New Web Fonts for Two People: Barack Obama and Jason Kottke

Slate's Culture Blog
March 7 2012 5:58 PM

Barack Obama and Jason Kottke Get New Web Fonts

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A blown-up screen shot of WhitneyScreenSmart, the new web font used on kottke.org

Blogging pioneer Jason Kottke unveiled the sixth major redesign of his nearly fourteen-year-old site on Monday—and the new look is even more minimalist than before. The site’s blue border has been reduced to four restrained bars at the top of the page; the site’s title has disappeared, as have bylines on individual posts. All that’s left are a modest sidebar, sharing buttons at the bottom of each post, and large, airy, easy-to-read black text on a white background.

That text is what makes this new look interesting for design nerds: It’s in a font called Whitney ScreenSmart, designed by typeface royalty Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Whitney—named in honor of New York’s Whitney Museum, for which it was developed—is one of 33 fonts offered for sale on H&FJ’s website. Until now, however, the compact, efficient sans serif has never been seen as a web font; H&FJ’s web font service is still in private beta. (According to H&FJ’s FAQs, “We're working to ensure that each of our thousands of typefaces looks as good on screen as it does in print.”)

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Whitney, however, looks practically made for the Internet. On the Web, fonts with a high x-height (the distance between the baseline and the top of a lower-case letter) are generally easier to read and less susceptible to the vagaries of different browsers. Whitney has what H&FJ calls “maximal lowercase”—in other words, a very large x-height—which makes it look bigger than it actually is. H&FJ describes Whitney as “narrow enough to work in congested environments, yet energetic enough to encourage extended reading”—both relevant to online editors, who must contend with cramped, ad-jumbled spaces and easily distracted readers.

Kottke, who is a designer as a well as a blogger, got special dispensation to give the world a sneak peek of H&FJ’s web version of Whitney not so much because of his online clout as because of his design efficiency. As he explained to me in an email, he is an acquaintance of H&FJ co-founder Jonathan Hoefler and a big fan of the Whitney typeface. A little while back, he mentioned his excitement about their web fonts offering on his site. Hoefler then emailed him and offered early access, and Kottke “took the access to the font of my dreams as a sign” that it was time for a redesign. “I'm not sure Jonathan was really expecting me to take him up on his offer so quickly,” Kottke added. “That's the advantage of being a one-person outfit...things can move pretty quickly.”

According to Kottke, the only other site on the Internet to use H&FJ’s web font service is Barack Obama’s campaign site—which looks positively cluttered compared to the new kottke.org.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong.