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Why Did I Use PageMill (And Not Font Calls)?

Notes on Some of My Typographic Decisions


Why Did I Use PageMill
(And Not Font Calls)?

Basically I want to be on the trailing edge of technology. I have dipped my toes deep enough into these waters to have some idea of how the cutting edge might be. But the damn thing keeps moving.

PageMill is pretty slick, though still somewhat limited. It lets you churn out a lot of reasonable-quality stuff rather quickly, and I found its interface generally intuitive. As someone else said of their site, if I didn't have PageMill it wouldn't be here.

It doesn't support some not-very-modern commands; particularly, it has at present no facility for including font calls. I could go into the source files and insert them with a global search-and-replace (as I did for en-dashes; see below) but there isn't a universally available font I'm totally happy with anyway. I'd rather people read my stuff in Ariel or Trebuchet than in Times, but I'd prefer to use Stone Sans or Frutiger, and most people don't have either; hell, I don't have Frutiger myself yet. So I decided to write about font choice instead. I know it's old news to serious webheads but I figure it's a public service to a surprisingly large number of people who literally don't know what they are missing.

PageMill also seems to put in table height calls that actively confuse some browsers; perhaps they remain after editing has changed the actual height, I am not sure. At any rate, deleting them seems to fix the problem without adding new difficulties.

As I write, Netscape Navigator 4 is out in beta, and there is a program called CyberStudio that sounds as though it may do almost everything I want and is even available on a 30-day free trial period. I got as far as the download/registration screen, and paused, and left. I am almost done putting together the first version of this site in PageMill and I'm just not restarting yet.

Also, I suspect that a lot of people are still browsing with Navigator 2 (the Mac I bought in March came with it, regrettably) and I'd rather have readers than be cool. I am creating this on a Performa 6360 with 32 megs of RAM (and I need more!), but I also have a battered old PowerBook 160 with 6 megs and Navigator 2.02 and I figure if it runs on that it's pretty widely accessible. One page did require turning on virtual memory, but hey squeezing Navigator into less than 4 megs is no fair anyway. Version 1.1N is, ah, not recommended. Sort of works, but the navigation bars are a dead loss.

I am assuming that the standards will continue to evolve, and most of the obvious problems will be solved in the near future. A friend of mine in the biz is pessimistic, and fears that the only standards will come when the dreaded Billgates has crushed the rest of the world to dust under his chariot wheels. It is a heretical thought, but if that is the only way to make this puppy work right I'm almost ready to give in. Much as I appreciate the early work of the W3 Consortium, I am still resentful of their treatment of typography; and more recently I have trouble mustering too much anger in favor of a large company like Netscape against a huge one like Microsoft. (Some of this is because I find Netscape's own web site user-hostile, at least for neophytes, and their Help system almost as bad as Microsoft's voice mail system was last time I called, which admittedly was a long time ago.) If only they would do it right.

Apropos of that, I went with Apple years ago because they WERE doing it right. I loved my Plus and I loved my PowerBook 160 even more; the IIci was OK, and fortunately I was out of the market in the mid-90s. I bought a Performa 6360 partly out of inertia but I am pretty happy with it; and in mid-97 I have my fingers crossed that maybe they are on the right track again. I am actually salivating over the prospect of a PowerBook 2400c.

All these decisions are definitely subject to change.


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Notes on Some of My
Typographic Decisions

First, a Groveling Plea: Curly quotes! How come I can access the guillemets [«French quotes» – perhaps not everyone will see these properly but most should] but not proper Anglo quotation marks? The useful Mac ellipsis character! Please please pretty please bring them on!

Meanwhile, I'd rather use the up-and-down quotes than the unmatched ` ' pair; actually I'd rather use straight quotes than the ` character even if it were matched, it's just ugly. And on ellipses I tend to just do them unspaced ... to avoid the line-break problem, where the three get split up, which is awful. There is supposed to be a thin-space character which would be the natural to go between them, but I seem to be running into compatibility problems between PageMill, Navigator and Explorer. And anyway it is tedious to type.

The Heads and Decorations: The main heads are all GIF images, with transparent backgrounds, of Dom Casual, in various sizes from 48-pt to 20-pt. I picked it for its hand-drawn feel, which seems to me to contrast nicely with the medium. That's also why I went for the, shall we say, rough-hewn decorative elements, which I had a lot of fun creating.

I did want to provide some identifying element for each different section of the site, which is the function of the little pictures at the top left of each page, as well as consistency through the whole thing, which is why the background, the footer color and typeface, and the text column width are all standard. The footers are in a slightly-gray blue because it seems to me to recede; the heads in red because they jump forward.

The Background: What I am using is a lightened version of one of the screen backgrounds Apple supplies with the Mac, because I like the sense of texture it gives the page. Black on white is doubtless the most legible combination, but my feeling is that the slight lowering of contrast is actually helpful, given the sheer quantity of black involved in screen type. This is related to some of the leading (as in line-spacing, not as in prominent) issues I discuss above.

On the Use of En- and Em-Dashes: The em-dash is generally defined as a dash that is as wide in points as the size of type it is (roughly the width of the capital M); most fonts provide this. The en-dash is half that size, and mostly used to indicate ranges, as in 1–4, and in other circumstances where it is useful to distinguish levels of hyphens or include more than one word: 'Post–World War' means 'after World War' where 'Post-World War' means 'War after the World'.

The fact that the em-dash is not always available is tragic – that's how people have written for centuries. The fact that some otherwise decent fonts (bow your head, Trebuchet) have en-dashes that look like hyphens is just inexcusable. But what I want to note is my personal preference, which is for the 3/4-em–dash.

I have a problem with most em-dashes. I think it's because of something that crept in with digital type. The trouble is that the typical digital em-dash completely fills the space alloted to it, so it bumps into the letters beside it. Careful typesetters therefore add a tad of space on each side to avoid this, which inevitably makes the effective width of the dash even greater. There is also, then, a line-break problem, since most programs will only break at a word space, and so you have to start hand-fixing the break if the dash naturally wants to fall at the start or end of a line. This is how you begin falling into an abyss of complications unless you have really sophisticated software.

Personally, I like seeing the dash centered in an em space, with a noticeable gap on either end, so the effective visible dash is about three-quarters of an em. In DTP, I fake this out routinely in most fonts by using two en-dashes kerned together 50% with a word space on either side (I add the kern pair in QuarkXPress, type 'space, en-dash, en-dash, space' and forget about it); the whole thing comes to about 40% more than an em-space, which is a bit big but I think it looks OK, and it's easy.

Ah, but in HTML I can't do this. So which way to go? What I chose to do was to use one en-dash with a word space around it, because I still think the em-dash looks too big, and in most of the fonts I've got the result is acceptable to me.

In the worst case, of course, a browser will not recognize the dash, and insert nothing at all, or something worse, which destroys everything. PageMill responds to the Macintosh call for an en-dash (option-hyphen) by inserting the HTML code "shy" (preceded by "&" and followed by ";"). This produces an en-dash in Explorer 3 and Navigator 3, but Navigator 2 types the code instead. Inserting the code #150 produces the right result in Explorer 3 and Navigator 2 and 3, but a boxed question mark in PageMill itself. Oh well, that's what I did. (TIP: I used 'Find File' within Microsoft Word to search for the code within files whose names included "html" in the right folder, and opened and saved them as text; the global search-and-replace's were routinely tedious but quick.) Heigh-ho, bring on the next version but one.

The next worst result is the look of a single hyphen (Trebuchet, Geneva) but that's no worse than just using a single hyphen, and I'd rather do that than use two -- typewriter-style.

You could, certainly, make a special GIF the right size, if you knew what size and color the font was, and how big its x-height ... oh, forget it.

Sentence Spacing: Incidentally, I think it's perfectly fine to double-space at the end of sentences, especially if you use subsidiary clauses and such good, old-fashioned punctuation marks as the colon and semi-colon; which make a sentence a longer thought, and insert variable pauses in it. (In this I disagree with the estimable David Siegel, but I recommend his site anyway.) Regular spacing, as it used to be known (the practice of using a word space only between sentences was known as 'French spacing') usually involved about a space-and-a-half between sentences: The 1937 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style calls for 3-point basic word space in 10-pt type, and 5-point space after sentences, adjusting each proportionally for justification. It is old-fashioned now, but I happen to like it, and the advent of computers ought to have made it simple to implement. Instead, they've gone and made it hard to do. Oh well.

The previous paragraph has a one-pixel-by-one-pixel invisible GIF stuck in between the periods and colons and their following spaces, by the way, just for fun. In the three browsers I have available, I get three different effects (I like Netscape's best). Which is a minor reason I haven't done it throughout; the main one is, it's a pain.

The text files I wrote have double-spaces; you are almost certainly seeing singles, and I fear that I have not been consistent, especially when editing in PageMill. I hope that no problems arise from my failure to remove the doubles

Why Did I Use PageMill (And Not Font Calls)?

Notes on Some of My Typographic Decisions