The Lapidary Lemur

Musings from Brandon Weaver

CSS: Font

Font. So many a web design newbie will skiff right over this subject without a thought, but I’m here to tell you that’s a mistake.

Note that this article is a revision of the 2011 article here:

Content is King

That’s right, content is king. Ultimately your goal in web design is to have great content, without it there’s not a designer in the world that could save you. Content is conveyed via design to your user, and the key stone to that conveyance is your font.

Even basic typography will do wonders

With very little knowledge of typography you can take your page to a whole new level. This, combined with other design principles I will cover later, will be the staple of your pages.

What can CSS do with font?

CSS has several options to work with fonts, the style, the weight, the size, line height, the works. In this section we’ll also be covering some basic shorthand to speed up your coding as well.

Take a look at this example of longhand CSS font manipulation:

Longhand Font
  font-family:Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif;
  line-height: 24px;
  font-weight: bold;
  font-style: italic;
  font-variant: small-caps;

…when looking at all that it’s a lot of code. Lucky for us the people at W3 were on the ball and made shorthand for us, all that code can be put in one line.

Shorthand Font
  font: italic small-caps bold 12px/24px Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif;

The order of modifiers is in this order: style, variant, weight, size/line-height, family. More on font modifiers can be found at The W3.

I would not suggest using all these at once like this either.

What is Line Height?

An often missed piece of learning font modifiers in CSS is line-height, though don’t let it fool you. Line Height is one of the most important properties. Remember back to working in Microsoft Office, how teachers would always have you double space for readability? Turns out that it applies to more than just office.

Line Height is the white space inbetween lines of text, and as a standard rule of thumb it needs to be at least 1.5x your font size. There are exceptions to this, but in paragraph format you need to be sure of this.

It improves readability substantially and helps the flow of your page as well. Without it text is just jammed together in a clump that’s just asking for people to avoid it. Tightly compacted paragraphs are intimidating to most people.

Font Units

Font is not only measured in pixels and points, there are various other units as well that you need to be aware of.

Relative Units

%: Percent is determined by a set font size in a parent element, normally the body.

em: Determined by the users default preference, measured by the letter “m”, this is a relative measure.

ex: The same as em, except the measure is by the x-height of the font, or the height of the letter “x”.

pixel: Pixel, a relative unit? While this may seem strange to some, the pixel is in fact a relative unit. The monitor or screen displaying the font has a set resolution and dpi (displayed pixels per inch) that can be modified, making it relative. Take a look at the resolution on your iPhone some time.

Absolute Units

inch: The standard imperial inch.

cm: The standard metric centimeter.

point: A standard font measure, at 1/72 of an inch.

pica: A less known unit that is 12 points

Wrapping up

There’s a lot of ground to cover in fonts, but with this you’ll have a basic idea of how to get started. I will cover more on typography and specifically which fonts to use in later tutorials. Next up is The Box Model.