Sun, sea, sand and san serifs

Ampersand conference

A review of Ampersand – The Web Typography Conference (June 28th, Brighton)

The first thing to say, it was hot! The summer heatwave was in full effect as two of us from our studio team (me and Jadene) visited Brighton for the Annual Ampersand Conference, organised by Clearleft. The event was held in the delightful Duke Of York Picturehouse. What it lacked in air conditioning it more than made up for in charm – built in 1910, it claims to be the Britain’s oldest cinema.

Arriving for registration, I noticed the predicted smattering of flat caps among the throng. Many attendees had travelled from overseas, and we shared pastries with Suzan, a young UX designer from Nuremberg who had self-funded the trip (her corporate bosses no doubt feeling that web typography was rather too esoteric a reason to dip into the training budget).

I should say that I didn’t take notes, only photos, so there may be some gaps!

First up was Michael Johnson who rattled through a career in branding with a passion that was infectious. They say you shouldn’t laugh at your own jokes, but Michael did so throughout. This was in keeping with a refreshing non-conformism, gently mocking the branding of tech giants as disappointingly similar – even inventing an hilarious aggregated Mega Corp brand called Spairboon, a logo mash-up of Spotify, Airbnb and Google (maybe you had to be there).

Michael was followed by Bianca Berning. She presented a multitude of slides contrasting cultural differences in typography in books. Drawing on a palpable love of the subject, we were left to ponder would Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ be best rendered in dense 8/10pt (German) or more spacious 10/13pt (English)? You decide. Bianca covered one of the conference’s key topics – variable fonts – with a focus on legibility and a generous nod towards the work of Adobe Typekit’s Bram Stein.

Next up, Mandy Michael – experimental CSS developer and self-confessed non-designer. The more sensitive typographers in the audience winced at the slides on show – image masked lettering, folded type etc – but Mandy was totally unapologetic and her gregarious enthusiasm won them over. The more techie minded enjoyed the discussions on blendmodes and pseudo-elements best. Check out Mandy’s CSS experiments here:

Font creator David Jonathan Ross kicked off his slot with the amusing explanation that he should have been on honeymoon in Italy but had persuaded his new bride that this was a speaking engagement he couldn’t pass up. The opening slide announced that ‘Right now is a great time to experiment’, and David proceeded to champion the merits of experimental typography and the designers’ duty to break rules and have fun. This was tempered slightly with the closing observation that ‘you should pick the right font for the client 99% of the time’ (forgive me, I’m para-phrasing).

A break for lunch, and a sit in the shade of Preston Park for a sandwich to digest the morning session. A little boy with a stick approached and pretended to shoot us – our exaggerated mock death throes delighted him, but rather unsettled his parents following quickly behind with a pushchair.

The afternoon session kicked off with Jen Simmons. I’ll admit I dropped off for a few minutes – not because the talk was dull (it wasn’t) but because of the combination of heat, a full stomach and a largely sleepless night spent in the Royal Albion Hotel on the front (too many noisy revellers). Jen bravely gave a live demo of Firefox’s BETA inspect tools which – from what I did see – was really interesting. I didn’t feel too bad as the talk was aimed squarely at developers, and besides, I was now refreshed for the remaining speakers (sorry Jen!).

Next up was Steve Honeyman. Chatting to him later he explained he was terrified, and who can blame him? Public speaking is one thing, but doing so in front of the cream of the industry – many of them bearded – is quite another. Steve gamely ran through a series of iconic album covers he had recreated using HTML and CSS. His aim to ‘bring graphic design into the browser’. Lovely chap and a nice mix of the creative and the technical. See his stuff here…

A short break for tea (some insist on coffee mid-afternoon: weird) was followed by renowned typeface designer Irene Vlavchou demonstrating animated variable fonts. The Axis Praxis site was showcased as a playground for designers wanting to mess around in browser (you’ll need a modern one). She showed how some letterforms have structural elements that have to change under certain conditions, such as the dollar sign’s vertical line intentionally disappearing below a particular weight.

Dan Rhatigan continued the theme, with an opening slide entitled ‘What digital type could do for you’. He covered some of the basics of variable fonts (which I found really useful, they being fairly new to me) and explained it as “getting a whole family in a single font file”. The latest strides in font technologies came next, such as OpenType SVG which support colour, gradient and transparency. Bram Stein got a second name check of the day.

The final speaker was Mark Porter with a thoroughly enjoyable journey through his impressive career in the media. He introduced himself as a bit of an interloper, but didn’t seem low on confidence. His presentation was divided into 10 chapters, each featuring fonts he loved, which dovetailed with a period in his illustrious journey. Highlights included his overseeing the redesign of The Guardian and how typography was applied to onscreen graphics for Holland’s premier news channel, RTL.

Afterwards, we all piled over the road into the Hare and Hounds to enjoy a complimentary drink and an opportunity to chat to some of the speakers. Overall, a great day with much to absorb. I wish I had taken notes, but hopefully the presentations will be posted online in the next few days so you can all enjoy what the leading lights in digital typography had to say. See you next year!

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