This week I’m going to take a short break from my usual marketing technology, Web strategy or underlying-concepts columns. Instead, I’m going to write about a technology that can help you with your branding and differentiation — something that works more on all that look-and-feel goodness that I don’t talk about much as I dive into Web analytics and human behavior and all that data-driven stuff.

This is a column about … wait for it … Web typography. Yeah. "Fonts" and stuff like that. As always, if you’re scratching your head and in a great big rush, just skip to the end for a bullet list.

A rarely mentioned fact is that I was once an apprentice letterpress type designer and typographer for one of the few remaining punch-cutters — a guy who designed type by carving metal with a jeweler’s file. Learn something new everyday, right?

Well anyway, as you might imagine, I can get pretty picky about type (a trait I’ve learned to mute otherwise I get totally blown out of proportion every time I see the dot on the letter "i" crashing into the ascender on the letter "f"  — and it happens all the time. Aaaargh!)

OK. My cred for talking type established, let’s get down to business.

A very enthralling history of type on the Web

If you’ve ever made a Web site (or paid someone else to do so), you most likely found yourself disappointed to learn that you really only have a few standard options for the typeface of your text. Back in the early days we were limited to pretty much just Arial (a bastardized version of Helvetica created by Monotype for IBM printers in 1982 and later shipping with Microsoft 3.1 and up) and Times (don’t even get me started on Times).

Of course, there were a couple other typefaces available, like the absolutely abysmal Comic Sans. Anyway, the point in this little history is that we used to have a very limited palette of useful typefaces.

After the explosion of the Web and all of the Web developers explaining to art directors, "No, you can’t specify a usable typeface on the Web," and the art directors then having to explain it to clients, there emerged some workarounds.

For example, developers started using graphic images as headline text. This allowed any typeface to be used for headlines, but slowed down the page loading (those images all added up — especially in the days of the 56-kilobit modem) and hid important text from search engines. Oh, and if you wanted to change the headline, it required a lot more work.

The next round of workarounds involved something called sIFR, which is an acronym for scalable Inman Flash Replacement. (Shaun Inman, not Inman News Publisher Brad Inman … but it’d be cooler if it had been Brad.)

This technique used Flash instead of the image files for the headline text. It was also exceptionally clever in that it allowed the text to still be visible to search engines and easy to edit. As long as your visitors had Flash installed, they got the headlines in the typeface you specified.

ESPN article pages are an example of a site that uses this technique to this day. SIFR was great for headlines, but terrible for body text. So you might get a good headline, but you back to the same small palette of typefaces for the text your audience would be spending all that time reading.

Another helpful development in online typography was Microsoft hiring type design giant Matthew Carter to make Verdana and Georgia, two of the most usable typefaces available online to this day.

But this just brought our choice of usable typefaces from two to four, with everyone on the Web using the same four typefaces. You know the result because you see it every day. …CONTINUED

A new era in type for the Web

Well, now we have a couple great options that allow the following:

–Our text can be visible to search engines

–We can choose from a much, much broader palette of typefaces

One of the ways we can specify a great-looking typeface is through a service called TypeKit, a subscription-based online type library that contains a lot of very excellent typefaces from respected foundries such as FontFont and Prochez Typofonderie (in case you want to use the Le Monde typeface) as well as iconoclast Chank and other designers. Using the TypeKit service, your typeface options go from four to over 100.

To use TypeKit on a single site you sign up for the $50 per year option and put together a collection of five typefaces you want to use on your site. Trust me, you don’t need more than five.

In fact, the fewer you use the less likely you are to make your site look like a ransom note. Shoot for two really nice ones: headline and body copy.

Once you have that together, your code vendor will install a little bit of code and make a minor tweak to your style sheet and you’re off and running — instant Web site makeover. And a makeover on the part of your site that matters most: the part your audience reads!

Drawback: Downloading the font for your Web site will probably add a little bit to the time it takes your site to download. Probably about as much time as it takes to download a single image file.

OK Gahlord, why do we care about typefaces?

I promised a bullet list at the end and it’s coming. But let’s start with this: your Web site’s look and feel is something that’s really hard to measure with all the Web-traffic analytics stuff.

But we do know that consistency matters in branding: using the same colors, images and … typefaces does help to drive a message and branding idea home.

We also know that differentiation matters. In an online world of four typefaces, it’s a pretty easy step to differentiate yourself by picking something other than one of those four typefaces. Also, remember that $50 per year price tag?

That’s going to keep some of you away from this as well. For what it’s worth, you can get even more exclusive in your online typography by using some of the custom solutions out there, which have all the same benefits of TypeKit but with different typefaces that cost in the realm of $300 per year or more.

Here’s the bullet list for why you might want to have something other than the standard four typefaces on your Web site:

–Differentiate your site from others.

–Maintain visual consistency across print, Web, broadcast and other media.

–Because Arial and Georgia really don’t express the spirit of your brand.

–Improve the visual experience for your audience, hopefully getting them to stick around longer.

–You, like me, are a type nerd.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt. He’s a frequent speaker on applying analytics and data to creative marketing endeavors.


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