Small is not beautiful on the web

Why do web sites make their text tiny? Even worse, they make it tiny with stylesheets so that the View, Text Size option in Internet Explorer doesn't work. Sites like k10k and praystation specialize in tiny text, and seduce web designers down the "small is beautiful" path to perdition. Jeffrey Zeldman influentially advocated using pixels to specify text size, because pixels are easier. He's right. It is easier: for the web designer.

What about the user? The one with bad eyesight, who doesn't know you can increase the font size in windows? I can read these tiny fonts, but I don't enjoy it. I don't like fine print on paper, why would I on a fuzzy computer screen?

While Jakob Nielsen has been rightly accused of overstatement, relatively few people disagree with the soundness of his usability heuristics (rules of thumb). User control and freedom is the one this fits under.

Here's more control: If you're using Internet Explorer 5 or higher, click on Tools, Options, the General Tab, and click on the Accessibility button. Then check "Ignore font sizes specified on web pages" and hit OK to get out. This will make Internet Explorer ignore all font sizes, and allow easier reading most of the time. The only exception is pages where the spacing between lines is set smaller, which might cause text overlap.

I complained to the ZDnet site a while back, and they stopped using pixels for regular text. I doubt I was the only person complaining, but I was glad to help.

I recommend complaining loudly to sites you feel are worth complaining to, based on their content. I don't bother complaining to sites without merit: the web is too damn big for that.

Posted by Chad Lundgren on Wednesday, July 17, 2002 (Link)


Posted by anon Wednesday, July 17, 2002 at 06:38 PM

Zeldman is a buffoon. His pixels-rule rule is proof.

Posted by Joshua Kaufman Wednesday, July 17, 2002 at 10:11 PM

Zeldman is not a buffoon. He has clearly stated that ems are fine to use, if you keep your text large, as Chad has on Zen Haiku. If you use small ems, you're likely to run into some problems, as Owen Briggs found. Often developers are forced to work within constraints where accessibility is not a priority. This means small fonts and small text areas. It sucks but it's the sad truth. Thus, they're forced to use pixels because pixel fonts work better with the majority of users. I'm hoping that eventually, designers will see the business value of accessibility and make it more of a priority. In the meantime, let's keep pushing accessibility initiatives forward, use bigger text and keep it resizable.

Posted by Jack Thursday, July 18, 2002 at 09:09 AM

Ya, not a buffoon, just highly overrated. Anyone teaching against accessibility should be ignored. It's a matter of law. Section 508 made it explicit for federal agencies, and it's only a matter of time before someone sues to clarify the issue for the ADA for state agencies and every U.S. business. Dinosaurs still expousing the virtues of pixels will find themselves without clients.

Posted by Roslee Friday, July 26, 2002 at 01:56 AM

In my opinion, "small is not beautiful" on the web, as well as in a lot of other areas as well. I especially like re-phrasing your phrase to read as "big is beautiful." (just what kind of quotations am I using, Chad??) I far too many facets of American society and/or culture are fixated on thin/little/small perspectives. From miniaturization in technology to the overwhelming socialization of people, especially women, to feel obligated to strive to be thin, skinny, malnourished, "beautiful." Just as I feel that rubenesque women are what women were meant to be...full of curves, and I do not appreciate the use of fonts, symbols, the small print, or such which require me to manipulate my bifocals in order to read. The whole needs to be evaluated, to perceive the balance and completeness present. To shrink everything just to make it all "fit" into a screen, a book, a dress, et cetera. Take the blinders off. Get out of the tunnel. Look for whether there is completness, balance,appropriateness, belonging, inherent beauty in place, not just whether or not "it" fits a preconceived mold.

Posted by Zelda Monday, February 10, 2003 at 03:09 PM

What you are saying about accessibility here is oh so true. I think that many people are ambivalent about ensuring the legibility of their text.

It's a big problem for me. I can't increase font size in Windows because I share this computer, and a change affects all users. I do surf with my IE accessibility options set to Ignore Font Size. Otherwise, I just can't read things.

It's aggravating that so many web designers omit the possibility that nearsighted people with high resolution monitors will be surfing their pages.

I think that specifying an absolute line-height is just ignorant. It makes the text overwrite itself when the user increases font size in the browser.

Posted by Grasso Tuesday, July 15, 2003 at 11:38 AM

I would like to add that it is especially problematic to define font sizes with CSS, at least it was with Mozilla 1.0 and IE6. No consistent behavior at all.

CSS 2 was hyped as the ultimate reformatting tool. But when CSS2 was inconsistently established around 2002, people (journalists) had already forgotten what they had been once promised, and were now screaming for XML instead. XML is said to make dreams of accessibility and userfriendlynes come true. Ha ha ha!

Me too has written some stuff about usability, acessability and ergonomy, see the link!