyboard shortcuts—is to make typographic customizations visible right in the editor. This is already possible with self-hosted solutions, but why not for static platforms like Blogger, WordPress(.com) and Medium? Providing solutions for content creators that are not producing typical content is important, and particularly with poetry and fiction, they aren’t demographics to be ignored. Decisions on web design should be made with the understanding that a large majority of writers are still not coders, and the learning curve to merge those two skills are steep. Even though someone can’t code doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the customization options available to visually “punctuate” their content in the way that best suits it.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
1. Lynch, Patrick J., and Sarah Horton. Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites. New Haven Conn: Yale University Press, 2008.
For my regular readers, sorry for the dense article. I wrote this as an essay response to one of my master’s courses assignments: Write about the web and an area of publishing that matters to you. If you have any additional comments, I’d love to hear them!
Otherwise, here’s a timelapse of some pretty cool cloud cover I saw this week: