# How to Improve Your Static Site’s Typography

You’ve read that web design is 95% typography. You have a static website. You’ve wanted to improve its typography but have never had the time or patience. You’ve might’ve even heard of Butterick’s Practical Typography. If this sounds like you, you’re in luck!

A foreword: you can achieve almost everything I describe here by adding CSS in a <style> tag at the end of your webpages’ <head>s, but the code snippets I include here aren’t meant to be copypasta solutions, but illustrative examples.

## Easy Wins

Body text — the text that forms the main content of your website — is the most important part of your website. These three things largely determine how your body text looks, and nailing them can immediately improve your website’s typography.

### Choose a font

Many static sites default to system fonts1: that is, fonts that are likely already installed on readers’ devices. This putatively boosts performance (because readers need not download font files), and can give a more comfortable look, since it can blend in with the fonts of the reader’s operating system.

However, many system fonts aren’t good, and many others have become hackneyed precisely because they are default fonts. It’s also straightforward to use custom webfonts or font hosting services like Google Fonts.

Obviously you should do what you think is best for your website, but I’d point out that changing your body font is an easy and effective way to upgrade your typography and distinguish your writing from the sea of sans-serif on the Internet. Live a little!

/* Use your own static font file(s).
You should have a font face for regular, bold and italics. */
@font-face{
font-family: "Fira Sans";
src: url("/assets/fonts/FiraSansRegular.woff2") format("woff2");
font-style: normal;
font-weight: 400;
}

/* Fall back on system fonts. */
body { font-family: "Fira Sans", Verdana, sans-serif; }

/* Alternatively, use a font hosting service like Google Fonts.
Again, have a font face for regular, bold and italics. */

/* Fall back on system fonts. */
body { font-family: "Fira Sans", Verdana, sans-serif; }


### Adjust the line width and point size

The ultimate goal is to control the average number of characters per line: too many, and lines run on interminably; too few, and you force readers’ eyes to dart uncomfortably back and forth. Aim to fit between two and three full English alphabets per line.

The twist is that this has to be done regardless of the screen size — most obviously, it has to work on both desktop and mobile screens. This leads to concept of fluid type, which just means that the font size changes in reponse to the screen width.

Try adjusting your window size (or rotating your phone) to see how the line width and point size adjust to always fit between two and three alphabets in the following paragraph:

abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

CSS Tricks has an excellent tutorial for fluid type with CSS, which boils down to clever use of min, max and vw: the font sizes goes between 16px on a 320px screen to 22px on a 1000px screen.

body { max-width: 720px; }
html { font-size: min(max(16px, 4vw), 22px); }


The goal is to control how closely consecutive lines sit next to each other: too tightly and you get intimidating walls of text; too loosely and your text becomes a vaporous jumble of lines. Aim to space lines between 120% to 145% of the point size. (The text in this paragraph has a spacing of 145%. Just right!)

The goal is to control how closely consecutive lines sit next to each other: too tightly and you get intimidating walls of text; too loosely and your text becomes a vaporous jumble of lines. Aim to space lines between 120% to 145% of the point size. (The text in this paragraph has a spacing of 110%. Too dense.)

The goal is to control how closely consecutive lines sit next to each other: too tightly and you get intimidating walls of text; too loosely and your text becomes a vaporous jumble of lines. Aim to space lines between 120% to 145% of the point size. (The text in this paragraph has a spacing of 160%. Too sparse.)

body { line-height: 1.45; }


## Low-Hanging Fruit

The goal is to enclose related pieces of text (i.e. sections and paragraphs) with whitespace.2 Done right, readers are presented with a structured and scannable hierarchy of sections and paragraphs, instead of a soup of equally-spaced lines.

Aim for paragraph spacing that is just large enough to be easily noticed: a space equal to 50–100% of the body text size usually suffices. Header spacing is more of a judgement call. However, to quote Matthew Butterick:

Semantically, headings relate to the text that follows, not the text before. Thus you’ll probably want the space below to be smaller than the space above so the heading is visually closer to the text it introduces.

p { margin-top: 20px;  margin-bottom: 20px; }
h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6 { margin-top: 8%; margin-bottom: -1%; }


### Choose a monospaced font and display font

Body text is the most important part of a website, so spend time making it look good (you’ll notice that all three Easy Wins were for the body text). Once you’ve done that though, consider more fonts.

Monospaced fonts (for code) lets readers easily distinguish between prose and code, and display fonts (for titles and headers) can have much more color and character. Using a monospaced font can make technical, code-heavy text more readable, and using a display font can lend your website personality.

h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6 { font-family: Verdana, sans-serif; }
code { font-family: Consolas, monospace; }


### Set a background color

(This will involve some aesthetic redesign for your website, which is why it isn’t higher on the list.)

High contrast between text and background is good for legibility, but the contrast between pure white (#ffffff) and pure black (#000000) can look harsh and unsettling. Web pages are better served by off-white and off-black backgrounds, which are easier on the eyes while still retaining high contrast. Tufte CSS suggests #fffff8 and #111111.

/* If the reader prefers dark mode, use off-black instead of off-white. */
body { background-color: #fffff8; }
@media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) { body { background-color: #111111; } }


## Braver Undertakings

### Format code blocks

If you’re unlucky enough to know something about programming and noisy enough to want to blog about it (both of which are unfortunately quite likely, if you’re reading this), then you probably want your code blocks to look good.

CSS Tricks has a fantastic tutorial on how to style <pre><code> blocks, which walks through code wrapping, code block auto-expansion, syntax highlighting and space control.

Frustratingly, there was one bug that drove me up the wall, in which some lines of code had their font size increased for seemingly no reason:

WebKit has the annoying behavior (for a properly designed responsive site) of trying to enlarge the font size for the “primary” text on the screen, where primary is simply its best guess.

pre code {
/* Don't wrap long lines, force horizontal scrolling. */
white-space: pre;
overflow-x: auto;

/* https://stackoverflow.com/a/22417120/13372802 */
}


### Support sidenotes

Sidenotes are when footnotes are placed in the margins beside the text they reference, instead of at the end of the page. They allow readers to instantly read annotations instead of having to constantly click or scroll to and fro. Sidenotes greatly improve footnotes for the web, but are fairly difficult to implement despite recent efforts.

Gwern has compiled an exhaustive bibliography of sidenote implementations, which I recommend skimming over before turning to Tufte CSS for a simpler implementation.

1. Yeah I know, I’m interchanging font and typeface, but at least I have a life. ↩︎

2. Graphic designers may call this active whitespace: whitespace deliberately added for the sake of emphasis or structure. ↩︎

#typography