Practical typography

For one reason or another I had entirely forgotten about Matthew Buttericks’ excellent book Practical typography which he published last year and asked readers to pay whatever they wanted for it afterwards. In his latest update he described it as “an experiment in taking the web seriously as a book-publishing medium” so this weekend I cracked open my browser and tried to catch up on Matthew’s advice on the basics of typesetting.

Finishing a book in this environment feels so much more of an accomplishment than wrapping up a physical book, although it made for interesting reading because it was not written for upcoming graphic designers or art students (like the majority of typographic resources out there), instead this book’s aim had been calibrated specifically towards writers:

I’m not here to tell you that typography is more important than the substance of your writing. It’s not. But typography can optimise your writing. Typography can create a better first impression. Typography can reinforce your key points. Typography can extend reader attention. When you ignore typography, you’re ignoring an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of your writing. And isn’t that why you write? To have an effect on readers? To move them, to persuade them, to spur them to action?

Matthew Butterick, Practical Typography

Think about that for a second, the idea that typography’s contribution isn’t merely an artistic embellishment, but an optimisation power-up, or even a performance hack. That’s why I was mesmerised with the act of design to begin with; I felt surrounded by sloppy typesetting made up of thin margins or the cheap paper stock, and it was these disabilties that just slowed the reading process to a crawl.

It’s impossible to talk about Practical typography without also mentioning the method of publication, a topic which Matthew carefully examines in his follow-up post. It’s here that he offers a few insights about how financially successful the project was, yet sadly the results don’t look particularly compelling for potential writers that want to follow a similar path.

But maybe it didn’t work out financially because of all sorts of issues other than those Matthew gave; perhaps as an audience we’ve devalued writing, or perhaps the problem is that torrential flood of competitors in the other tabs, or maybe the solution is an interface problem and we need additional web standards to ease the transfer of funds between patrons and creators.

What if we still need big publishers for their marketing power, or their ability to help sell advertisements in every corner of the screen? It’s difficult to even playfully consider that publishing’s last, wheezing hope is interactive adverts for diapers and viagra though. Wait – no, I’ve got it! Perhaps it was the lack of a book cover; a quick glance at Matthew’s book makes it hard to differentiate between his work and someone’s wonderfully typeset blog. And what’s up with his book being so bookish, anyway? Maybe readers are only attracted to writing that swarms with elements gyrating and bouncing all over the place as the user scrolls; parallax might be the future of publishing after all. The cynics will just have to get with the times and adjust to the complimentary motion sickness.

What about the word count in all this? Perhaps that sort of writing is untenable after a certain limit, or maybe this type of book is completely incompatible with our experience of browsers. Or maybe it was the release schedule that was the problem and the book should have been broken up into smaller chunks and published more frequently, rather than as a single lump.

Of course I’m just goofing around with these ideas because I’m scared of the alternative; that in the future these sorts of books might not be published at all.

At least half the excitement of writing a book today isn’t in the writing itself – it’s in all of these alternative disciplines which many writers tend to think of as burdens. It’s the design, the business model, the strange form of marketing that the web makes available to us. It’s even in the formats that we choose to support, for instance Matthew details why he doesn’t use proprietary formats, such as ebooks and .pdf’s. These are are all typographic, financial and technical burdens, but why should we stop there? Matthew even went so far as to build his own writing tool called Pollen because, he argued, that the “book is a program.”

And so maybe those burdens are too much for one writer to undertake on their own but learning about these adjacent fields empowers writers to improve their work considerably. I guess now I’m writing along those patronising lines of “all writers ought to master HAML, Sass and Node before they start their novel and then they should memorise all the quirks of InDesign during their degree in Graphic Communication before moving on to complete a doctorate in the field of X, Y, and Z.”

But then again, if those subsequent tools and complimentary bits of knowledge have the potential to make us better writers then why wouldn’t we experiment with them? I guess writers now have to try and figure out what’s a distraction and what improves their focus – is this programming language going to benefit my characters or the flow of this essay? Is this tool going to give me a new perspective on the publishing industry or will it just be a waste of my valuable time, moments which might have been better spent reading Shakespeare or learning how to illustrate my pop-up book for kids?

We’ll only find out if we’re willing to experiment a little.