Phil Gyford


Sunday 17 November 2002

PreviousIndexNext SmartyPants

I just installed SmartyPants, a little plug-in for Moveable Type that automatically replaces a few text characters with more attractive and correct typographic entities. Double-quotes turn into “smart-quotes” (as do apostrophes), three full-stops turn into ellipses (…), and -- turns into an em-dash ( — ). How lovely.

On a similar theme I really wanted to try out Gill Sans as a font for this site, inspired by Matt’s and Aaron Swartz’s new designs. This elegant font would only show up for people using Mac OS X, although this wouldn’t be a problem, as CSS would just fall back to my second preference font for everyone else. However, compared to fonts such as Verdana, currently this site’s default, Gill Sans is very narrow and also looks pretty small (a small x-height?). So any careful choice of font sizes and column widths (for example, the right-hand column’s width) would only be correct for one of these fonts. To be honest, I wonder if Gill Sans is really a good font for bodytext on screen, despite its alluring elegance.

By the way, I’m not entirely convinced about my current choice of Verdana. I went off it some time ago, but recently read a site which I thought looked clean and readable, and then discovered it was set in Verdana. I think the site looks OK now — I lack the vocabulary, but everything seems to hang together quite well. But I feel I’m committing some terrible faux pas and trendy typography buffs are probably sniggering at me.


Gill Sans is my favourite sans-serif typeface bar none, but I wouldn't recommend it for body-text of more than a paragraph or so. I find it loses readability quickly, particularly if the leading isn't just right. It's not so much the column-width, it's more the weight of the type on the page or screen -- it's just a little too light, and the eye starts to skim over it.

(As you may guess from that, I'm not big on sans-serif body-text generally.)

Does Smartypants do ligatures? Or am I being a trendy type bore just for asking?

Posted by James Wallis on 17 November 2002, 4:49 am | Link

Yeah, I think you may be right about using Gill Sans for heading text (or small bits of text) only. And I don't think screens (even with modern fancy anti-aliasing) can do it justice at small sizes. On the other hand, I'm quite up for sans-serif body text on screen, thinking that such a low resolution doesn't do justice to serifs. But maybe serif fonts are usable these days, what with higher resolution screens and anti-aliasing.

No, Smarty Pants only does the alterations I described -- maybe too many fonts don't have ligatures or don't have many?

Posted by Phil on 17 November 2002, 12:02 pm | Link

Gill Sans was never really designed to be a body-text font; that role was given, by Gill, to fonts such as Perpetua or Joanna:

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On-screen, I think we're stuck with the tyranny of Verdana for a while yet.

Posted by Nick on 18 November 2002, 11:43 pm | Link

What's wrong with Verdana? I like Verdana.

But then again I drive a Minivan.

Posted by Cody on 20 November 2002, 3:59 pm | Link

I just have at the back of my mind that Verdana was frowned upon by superior font-bods. But I think I may have only extrapolated from something Powazek said once:
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So, frankly, who cares.

Incidentally, I also found a brief history of Verdana:
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Posted by Phil on 20 November 2002, 4:54 pm | Link

I really don't think Gill Sans is a particularly good choice for on-screen body text at small sizes. It is also, of course, London's most over-used font, especially once you count in its transport variations.

Posted by Alison Scott on 30 November 2002, 11:24 am | Link