Ampersand Conferenceby Carol Green on 22/06/2012
Ampersand, the web typography conference, Brighton, UK, June 15th 2012
When I discovered I would be in the UK at the same time the second Ampersand Conference was happening, I booked straight away. Subtitled “the web typography conference”, I thought the subject was probably too niche to warrant a full conference in little old NZ, but I was keen to meet some other web/type nerds and to see how an international design conference compares to ones I have been to at home.
The first thing I need to do was get over the disappointment of Erik Spiekermann pulling out at the eleventh hour. He was replaced very ably and at very short notice by Phil Baines, freelance designer, type designer and professor of typography at Central St Martins (London), and co-author of Type And Typography. With his specialist subject being lettering in public spaces, I was sad to miss his type walk the following day.
Yves Peters’ Detail in Web Typography paid particular attention to proper small caps (rather than shrunk-down capitals), proper quotes (“ ”) vs ‘dumb’ quotes (‘). “Don’t rely too much on the machine”, he said, which is a reasonable request, given that your job as a designer is attention to detail. He also talked about the different styles on numerals – tabular and lining (which I’m afraid to say, I was ignorant of until this point), and correct use of dashes and spaces, all of which have their own HTML entities (en dash – – em dash – — thin space –   hair space – plus more archaic/specialised examples).
This is probably a good time to mention Typecast, a project currently in beta which allows you (as a designer) to test different fonts from the various web font houses, share samples with colleagues and clients before you commit to licensing any fonts. The guys from Typecast had a stand at Ampersand and I was mightily impressed with it. I imagine it will save me a whole lot of time and headaches. Sign up for a beta invite here.
Veronika Burian and José Scaglione did a double-act on Typographic Matchmaking. They showed a whole lot of examples of good and bad typography in print and on the web (subjective, I know, but they had good reasons for their choices).
Over lunch I watched the fascinating documentary Linotype: The Film – an homage to the wonderful, complicated and largely obsolete Linotype machine and the (mostly) men who continue to save, restore and operate these things. The Linotype revolutionised the newspaper industry until it was completely usurped by the computer in the mid-80s. The film will be released in October on DVD and various digital platforms. Meanwhile, watch the trailer here, and keep an eye out for screenings near you.
After lunch, as well as a Q&A with the director of Linotype: The Film, Doug Wilson, there were two rapid-fire sessions, the first by Jason Smith of Fontsmith. They are known for creating custom typefaces for broadcast (Channel 4, BBC One, ITV 1, Sky News HD, Film 4). The Channel 4 typeface has been so successful that it has overtaken the logo in terms of brand value.
Laurence Penney talked about CSS Font Stack Hackery – not as old fashioned as it sounds, he was quite detailed about how you can specify font stack fallback at a character level, making subsets of fonts, either for faster loading of limited characters or for using specific characters from particular fonts (oldstyle numerals, custom arrows or symbols, for example). This is technically quite detailed, and I will need to research it further.
Lucas de Groot was next, talking about font hinting. His talk was technical and specific to the point of going over my head (and many of the other attendees, judging by the tweets). It introduced me to a whole discipline I didn’t know existed, and one which I would have far too little patience to do. In fact, one tweet said “Somehow the wish to someday create my own typeface just evaporated…”, sentiments I share. Considering he can hint six characters in a hour (pretty rapid, by all accounts), and there can be 4000 characters in a font, making 666 (!) hours worth of shoving pixels, it really made me understand why good fonts cost money. Despite the talk being very technical and not really in my area of interest, his delivery was spot on – witty, clever and compelling. Though I still share Jason Smith’s feeling about hinting: “I don’t do hinting. I’d rather learn to knit”.
The two most specifically webby talks were saved to the end – the hilarious and nerdy Jake Archibald, who paced in his socks while giving us a potted history of type on the web through to delivery of the @font-face declaration and how proper ordering of this can improve delivery of the font file(s). His slides can be seen here.
Elliot Jay Stocks closed the conference by, appropriately, talking about the future of web type, anticipating modern browsers supporting the minutiae of typographic detail like ligatures and swashes – developments which will please me and fellow web/type nerds.
The other expo stand which deserves a mention is Gridset, a web-based delivery of responsive web grid stylesheets. It allows you to input numbers of columns, symmetrical or asymmetrical values and custom break points. This is also in invite-only beta. Sign up here.
All in all, it was a well organised, snappily-run event with a good mixture of speakers in the right order (though it would have been good to see another female face). If you ever find yourself within spitting distance of future Ampersand conferences, I would highly recommend getting yourself a ticket. Early. It sells out.