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Textual Healing

I freely admit that I’m kind of a zealot when it comes to words and text—heck, this quiz classified me as a “grammar fuhrer.” (Note: the rating of “M” for the linked quiz may be too weak; “A” might be better.  The results you get may well offend you terribly.  Consider yourself warned.)  I love to read, and wish I could do it more often.  I enjoy writing, for that matter, because there’s a sublime joy in crafting the right sequence of words and creating the right tone as a result.  (Speaking of writing, I’ll have some things to say about that tomorrow.)  In what I regard as an exceedingly rare moment of lucidity on Rush Limbaugh’s part—perhaps he’d been off the drugs for a few days—he once said, “Words mean things.”  I absolutely agree, and not just in the narrow sense.  To me, the right words mean something far more than a string of communicative markers.  They create a meaning that is much greater than the sum of the parts.  The right words at the right time can literally change a life.

I say all that to frame what I’m going to say next.  The Man In Blue recently posted some thoughts on the use of text in Web design—or, more precisely, his opposition to its use for branding purposes.

By utilising run-of-the-mill text to render your identity, it makes it very hard to distinguish yourself from anyone else  delivering a message.  Granted, usage of plain text can itself be an identity, but I think that  Eric Meyer has pretty much cornered the market on that one.

I’m not sure if that’s meant as a compliment or a criticism, but it actually doesn’t matter.  I took it as a compliment, and I think the things I said above help explain why.  Still, I’m going to speak in some defense of using “plain” text for design.  Not a full defense, because Mr. Blue (a.k.a. Cameron Adams) is quite correct: branding is important, and visual identity is an important part of that branding.  As he says, Coca-Cola spends millions every year on branding.  I’m sure Pepsi does the same, as do a great many other companies.  As they should.  He goes on to say:

Although it might pain the purists, sometimes only an image will do.

He couldn’t be more right.  It makes a lot more sense for me to share a picture of Carolyn smiling at her mommy than it does to try to describe the same thing.  Carolyn, reclining in her car seat while in semi-profile, looks up and to the right with a broad grin on her face.  Kat's hand rests next to Carolyn's left shoulder.  If I were in charge of Amazon.com or Wired or some other branded organization, there’s no way I’d replace the logo with plain text.  Besides, an img with alt text is as accessible as plain text—a little longer to download, but not enough to make a significant difference.

For me, I stick to text because I’m not a visual designer.  I don’t have a CD full of fonts that I can use to make my text look different, graphically or otherwise, and I don’t have the patience to search free font resources to find one.  It doesn’t make sense for me to spend time flailing toward what would probably be an amateurish result when I  can just style some text and move on.

But that doesn’t mean that I settle for the default presentation of text, either.  An example is the “Cut your costs…” text at the top of Complex Spiral Consulting’s main page.  The relevant bits of its CSS are:

font: bold 166% Arial;
letter-spacing: -1px;

Yep, just boldfaced largish Arial—but the negative letter-spacing pulls the letters together just a touch, and significantly alters the visual impact of the text, making it seem weightier than normal.  Conversely, a positive letter-spacing would spread text apart, giving it a more open feel.  Most visual designers grit their teeth over this kind of thing, because it’s the crudest form of kerning imaginable.  True enough, but it still has a desirable effect, and typically one that’s underexploited.

The other reason I stick to text is that it’s almost infinitely more flexible than raster graphics like GIF and JPEG.  If I decide to resize the “meyerweb.com” in the masthead, all I have to do is fiddle with a line of CSS.  For that matter, I do change the size of that text on sub-pages, just as I do the masthead itself.  I can also change the text color to suit the masthead graphic.  For every one of the 26 mastheads I’ve created (this week’s is #6), I’ve changed the text color to blend better with the background.  Doing this was, again, a change of a couple of lines of text.  It would be even better if RGBA color values were widely supported, so I could make the text colored and translucent, but never mind that now.  (Side note to Dean Edwards: how about adding RGBA support to IE7?)

And, of course, the user can resize text, which I regard as a benefit, although a lot of designers regard it with pure horror.  If I had the name of this site as a graphic, then in any browser except Opera, resizing the content display would leave the graphic text unchanged.  That bugs me.  If there were universal vector-graphic support, say for SVG, then I could use it to create any font-and-logo combination I was able to dream up (or hire someone to create for me).  Even with the widespread availability of the Adobe SVG plugin, it’s still not enough.  I know, beyond any doubt, that a Web browser will support text rendering.  I don’t have the same confidence about SVG or even Flash, both of which can be scaled.

So I stick with text.  Realize that this is not what I would tell a corporate client to do.  When I worked with Macromedia, I didn’t tell them that they should replace their logo graphic with plain text stating “Macromedia,” and it wouldn’t even have occured to me.  If I were to work with Adobe or Microsoft or Apple or Red Hat or anyone who’d established a visual identity based around an image, I wouldn’t even consider telling them to replace it with plain text.  I’d agitate for sensible alt text, of course.

But for this site, or for Peter‘s site—both of which are personal sites—I don’t see anything wrong with using text.  (Then again, I guess I wouldn’t, having a corner on this particular market and all.)  In a lot of ways, I think it’s preferable, reducing bandwidth consumption and server hits.

And, y’know… it’s text.  C’mon, everybody, sing it with me:

Text is natural, text is good Not everybody loves it But everybody should

Or, if you groove to an older, smoother beat:

I can tell you, darling, that it’s textual healing Mark up, mark up, mark up, mark up, let’s design tonight Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, text will do it right

Thankyew!  Try the veal.

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