Talking Type and Tools with Jason Pamental

Jason Pamental is a typography expert and consultant based near Providence, RI, where he thinks deeply about web typography and takes his dogs Tristan and Tillie for long walks. The author of Responsive Typography, he’s also written articles for publications and for the Mozilla Developer Network, and in a past position built the first live-text race commentary application for the America’s Cup in 2003. We managed to catch up with him and the pups to ask a few questions.

Image: Peter Constable

Hey, Jason! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’ve worked on the web since about 1994 doing all sorts of different design and development things, gradually moving more into leading teams at agencies, working with clients on their digital strategy, and getting very nerdy about web typography. I just love the intersection of how a typeface can make us feel, how it can influence how we read, and how it impacts our experience based on how it has been technically implemented in a site or application. Each aspect impacts all the others, making it a super interesting challenge. So last year I quit the agency where I was working to see if I can focus more on typography and helping organizations and teams put it into practice better.

Oh, nice. How has that been going?

Over the past few months I’ve been working with the Digital Services team for the State of Georgia, designing and helping implement a whole new typographic and design system for their new web platform. They let me go all-in on everything I’ve talked about over the years: dynamic typographic scale using variable fonts and fallback font “tuning” and font loading management, all set up progressively enhancing based on browser capabilities. Older browsers get static web fonts, newer ones get variable fonts. I’m super proud of it, and excited to see what Lullabot, the development partner on the project, does with all the stuff we put together. They’ve been really amazing to work with on the project.

I’ve also had some really exciting developments in getting involved with a couple other organizations. I’ve been elected to the board of ATypI, the Association Typographique International, and hope to use that association to help develop typography curriculum for digital design programs. And more recently I’ve been accepted as an Invited Expert on the W3C’s Web Fonts Working Group, where we’re working on a new specification that could fundamentally change how fonts are served on the web. I really can’t believe I get to be even a small part of that. It’s incredibly exciting.

I’ve also started an email newsletter where I’m sending out a new tip every week. Each one will have a bit of history into the typographic/design origins, examples from print and how you would do it in HTML & CSS. Reception has been great so far, and I’m excited to see that community grow this year.

What are some tools that you’ve found indispensible to your work?

It’s been an interesting turn since AEA Orlando last year: I completely rewrote my talk in HTML & CSS, so one of the standby tools for speaking changed completely! I used to do everything in Keynote. So:

  • A code editor like Coda or VS Code — I’ve been trying to switch over to VS Code, but habits are hard! I want to keep at it because the flexibility and configurability of VS Code is fantastic for both general work and also for projecting during workshops and talks.
  • Browsers — I switched to Firefox as my default this year, and its font dev tools are amazing.
  • Sketch, Photoshop, and Illustrator still get lots of use, but mainly in a supporting role—mainly for creating artwork, illustrations, and a much more limited number of style tiles and comps.
  • I still do a lot of my writing in Evernote. I love the cross-device/platform ability to read and edit, and it’s got years of notes, articles, references, bios, talk descriptions—you name it.
  • Probably the most significant addition to my toolbox over the past year: adding CodePen. I’ve used it to publish an essay showcasing Monotype’s first variable font (FF Meta), to collaborate on demos for TypeNetwork, to prototype the examples I used in writing the Variable Fonts Guide on the Mozilla Developer Network, and most recently to host all of the code examples in my newsletter.

I like that all of these things come together: talking about web typography and showing it live in the browser on stage was (albeit somewhat terrifying) the best decision I’ve ever made. It just feels right. So expect more of that to come this year!

We do! And speaking of talks, what do you have planned for AEA this year?

I’ve always felt there were three audiences that I’m talking to when I speak about web typography, and I honestly don’t want to leave any of them behind. There are trained designers who have studied typography but don’t know how much of it they can practice on the web; web/UX/UI designers who often have no formal typographic education; and developers who are tasked with implementing typography and fonts, rarely with a strong grounding in why they’re being asked to do so.

They all need to be able to connect the “why” and the “how.” I want people to come away inspired, with a little more grounding in what happens outside their own personal area of responsibility, and how to talk to their colleagues about what they are trying to accomplish. In truth, the developers are a really important part of the equation. They make design decisions in the process of coding up the front end all the time. I want them to have a good grounding in what makes typography work, so they’re better equipped to fill in the gaps between comps.

This year I’m going to be pushing the boundaries a bit both conceptually and technically, so I’ll be asking a bit more of the audience in following along—but I think it’s really important to “teach just past the smartest student in the class,” as my friend Mitch Goldstein puts it. That way everyone leaves with not only a vision of what typography can bring to their design, but a concrete way to get there.

See Jason talk type in “Dynamic Typographic Systems and Variable Fonts: Scalable, Fast, and Fabulous” at An Event Apart Boston (May 5-7, 2019), Chicago (August 26-28), and Denver (October 28-30). Don’t miss your chance to see Jason and sixteen other top-notch speakers!