Eighteen years into this game, I love to reminisce back to the good ol’ days of the early to mid-2000s when there was an explosion of creativity on the web. It felt fresh and unbridled, with boundaries expected to be pushed at every turn, and they were. This was mainly down to one thing, the thing of nightmares to some, Flash! It, of course, had some big inherent flaws, but love it or hate it, certainly helped pave the way for what we expected from the open web. Sure, it was probably a more drawn-out process than we’d hoped for, but with some savage new advancements made over the last few years, I now feel that things are really starting to get proper juicy.
Several things come to mind that get me excited these days in designing and developing for the web, some widely adopted now like SVG (even though technically old) and WebGL animation, which draw some obvious parallels to the Flash era. Certainly, CSS Grid stood up and made itself known, shouting from the parapets about how the shackles of layout are now a thing of the past. Kudos to awesome people like Rachel Andrew and Jen Simmons for their serious efforts in educating us mere mortals in this area, helping make the learning curve and adoption that bit more palatable and accessible.
Looking around today you can see how advancements like Grid have helped elevate the rise of more asymmetric layouts, with design styles like Brutalism design going through a bit of a trend over the last year or so. But over time it felt as though typography might have taken the back seat a tad with all the other successes happening in pushing the web forward. Now enter variable fonts 🥳
Variable fonts have certainly piqued my interest this past year or so. Not only do they give us the obvious boost in performance with fewer https requests and smaller sizes compared to the bundles of web fonts we all inject into our pages, but we also gain more control over typography in terms of readability and accessibility. Say goodbye to cheekily adding muddy sacrificial faux bold or italic styles to our CSS!
Taking this further, I feel that variable fonts have really unlocked the door to new creative possibilities that we’re only just scratching the surface of. Having the ability to interpolate between different values of the axes just screams out for animation. We have the standardized set of 5 registered axes like font-weight, font-stretch, font-style, etc. which are straight forward enough to appreciate, but when it comes to custom axes via font-variation-settings, things start getting crazy and fun. Type designers can use the interpolation in custom axes to create some really off the wall things beyond, well… text. Just check out Typearture’s fab variable font experiments to see what I mean.
A few months back I was privileged to be invited to experiment with and test Greensock’s newly released GSAP 3, which I’m also most definitely excited about. It boasts a new simplified API and 50+ new features, yet is only about half the file size as the previous version. This is currently my catnip though: layering GSAP on top of variable fonts in CodePen to create some lovely kinetic typography in the DOM. This kind of magic, until now I guess, has been more attributed to WebGL, Processing and After Effects. Now, throw some GSAP plugins on top again, and you can definitely create some very cool and unique stuff. I would suggest, however, that you use this new creative power of animating variable fonts in whichever way you do it sparingly, as reflow could become an issue with jank.
I’m excited to see what people will create using variable fonts over the next year as it becomes more widely adopted. Not just limited to typographic treatments in layouts, but also in terms of animation and micro-interactions. It looks like a big undertaking for designers in creating such fonts, but credit to them. I’m sure we’ll be all the more appreciative. Thanks in advance type designers!