Prototyping Responsive Typography

As a designer, I want everyone who sees my work to see it exactly as I intended it to display. If the font changes size or family, the colors don’t display right, the images are squished, my intention as a designer has not been conveyed well to the viewer. In other words, you are not seeing my design. How do we make sure that the type we create for websites looks like we intend it to?

The history of typography dates back about 5,000 years. It starts from a series of pictograms, which then evolved to hieroglyphs in Egypt and later around 1,200 BC to Phoenician alphabets. Almost 2,500 years later the Chinese invented first movable type which later revolutionized everything in the west when Gutenberg invented latin movable type. Many of the basic concepts of typesetting are still the same as 500 years ago.

Web typography, and digital typography in general, is a huge step forward in this history. It has made setting type fast and easy compared with hand-setting metal type. Responsiveness, when added on top of this, makes this period of change we are living very fascinating. Not only is centuries old design theory being rewritten, but the process of how design happens is now changing too (as Mark Boulton states it).

When talking about “responsive typography,” I don’t just mean flexible body text, but also that all our decisions should be based on universality. Universality, as a design principle, should guide us when choosing web fonts and when testing how our type works on various devices and platforms. It should be the core principle behind all the work we do.


About a year ago I wrote Responsive Workflow article describing my responsive design process. It was an article that gathered a lot of buzz, but I think it just scratched the surface a bit and never really tried to fully describe what’s happening behind the curtains. In this article I’m going to open the curtain and explain a new phase which I would today add to my year old workflow drawing. The new design phase is somewhere between prototyping and visual design phases, and I think it might just be the most important phase in the whole design process. I call it the “Typography Prototyping Phase.”

As I earlier in that article wrote, typography for the Web is really hard to design anywhere else than inside the browser. This is today even more true than it was a year ago. Typography prototype tries to solve this by doing the hard choices before jumping to other design tools like Photoshop.

Basically, a typography prototype is a single web page that consists of the project’s actual content. It’s designed in the browser using real web fonts and tools like Typecast. A typography prototype includes font choices, styles for the basic text content and a typographic scale, but nothing else.

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

— Jeffrey Zeldman


All our decisions should start from the content out, not canvas in. This means we shouldn’t start doing any design work before having the project’s actual content on hand (or something that is very near the actual content). That’s because the content and the language used has a big impact on how our typography will work. This is especially true with display type and headers, but also with paragraphs and line-lengths. Having the real content also helps to judge if the font choices fit the mood correctly.

Below is an example of what the typography prototype looks like before any styles have been applied. This basic HTML page is already responsive on its own — by default, like Andy Hume states it, so you can immediately start testing how it works on various devices:


Choosing type combinations, which are legible and readable across multiple devices and operating systems isn’t easy. Windows XP, which still has relatively high usage percent globally (24.29% at the moment of writing), is notorious for its poor font rendering. By default it doesn’t have ClearType antialiasing on at all, except in IE8. Fonts which haven’t been properly hinted for use on screen, tend to look like this when viewed there:

When choosing typefaces for the Web you should look out for the following qualities: Style and form, How easy it is to read, typeface’s intended usage — is it meant for longform reading or is it a display type, it’s character set, file size, OpenType font features, how it renders on different screens and if it is hinted for screen or not. Some good tools which can help with the process are Web Font SpecimenTypecast app and Typekit’s font browser.

It’s important that we choose the typefaces before making any other decisions about the layout. This way we can later on determine what the optimal font sizes are for the project, based on how the selected typefaces render at different sizes. Below is an example of what the typography prototype looks like on various platforms after the typefaces have been picked and we start testing how they actually render:

online typography rendering

How does your online typography display?