Christian Heilmann

Bloat is bloat – even when you can’t see it (lettering.js and fooling ourselves)

Saturday, September 18th, 2010 at 12:52 am

There were some interesting conversations around the lettering.js jQuery plugin on Twitter today. The thing that lettering.js does for you is to turn a text into a series of SPANS with automatically numbered classes to give you a handle to style them:

Some Title



Now there are a few questions I have about this:

  • Would you write that by hand?
  • Would that be your first idea of marking up a piece of text to add to an HTML document?
  • Is it worth to add that many classes to be able to fix kerning and styling?
  • How would you use that with several replacements?

To style this you’d either use h1.char#{} for each character or .fancy-title.char1{} the latter not being supported by IE6. Simply using .char#{} would mean that if you use the lettering.js again you need to override it for another element or up the specificity in other ways – in essence adding more and more to your CSS file.

The answer I got to the first question was that no, people would not write that by hand and this is why this plugin is awesome as it does this thankless task for you. The question though remains – is this a sensible use of HTML or is this painting with HTML?

When we use tables for layout this is considered inefficient, outdated and not intelligent web development. We limit ourselves to a defined look and feel – we mix presentation with structure. If we add a SPAN around each character of a word we mix presentation with content. Even worse, if the text changes, the numbering changes and the kerning fixes will be applied to the wrong characters.

To me, text on the web should be editable. We don’t use an image for headlines as we want to make it easy for people to edit them, translate them or add to them. Maintenance is why we opt for HTML over other techniques to add a headline to a document – techniques that would give us full control over the look and feel.

Using something like lettering.js is not more sensible, clever or logical than writing the SPANs by hand – it is just less work. In the end, the browser will get the same questionable HTML construct – we just make it dependent on a technology that might not be available and write it out after the page has already loaded. So in essence it is less reliable and slower than writing the SPANs by hand but fulfills the same premise. And the premise is that we want control over something that we chose to create in a technology we like using as it gives us flexibility. In essence we’re un-doing what the browser and HTML does for us for the sake of simulating a stricter environment.

Yes, CSS has not enough typographical handles. Yes, a trick like that gives us more control. But it also means that we fix the state of the headline by mixing content with presentation. If you edit the text – you need to edit the CSS. It is the same mistake that developers make when they make functionality dependent on the text value of a button rather than its class or ID - if an editor changes that text in the future your application breaks.

Typography in the granularity of what lettering.js promises comes at the cost of fixing the visual state of an HTML element. We use HTML instead of creating an image as we want people to be able to edit it. It is a proper Catch-22.

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