Notes on Notes


In addition to bottom-of-the-article footnotes, sidenotes (a.k.a. margin notes) can also work well on the web. Two recent implementations struck me as well-done.

  • Brand Spanking New’s sidenotes implementation uses CSS and JavaScript to present notes in the sidebar, in a fixed position on the page, when you click on the note reference in the main text. (See the demo here.)

  • Beau Hartshorne’s sidenotes are simpler, requiring only CSS, with no scripting or hacks to workaround deficiencies in Internet Explorer. In Hartshorne’s implementation, each note is displayed in the sidebar next to the text it references.

I chose a footnote-style design here for Daring Fireball, but I like sidenotes, too. In particular, I prefer both footnotes and sidenotes over pop-up and tooltip-style inline notes. No, the web is not print, but that doesn’t mean web designers can’t build upon and learn from traditional typography and print design. Both footnotes and sidenotes are well-represented in good design from the past few hundred years.

The primary advantage to sidenotes vs. footnotes is that their placement — next to the text they’re referencing — obviates the entire problem I addressed when I wrote about my own footnotes last week. There is no need to design anything to help the reader figure out what part of the main text each note applies to.

But this spatial relationship also leads to the primary disadvantage to sidenotes: a long passage of text in a sidenote prevents you from placing a second note in close proximity to the first. So sidenotes work best if your notes are short, whereas footnotes work equally well for long and short notes.

Other Comments

Joe Clark wrote about my footnotes to (a) bemoan the fact that HTML has no tags to truly mark up notes (footnotes, sidenotes, whatever) as notes; (b) argue that my footnotes aren’t innovative, “but merely a ‘Back to Top of Page’ link in sequined cocktail dress and rouge”; and (c) argue that I chose the wrong arrow glyphs to use as the “back” markers.

I agree with Clark on (a) — that there exists no HTML tag syntax specifically appropriate for notes is a glaring omission, and but one that standards wonks don’t seem to care about.

As for (b), I never claimed my design was innovative. In fact, the reason I like it is that it seems rather obvious and quite traditional. The only aspect that might have even a whiff of innovation is the use of ‘↩’ (the Unicode left arrow with hook) as a dingbat representing the back-to-where-the note-was-referenced link. I love using Unicode characters for purposes such as this (e.g. my use of ‘★’ as the permalink marker for Linked List entries) — it feels like a cross between punctuation and iconography.

But I can’t say this is innovative, either. The only reason these characters exist in Unicode is that they’re supposed to be, well, used. But they’re not commonly used on the web because most existing installations of Microsoft Windows can’t display them properly. I just don’t care, at least here on Daring Fireball, but most designers working on most web sites don’t have that luxury.

Regarding point (c), that I chose the wrong arrow, Clark writes:

we are not hooking and moving leftwards; we’re going straight up

Only here must I disagree completely with Clark. I chose ‘↩’ not because it implies moving left, but because it implies moving back. And a left-pointing arrow has meant “back” ever since Mosaic. I chose the hooked arrow, instead of, say,’←’ or ‘⇠’, simply because it felt right. But even here with this choice, it’d take a bigger ego than mine to lay claim to any innovation, when Apple has been using this hooked arrow:

The Safari SnapBack icon: a left-pointing white hooked arrow on an orange background.

for Safari’s SnapBack feature ever since the Safari public beta.