27th November 2015

Ampersand 2015 - A digital type enthusiast’s write up

Rachael Sutherland
ampersand conference

As a type enthusiast, I was very fortunate to attend this year's Ampersand conference to take in some great talks from some of the best in the business (a trip to Brighton was also too good to miss).

I had so many friends telling me they had heard about the conference and thought I would like it, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Here are my top 5 talks of the day:

Down with Web Typography - Indra Kupferschmid

Although the title of the talk sounds like a negative, Indra was infact excited and positive about the movement in web fonts over the last few years

She outlined some of the best practices which equate to successful web typography:

  • As designers we should identify a font that suits the client's product, which includes the right mix of style and readability.
  • Unlike print paragraphs, web copy should have some space and avoid using indentations. This gives the readers eyes a break.
  • The text should not be too large with short line lengths, the trick is to find a balance.
  • Multi-column is not easy to read on screen and is harder to show in a hierarchy.
  • Fonts will look light on higher resolution screens. A font which works on desktop might be too light on a retina mobile for example.
  • Justifying text never works on screen (but did it ever work in print? No one likes a river).
  • Hierarchy is important. Make use of CSS to create the best hierarchy.

Indra cited the New York Times as the best example of this and I have to agree. I don’t love the fonts they use but they know how to use them to create the best reading experience.

To Hell for Type - Marcin Wichary

Marcin is a designer and coder from Medium. Most of his tech talk was over my head but he did tell some very interesting stories about the development of technology with typography.

He is a perfectionist who wants people to see typography the best way possible. He described the frustration all designers have with devices and browsers rendering fonts differently, even going as far as fixing a problem for Chrome.

The Medium site allows people to see typography in the natural font the device or browser uses (see code below). He added ‘Oxygen’ to the list for a specific device, however this is a font on some old PC’s and so some people thought Medium were going for a retro look. You can see the font below. I love how Marcin was blissfully unaware.


Image source: fonts.com

Modern layouts: Getting out of our ruts - Jen Simmon

Jen changed the way I think and the way I want to approach the next creative website I work on. She explained that HTML and CSS used to be so limited, and so as a result the web had adopted a certain look.

Then Flash exploded and there were some crazy developments in design. Apple put a stop to that. Then responsive design came along and we have became limited again. Designs now all seem to be in bands with 3 columns or main content with a side bar.

Jen was challenging us to use the new developments in CSS and create exciting designs again. Let print influence the way we design. And if the design doesn’t look exactly the same in IE8 then that is fine. The fall backs still allow it to look pretty good. I think that it’s a good sign if IE8 looks different to modern day browsers, it means you have pushed yourself (although lets hope IE8 falls off the edge of the planet soon).

I personally think this is a great approach and I like to think I have started to do this, for example my design for one of our clients, Kent-based homeless charity Porchlight. We do always have to keep in mind what happens when the titles are longer or the image changes, but I think there is still a lot we can do to have some fun again.

Another thing I got excited about was the idea to use a dynamic grid, instead of using the same 12 column grid. Why not try a grid based on the golden rule? Think I might have to try this!

Designing Typefaces for screens - Bruno Maag

Bruno Maag

I could not have been more excited about a talk by Bruno Maag, a type legend. It’s funny, in the design world you might know someone’s whole portfolio and not know what they look like, so it was a good opportunity to see him talking about his ideas in the flesh.  

Bruno explains the development of Bookerly which was a font for Kindle. The great thing about designing for Kindle is that you are designing a font for a specific device (Kindle uses e-ink). Bruno’s team needed to think about the right characteristics for the font so it would be easy to read on Kindle but still be aesthetically pleasing.

Kindle’s only refresh the page after 5 page turns creating a ghostly effect of the letters. You can still see the edges of previous words from previous pages until the refresh. This means the font needs to be heavier, punchier and needs tighter proportions to survive.

Once a font is created in Fontlab it is in only tested and reviewed on a Kindle (makes sense right?) 10 concepts were created, which became 3 and after extensive testing Bookerly was complete.

Amazon then developed a new Kindle, Kindle Fire, with an LCD screen. The font created for the original Kindle would not look right on an LCD screen and would need to be developed further. The font for a more detailed screen needed to be lighter and allowed for 4 weights to be created. For example the tail from the Q didn’t need to be so long anymore and was shortened.

Fonts aren’t normally designed like this but I thought it was an interesting case study.

Chinese Design for Westerners - Lu yu

China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Lu highlighted it won’t be long before we are tasked with translating a site into Chinese, and the resulting obstacles we will face. There are 10 dialects in China, Mandarin being the most common.

However the task is going to be more challenging than merely translating, there are other things to think about:

  • There are cultural differences that Westerners might not be aware of. For example red which we might mean danger to us, means luck and fortune in China.
  • There is now a simplified version of the language which has over 20,000 characters. This means a font might be 3-10 MB. System fonts are the most common fonts used in Chinese design.
  • The characters are intricate and so can not go below 12pt. 12pt is probably still too small and so you will need to rethink your design.
  • Lots of links are common practice on Chinese websites as it is easier to click a link than the user to type it themselves. Implementing all of these characters can take some time.

These are just a few interesting things to think about. I actually look forward to the challenge.


We also heard great talks from:

  • Matthew Young on designing Pelican Books
  • Sarah Hyndman on Think Outside the Font
  • Nick Sherman on The Future of Responsive Typography
  • Marko Dugonjić The next steps for web typography

I look forward to next year's conference!