Foo Hack Redesign 3.0

So, it started out as just a few font changes. I’d been growing less and less pleased with Trebuchet MS, and had found a few cases where it broke the militant line-height rules I’d set for this site. In general, I felt that it was too crowded, and the gray hash textured background was (in my opinion) a contrived and artless approach.

I’m not a very understanding end-user when it comes to this site. The Foo Hack design team got fed up with my complaints, and decided to give in and make some changes.

Feature creep is a bitch when you have a deadline. For personal projects, there is no deadline, and so a bit of feature creep is fun, within reason. That’s a big part of the reason why I have so many back-burner projects that are almost finished; just as I near the finish line, I decide that it needs a little more, or another project gets more interesting for a while. So, on to what changed.

Fonts

I was a computer geek first, but when my dad replaced our DOS home computer with a Windows 3.1 box, I fell in love with fonts. I can waste an afternoon surfing the web downloading fonts that I’ll probably rarely (if ever) use. Web design is about 90% typography, and it is an art that blends strict perfectionism and fluid acceptance in a beautiful way.

For the main body text, I wanted something subtle and easy on the eyes. Something that would let the writing speak in the voice that I intend, without getting in the way. For the “small” items of diminished importance (asides and things in <small> tags) I wanted a serif font with a very thin ex measurement, so that the text could “feel” smaller without altering the line-height. For the headings, I wanted a rounder, more open font that could evoke a sense of boldness without being too heavy. Subheadings and meta items (the date, “comment” link, etc.) should use the same font, but with less letter space and a subtler color.

For the body text, I decided to go with Helvetica, the classier old-world cousin of Arial. I was initially pleased with the results.

Clich√© though it may be, Times New Roman was the perfect choice for the diminished items. It’s very light, yet still fairly readable, and when italicized, it practically disappears. I was already using it for that reason, but since I don’t love TNR all that much, I was willing to entertain other possibilities.

If Helvetica is so great, why do I see Arial?

A problem came up when I noticed that the line-height was getting messed up whenever a TNR inline element would wrap to the next line. I figured out the problem.

Let’s say you have font A and font B. You create a block-level element using font A. Then, you have an inline element using font B, which wraps to the next line.

If A and B don’t put their letters on exactly the same point in the line-block, then the line-height will adjust up or down, as the next line is set by the position of the letters in B instead of the position of letters in A. Since the B element isn’t a block-level element, it won’t create a whole new block, and will have the effect of adding or removing a few pixels from the overall height of the A element.

To correct this problem, and still have 2 fonts sharing the same block-level element, you need to find two fonts that have exactly the same vertical letter placement on the line block.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I created a test page and exhaustively tested every combination of serif and sans-serif fonts on my Mac. It took about a week. There was only one combination that worked.

Arial and Times New Roman.

Ah, compromise, my old nemesis. You strike again. Not willing to give up the line-height strictness, I gave in and decided to use Arial instead of Helvetica. On the bright side, Windows users were mostly going to see Arial anyway, and they’re both tried and true web-safe fonts. And, at typical screen resolutions, it’s hard to tell the difference anyway. But still, it’s a bit of a sore point.

Gotham, Large and Small

Gotham, the masterpiece homage to urban signage by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, is quite possibly the best font ever devised. It’s open and confident even when it’s not bold, balanced and practical. I went with this as the headings, and it also was the best candidate for the smaller informational bits. (After all, it seemed fitting to put navigational links in a font designed for signage.

The downside of such a perfect font is that it’s not free. It would be fantastic if Apple or Microsoft were to license Gotham for their respective operating systems, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Those that don’t want to install Gotham will see Century Gothic (if it’s installed, most likely because they got it bundled with Microsoft Office), or something in the Lucida family.

Accentuate the Important, Diminish the Rest

I brought down the contrast a bit, and did away with the background graphic. Some color was sprinkled around to help create a meaningful mental model of each page. I got the idea for the categories above the titles from Rands in Repose, one of my favorite regular reads.

The default set of post meta info that Wordpress provides is far more than necessary. I got rid of everything that didn’t directly benefit the goals of conversing with the world through this blog.

Comments

It seems awkward that my comments should have a blue left border, and reader comments are unadorned. Simply using random colors wouldn’t do. So, I wrote a function that will hash a string into a color value. A simpler hash would have sufficed, but I wanted more control over the range of colors that it selects, and rand() was a good fit. So, your comment will always have the same color (unless you use a different email address, of course) and all the colors will be in a particular mid-range of luminosity that is bold, but not overpowering.

I’ve already run into a few situations on this blog where I felt that threaded comments would have been helpful. However, the threaded forum-style comments would be complex and counterproductive. I grabbed a standard threaded-comment plugin, and tweaked it to replace the interface with a few hyperlinks. Since conversations are more naturally many-to-many, I’d like to implement something along the lines of what Dunstan Orchard used to have on his blog, but doing that the right way means a bit more investment, and this project was dangerously close to being back-burnered forever.