I read this article from Print a couple of weeks ago, about the truly fascinating design history of the paragraph, and wanted to share it along with my thoughts.
Designer and writer Jason Pamental’s quest is to find ways of creating better web experiences, and to do that, he looks to the past, specifically to the history of the paragraph. His idea is that good web typography design should, like current trends in web design which are designed for flexibility, “focus on the smallest element and build from there. […] If we start by designing one great paragraph, down to every fine detail and nuance, as our content builds out, so will our typographic system, giving us a flexible, robust and considered foundation for the entirety of our content and the site beyond. This is true for any sort of site, but even more so in the age of responsive web design when our content needs to work well across nearly limitless numbers of screen sizes, resolutions and technologies.”
The paragraph, according to his research, began as a visual mark separating speakers or passages in ancient Greek texts, and continued that way until the printing press revolutionized (and sped up) book production, around which time its meaning shifted to the way we use it today to mean a discrete thought.
But it’s the visual methods of separation, or the typographic techniques, that still draw attention and that can, according to Pamental, be leveraged for better content design. Some ideas he comes up with include adding styling to the first line or first letter of a paragraph using simple CSS; enabling hyphenation for body copy, rather than scaling down for smaller screens; and using some PHP to control annoying type orphans as screens scale between devices.
So, designers with a traditional typography background can still bring their smarts to bear on web typography by starting with the paragraph, designing for it, and building out from there to create a fully responsive and dynamic design that always looks good.
The point he’s really driving home is that better content design on the web is going to happen in the small spaces. And I like his call to focus our attention on and be thoughtful about the small details of the paragraph and how it fits in with its surroundings, whether that’s a web page or a printed page.