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Ten Years Ago in ALA: Dynamic Text Replacement

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Ten years ago this month, A List Apart published Stewart Rosenberger’s “Dynamic Text Replacement.” Stewart lamented text styling as a “dull headache of web design” with “only a handful of fonts that are universally available, and sophisticated graphical effects are next to impossible using only standard CSS and HTML.” To help ease these pains, Stewart presented a technique for styling typography by dynamically replacing text with an image.

I began working on the web five years after Stewart’s article was published, right around the time when web fonts were gaining popularity. It was an exciting time, with a slew of new typefaces, foundries, and new techniques for styling text with CSS3 cropping up frequently. It seemed—for a moment—that we could finally “control” typography in a way that we never could before.

I was recently looking at the state of default system fonts and realized that we’re never going to have as much control over typography as we want. But that’s ok.

Instead, I’ve been seeing more nuanced discussions about typography, focused on striking a balance between having beautiful typography without taking a huge performance hit. I appreciate that as an industry we’re dedicated to creating the best experiences possible, regardless of device or connection speed.

It’s easy to get carried away with web fonts, and slow our sites down significantly as a result. While we may no longer need to use dynamic image replacement, the deliberate approach Stewart advocated is worth revisiting:

“Sticking with the traditional typefaces is smart for body text, but when it comes to our headings—short, attention-grabbing blocks of text—it would be nice to have some choice in the matter.”

In another five years, we’ll have completely different techniques and a host of other considerations. If we are thoughtful and deliberate with our (type) decisions, we’ll be able to evolve much more easily.

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