“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

The Downside

Posted on December 28, 2020 at 17:42

Engineering is about tradeoffs. The upside of the recent changes is that the site is now more readable in general, but there’s always a downside in any tradeoff. The main burr under my saddle with the new design is that in general, sans-serif typefaces tend to shy away from little typographical details. As a typography nerd of long standing, this particular example irks me:

This paragraph is set using $serif. When I say “Hello, world!” I expect you to see curved quotation marks: visibly different glyphs are used for the opening and closing characters. These are commonly likened to “66” and “99” respectively.

On the other hand, using $sans, when I say “Hello, world!” you may well not see any difference between the opening and closing glyphs, particularly at normal text sizes. In Apple’s San Francisco font (the default user interface font on current versions of their operating systems), the two glyphs are different: although they appear to be paired bars sloping in the same direction, in the “66” glyph the tops of the bars are slightly thinner than the bottoms, with the reverse being the case for the “99”. The difference is, I would say, pointlessly small at normal text sizes.

It’s a little more obvious at font-size: xx-large; but still something only a typography nerd would ever care about:

“Hello, world!”

For the benefit of those using a system presenting a different font, here is an image of just the two glyphs, at xx-large size and then magnified by a factor of two just to be sure:

curved quotation marks in San Francisco

There’s always a downside. The trick, I suppose, is reducing it to the point where you can accept it. This is acceptable, but still sometimes irritating.

I did find the issue irritating enough in <blockquote>s like this that you will see that the large glyphs surrounding the block are in fact set in a serif typeface, although the body is sans-serif.