Andy Hume – Web Developer with a Taste for Typography

Andy Hume is a British web developer with a taste for typography and has been around the web since its early days. Today he talks with us about his work, his projects, how coding and a cup of tea can make a great afternoon and much more.

For the people who don’t know you, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and the things you do?

I’m a Web Developer living in Brighton in the UK where I work for a small Web consultancy called Clearleft. I work with clients and the designers here on the development side of projects, which includes consulting on things like accessibility and performance, building prototypes, and sometimes writing front-end code (HTML, CSS, JavaScript) for production. Before that I ran an engineering team at Microsoft working on Bing, so I’ve had a taste of the big corporate stuff as well as the little agency stuff.

When and how did you find out that web development is just the thing for you?

I’d been playing around with the web since its very early days, building websites for fun mainly. Initially I was fascinated by what the web enabled in terms of people communicating. It sounds silly today, but it really was extraordinary to me that I could publish a web page from my home and that anybody in the world could read it just seconds later. However, it was in 2002 when it really clicked into place for me. I read a book called Eric Meyer on CSS, and started to understand a bit more about the craft of building websites. Rather than just hacking any old code together I became engrossed in building websites the ‘right way’. Eric’s book turned me towards the newly emerging world of Web Standards, and it changed my career, life, and everything really.

What’s the most fun part of your job and why?

clearleft
Lots of things. The most fun would probably be the people I get to work with at Clearleft – both colleagues and clients. I love brainstorming, design workshops with clients, figuring out problems together, or debating the latest CSS technique over lunch. But the coder in me loves making a cup of tea, putting my headphones on for an afternoon and getting to grips with a big coding challenge. I’m fascinated by the way big and complex technical systems are put together; how small simple components put together in the right way make something amazing. Not everybody’s idea of fun perhaps, but it works for me.

Which is the most interesting project that you’ve ever done?

I would say it was building the multimap.com website back in 2006. I joined the company just as Google had released their ‘draggable maps’ implementation to the world. Again, it seems funny to think that there was a time when you couldn’t just drag a map around the screen, but Google really changed the game when they released that product. We had to catch up, and fast. We spent many months developing the technology to power the site, and looking back we really were making it up as we went along (well, I was!). It was exhilarating, stressful, fun, and ultimately once we’d released it, very satisfying. Even though most of it doesn’t exist today, I’m hugely proud of it and the work we did on it.

Apart from being a web developer, you also devote yourself to screen fonts and web typography. What fascinates you in that?

Well, I’m not much of a graphic designer – so one thing that I always thought I could get a head start with was typography. The text on a page is the primary touch point for any user’s experience, but the web has had some serious growing pains in its early years when it comes to typography. There is hundreds of years of typographical history in the print medium, along with rules, conventions and methodologies that have built up over that time. But the web has struggled to adopt these because of the technical ‘constraints’ of working on screen and the medium itself. It’s been fascinating over the last few years seeing people begin to figure out how web technologies can evolve to help this problem. This is helped by new parts of CSS 3 such as support for ligatures, numerical variants and alternates; and perhaps most importantly the cross-browser adoption of @font-face.

What should our trainees keep in mind when choosing or designing fonts for their website design?

“Choose a typeface or a group of faces that will honor and elucidate the character of the text.”
I didn’t write that – Robert Bringhurst wrote it in his book, The Elements of Typographic Style. It was originally published in 1992 but is as relevant today as ever. As you might imagine it’s beautifully typeset, and Bringhurst is also a poet making it a wonderful book to read whether you’re interested in typography or not!
Beyond that there are a few technical things to keep in mind when working on the web. Some fonts are designed (or ‘hinted’) for the screen, and tend to have clearer, better defined shapes. These are a good choice for smaller body text. Also, learn how to apply some of the fundamental typographic rules from Bringhurst’s book using CSS. A brilliant resource for doing exactly this is http://webtypography.net. By following a few simple rules with your type choices and type setting you can make the world of difference to the overall look and feel of the design of your site.

You and your colleagues built the award-winning font-embedding platform Fontdeck. Could you describe shortly what the purpose of that website is and what it does?

fontdeck webfonts
Fontdeck allows designers to move beyond the small number of standard web fonts (like Verdana, Arial and Trebuchet) that are installed on people’s computers by default. Fontdeck hosts hundreds of fonts for designers to use on their sites, and works directly with the type foundries to deal with the complex licensing and security issues of hosting fonts on the web. Behind the scenes it is using CSS @font-face technology which allows you to link to fonts and download them to the user’s browser temporarily, just as you would an image in a web page. Services like these, of which Fontdeck is a pioneer, have catapulted typography to the forefront of web designers minds over the last year.

What was your vision when making Fontdeck?

The vision is very much around helping move web typography, and even web design in general, forward. We want to bring web typography up to speed with its print big brother, and get designers to understand and embrace the importance of typography in design as a whole.

Please share some tips with our trainees on how they can make their website as successful as Fontdeck.

Having the right vision is important. If you know what you want to achieve then it is easier to stay focussed.
Great design isn’t magic. It takes time to develop ideas and hone them to something beautiful. Invest the time your design deserves and pay attention to detail.

Last question: Which is your absolutely favourite website?

Wow, hard question. I’m going to be a bit British about it and choose the BBC website. They have an extraordinary amount of content to deal with, and do a brilliant job not just with news and sport, but with streaming services like iPlayer. I’m also a fan of their ‘Global Experience Language’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/gel/) which is a set of global design guidelines for all their online products. It hasn’t been rolled out across the whole site yet, but they are doing a very good job getting there. They take typography very seriously as well, which is no easy task when you’re working across different mediums, ranging from print and TV to interactive services and the web!

Thank you very much for taking time to do this interview with us, Andy!

If you want to know more about Andy, check out his website andyhume.net.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it. If you liked it, please don’t forget to share and comment :)

  • rob

    Great post Carl – I knew he’d say BBC!!! So much going on but so clear and transparent. Didn’t understand totally everything! But very interesting. One thing – no gaps between paragraphs – was that your choice?