David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Fun with fonts and styles

As I’ve read the book and watched the video for this week’s assignment (scroll to February 13), I’ve been dividing my attention: I’ve succumbed to the temptation of continually modifying my portfolio site, based on the inspiration and new skills that the video and book have afforded me.

This shows one of the many ways that doing history on the web is different, and raises a question for students in digital history classes. For last week’s assignment I sent Dr. Petrik a link to my portfolio homepage. If this were a paper, I may have done as I have in other classes: when I came up with another idea, thinking, “I should have done that! Too bad it’s too late,” during the following week. But unlike with a paper, I’m actually doing something: modifying the CSS for the overall site–at this point, I’m using the same CSS for the start page and for each of the assignment pages. But I’m not sure if I should be doing that, or if I should just leave it as-was. For example, last semester, after our proof-of-concept assignment was due, I had ideas for things to add to it. But I held off until I was sure that Dr. Leon had graded it (granted, I wound up simply holding off, period. Eventually I’ll get back to it!).

So I suppose I’ll be asking Dr. Petrik a question on Monday (unless she is reading this before class and wants to comment :)): Should I leave the portfolio homepage as-was (i.e., separate the CSS for that page from that of the rest of the site), or is it okay to keep modifying the style as I modify the rest of my portfolio site?

Through this exercise, I’m learning just how great CSS is. I can modify the one file, and it’s reflected on all of the different pages of my site. Nice.

Meanwhile, as I moved through the font video, I also began to switch around the fonts in my CSS and think about the type assignment for next week. In searching for an appropriate font, I came upon one called “Texas Hero.” Curious, I checked out the backstory: the font designer’s mother was a volunteer at the University of Texas Center for American History (where I once conducted some research for what will likely be my final class project and eventually part of my dissertation). He designed fonts based on letters in CAH’s collections. As it turns out, he based the Texas Hero font on the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson Rusk–recipient of a letter I included in my final project last semester.

So, I had to have this font (yes, such things are the objects of this history nerd’s coveting). I downloaded it. Then I got to the part in the video about how not all fonts are licensed for web use. So I read the end-user license agreement. Just to be sure, I emailed the creator. He kindly emailed me right back (on a late Saturday afternoon, at that!) and clarified the agreement, which indeed does not allow me to use the font in the text of the site. This makes sense; if I uploaded the font to my server to use with the @font-face command, someone could easily download the font and not pay him for his hard work.

Therefore, although I may pay the extra fee for web use in the future, for now I will just use the font in my header graphic (which the creator said was fine, as the font is not actually uploaded to the server). Indeed, in the end the header will probably look much better than it does with the convoluted way I centered my name on top of the map. Don’t ask me how I did that, as I’m not sure I could tell you!

I should add, the site where I bought Texas Hero has some other great fonts for historians. Check it out.


  1. David, I have to say, I love your story about contacting the font designer. I’m glad you not only did your historical homework through research, but also reminded us that sometimes it’s just as simple as asking. Somehow it makes the process seem less intimidating to know there’s just another human being sitting on the other side of the screen.

    Also, I think the improvements to your portfolio site look great. I can clearly see the difference in where you have applied new CSS skills to what you learned about proper design. I especially like the sidebar – the way you’ve altered the text makes that portion both more readable and visually appealing than the initial iteration.

    I also like the point you make that presenting our work online gives us the consistent ability to edit and redesign. It’s important to remember, however, that it doesn’t erase previous versions. The former lives of our webpages remain archived in the Wayback Machine, a record of our mistakes, but also a proof of what we hope will be our improvements.

  2. David,
    Like Claire, I can appreciate your story about the desire to continually edit. I’ve also been “tinkering” on the next project, trying to get a sense of how I can manipulate each piece of content without changing the whole structure of the container. Yes, there is the question of when to stop or when to just start something new. I like to have multiple iterations of writing projects because sometimes what made the first cut, but didn’t survive the third or fourth cut actually was an integral part of a later chapter. One technique I learned from Prof. Petrik is to create additional folders for storing various versions of files (like folders for “unused fonts” or “unused images” or maybe in this case “unused index pages”). Having a place to store various versions within a specific folder removes the version from the main operating files that immediately appear, but also keeps a copy of those “out takes” that might be useful later in a folder that only need be opened when you really need it. As mentioned, I use the same techniques with paper drafts, keeping various versions as well as some of the out takes, as a just in case – hey, I’m a paper pack rat by nature – otherwise I probably wouldn’t be a historian – and I am learning how to convert those skills to a digital age.

    Edit on! (and on and on) as long as you can find a good stopping point to meet deadlines. Really, aren’t you just putting the concept of “progressive enhancement” into practice?

  3. The urge to continually tweak is very strong with websites. It does make me think of what sort of historical record websites will create; it’s the same problem as digital manuscripts, really, when it comes to transparent revisions for posterity.

    I love the historical fonts with a good back story! There’s one on myfonts.com that I’ve become rather fond of. And kudos for contacting the font designer. I think I would have been too nervous.

  4. David, your thoroughness in researching the “Texas Hero” font and getting in touch with the creator was great! Like Claire, I like the idea of constantly being able to update, improve, and change both the content and look of our digital work. As you pointed out, tweaking the CSS once and having it apply to all of your pages is immensely helpful, and I would say empowering–you’re more likely to go back to past work if you know that you can make one set of edits and have it carry through a project.

    Sheri: I like that tip for organizing the unused. I tend to get rid of versions that don’t work for some reason, but I see your point that having them around but organized allows you to reference past work easily. I’ll try this out!

  5. I too have been tinkering on my portfolio page. And I am enjoying the ability to do so, because it take some of the pressure off to create a “perfect” end product. Still I feel woefully under-prepared to develop the site that I have in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I think I should just play with the design for a week straight to truly learn everything that I can and how to do it. Then I remind myself that I have other responsibilities that I have to attend to as well. I also have to remind myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect right now (or really ever I suppose). As both Gillenwater and Williamson have demonstrated the web is always in flux. What may be standard/doable today, may not be tomorrow.

  6. Keep on tinkering! You will get a great deal out of reworking your portfolio and experimenting as you go. It’s the iterative process that makes all of this come together.

    • David McKenzie

      February 12, 2012 at 10:40 pm

      Wahoo! Will continue to do so then. For better or worse for my social life between now and May! I’ve enjoyed the experimentation so far, trying new things.

    • What if a content eirevdly network decided to allow anybody to hotlink any of a list of @font-face-able and freely distributable fonts?What if it also allowed anybody to hotlink a css of the @font-face CSS syntax? 1. The font file will always be latest version, maintained by the font author.2. All font file formats served will always be of this latest version.3. Each version of each browser will be served the smallest and most appropriate @font-face syntax and font file format.4. The css and the font file are served from a global content eirevdly network.5. Browsers will cache the font file across many websites, instead of loading it on each site’s initial visit.6. Everyone is freed from the [sad] state of web fonts embedding. Fellas, this already exists. (May 19, 2010) It’s the Google Font Directory.

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