Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

Changing font size..

I wholly agree with Jakob Jensen on the font-issue.. There is nothing worse than fixed-sized fonts. Especially if they are too small.

But he is not correct in his argument that the font-size is difficult to change (at least not for a large amount of users). If you are in possesion of a wheel-mouse the font-size is easily changed by pressing CTRL and rolling the wheel. Presto.. :o)

Oh... The "save-fontsize-per-site"-idea.. If only Microsoft would make such a feature.. :o)

Søren E
Monday, August 19, 2002

"But he is not correct in his argument that the font-size is difficult to change (at least not for a large amount of users). If you are in possesion of a wheel-mouse the font-size is easily changed by pressing CTRL and rolling the wheel. Presto.. :o)"

I am sure you realise you just enforced Nielsen's point. It requires you to have a wheel mouse, press ctrl, and roll the wheel. Not very self-explanatory...

Besides, my explorer doesn't change anything on most sites, because the sizes have been specified in absolute units. At least Opera realy magnifies when you tell it too. Too bad that it has other weeknesses that make it less of a complete replacement for IE.

Erik van Linstee
Monday, August 19, 2002

Thats a great tip (mouse wheel) nonetheless, thanks :)

Ian Stallings
Monday, August 19, 2002

You can tell IE to ignore CSS font sizes.  Tools -> Internet Options, click the Accessibility button and check "Ignore font sizes..."

John Myczek
Monday, August 19, 2002

Non-designers should not impose their uninformed opinions on designers.

Trying to improve the readability of a website by screwing around with the font size is like trying to fix the hair color of an actress on your favorite tv show by spinning the hue knob. You might get the hair color right, but everything else is going to be screwed up.

Sitse being unusable is a real problem and the cause is bad designers not bad software. Good designers know what size fonts should be, what the ratio between font height and leading should be, what the ratio between font height and column width should be.

Letting users monkey around with the design isn't really going to help. It's tantamount to making the whole web a skinnable application, which is highly questionable from a UI standpoint.

All media should present itself to the user *as the author intended* in the highest fidelity possible.

Luke Duff
Monday, August 19, 2002

> Non-designers should not impose their uninformed
> opinions on designers.

No, but they should have the option to choose how they want to view whatever content they're looking for.

> You might get the hair color right, but everything else is
> going to be screwed up.

That'll be my problem, correct? The original image is left unchanged for all the other viewers.

> All media should present itself to the user *as the author
> intended* in the highest fidelity possible.

Can't say I agree with this. I know how *I* want to see it. Maybe I prefer black text on white background, instead of the author's "cool" azure text on magenta background. I should decide how I see each site - and cope with whatever problems it may cause me, naturally.

When you listen to music, you may have different eq settings, depending on the music type you're listening to, or whatever. You're changing the original work, and that's a Good Thing(TM). You're the content's "recipient" - you should decide how you experience it.

Paulo Caetano
Monday, August 19, 2002

I cringe whenever I hear otherwise intelligent people like Joel quoting Zeldman's *two year old* article on font sizing as if it were still the gospel truth.  Browsers have grown up, Zeldman has grown up, the web design community has figured out how to tame post-NN4 browsers to make relative font sizing a workable reality.  Zeldman himself uses relative fonts on his newest site, the relaunch of the Web Standards Project.

More on relative font sizing techniques, and their accessibility benefits:

Mark Pilgrim
Monday, August 19, 2002

Luke, you're so full of crap I hardly know what to say. You're not the artist you think you are. You're someone that learned the CSS code to force his aesthetics on the rest of us. Once your eyes start to go downhill, eight and nine-point text isn't so easy to read any more. Once you age past 17, you might find that out.

Lots of "designers" suck at what they do, or we wouldn't even be having this discussion. When I go to a content-oriented site, and cannot read it because the font is too small, it's a failure on the part of the idiot that set the fixed font size on the page, not me.  Believe it or not, the "design" isn't as important as you think it is. Repeat that to yourself a few times, because it's true.

Troy King
Monday, August 19, 2002

Mark, I'm aware of that, but many people aren't, and in the meantime, I think quite a few web designers still think you must use pixels.

And I don't think it's worth using an ugly "fake comment" hack that actually takes advantage of bugs in browsers just so that you can use CSS. The reason you use CSS is so that you don't have to rely on ugly browser bughacks, so if you're avoiding FONT SIZE just so you can use CSS to be all standards-pure, and then you have to hack up your CSS with little tricks that rely on parsing bugs, you've sort of defeated the purpose of CSS as a standard.

But we all agree that (a) it's Microsoft's fault and (b) you really have to let users change font sizes.

Joel Spolsky
Monday, August 19, 2002

Erik van Lintsee: "I am sure you realise you just enforced Nielsen's point. It requires you to have a wheel mouse, press ctrl, and roll the wheel. Not very self-explanatory..."

Well.. I was merely pointing out that it isn't as hard to change the font-size as Nielsen would have you believe. He conveniently forgets to mention the mouse-wheel trick instead focusing on a method that I'm sure no users use.

I'm not defending neither Microsoft nor the web-designers using fixed-size fonts. In fact as a result of this discussion I've just revised my own style-sheets to use relative fonts everywhere. But the browser should really allow resizing of all text.

Hehe.. Funny thing.. I notice that this "reply-page" has fixed-size fonts on it.. ;o)

Søren E
Monday, August 19, 2002

Seren -- some pages have font sizes specified in such a way that the resize command does not work. That's the real problem. The font size at is a reasonable size and is readable, but notice it does not respond to CTRL-wheel or other methods in IE.

When "designers" set a very small size and do the same thing, it makes the page unreadable. To me it's as bad as fixed-size tables on long content sites -- where the author makes his column in a narrow column, and you have to scroll for pages and pages to read the thing. These forums are an example (but certainly not the worst). I have my browser 1100 pixels wide most of the time. These forums (and many other sites) waste that space and make me scroll like crazy to read them.

The really sad part is these "designers" think their sites are somehow better because they're more difficult to use, but look a certain way. Specifying this sort of unimportant crap isn't design, as far as I'm concerned, it's window dressing. Usability is the most important design point, not what font or color or width something is.

Troy King
Monday, August 19, 2002

It's really hard to convince people to give up control over something they have no clue about, especially fairly smart nerd-types that think they know better. People particularly tend to vastly overestimate their own design abilities.

As an example, I often hear about people that think if they pull their browser wider that the text column on the page they're reading should get wider.

This actually makes the text harder to read.  There's a certain ratio of text-height to column-width that's very usable. With huge columns, it's harder for the eye to return to the left on the next line. See Slashdot for a bad example of this. See the Joel on Software Forum for a good example.

Design/usability is actually a very hard thing to do. That's why there are so many bad web sites out there. That's also why giving typographic power to the end user is a bad idea.

Good ideas include: professionally designed templates, promoting tools that make templating easier (like City Desk) and complaining to sites that are unusable (free market).

A better example of where this works is Adobe Acrobat (from a company that understands design pretty well). A PDF document looks exactly the same on every platfrom, precisely *as the author intended*. If it's too small you can always zoom in, but the flow and balance of the document is unaltered.

IE would be better off with a Zoom button than a "screw with the text size so everything on the page jumbles around" button.

Or, an auto-scaling feature. If you increased a browser from 640 width to 1280 width, everything in the browser becomes twice as high. You can actually do this now in CSS on IE, but it's a little slow.

Luke Duff
Monday, August 19, 2002

I avoid PDF documents like the proverbial plague.  I'm basically destitute, so I'm still using my four-year-old Pentium box.  It takes about 15 minutes for a PDF document to appear on my screen.  Well, almost...

I kick myself every time I inadvertently click on a PDF link.

J. D. Trollinger
Monday, August 19, 2002

As I suppose most everyone here already knows, Mozilla handles the resizing of fonts fine, even if they're set with an absolute value.

-Joshua <><

Joshua Paine
Monday, August 19, 2002

Over on alt.html, there are a bunch of fanatics who constantly say stuff like, "Let the user decide which font he wants to view", or "Don't set the font size -- let the user choose it".

All very good in principle, but what percent of all web surfers have *ever* set a specific default font on their browser, or have *ever* adjusted the font size?  Miniscule numbers, I bet.  Typically, if people don't like the way your page looks, they just leave -- they don't fiddle with their browser settings.

Anonymous coward
Monday, August 19, 2002

Joshua wrote:
"As I suppose most everyone here already knows, Mozilla handles the resizing of fonts fine, even if they're set with an absolute value."

Yeh but you have to use Ctrl+L instead of Alt+D to select the Location bar, so I'll stick to IE.
[sorry Joel, just kidding ;)]

Jan Derk
Monday, August 19, 2002

Being on the wrong side of 40, with deteriorating short-range vision, I'm definitely on the side of allowing users to change the font size. I generally go to Web sites in the hope, usually disappointed, of finding information, and I really don't care if I screw up some creative genius's masterpiece of design by viewing it at the wrong size.

And while we're at it, let's shoot all the people using unreadable colour schemes such as pink text on a black background.

Andrew Simmons
Monday, August 19, 2002

Luke, do you really think your choice on column width and font size should override the reader's choice? Are you that arrogant to think that you know what's best for me or someone else? You say it makes it harder to read when a column is too wide, and I agree with that statement... but I wouldn't make it so wide it was harder to follow a line across. Designers like you make it impossible for me to read a web page without getting so irritated at the amount of scrolling and squinting involved that I may not finish the document. You're saying that readers are stupid and need designers to make the page readable for them. Maybe 8-point text is readable when you're 18 years old, but it's not readable forever.

FYI, I did design and layout for a newspaper for three years, so you can't cop this "designers know best" line on me. If the web page designers were actually designing usable pages, we wouldn't have this problem. When a web page column is so damned narrow it has three or four words per line, but the page is eleven browsers tall, that's not design, that's idiocy. You are correct that there is a proper text-size to column-width ratio, but no one is respecting it. I can debate design topics with you for hours; I've had training and print experience with it, but that doesn't make poorly-designed pages any easier to read.

There are so many bad pages out there because people never learned the rules of design, not because design is difficult. You say it's difficult, but that's b.s. job security for people that don't have real skills. The rules of design for readability are pretty simple.

Troy King
Monday, August 19, 2002

Luke, you have an audience here telling you they hate when designers impose restrictions upon them. Yet, you're ignoring that feedback because you don't want to hear it. We're telling you what we like and what we don't like - how can we be wrong? It's *our* likes and dislikes.

I've got a mental picture of kid with his fingers in his ears yelling, "Designers know better! Designers know better! Designers know better!"

Surely the best compromise solution is to design your site so it looks good on a standard platform - say IE with default fonts and sizes at 800x600 - but use a 'liquid' layout that allows the viewer to alter it to suit them. Some of your visitors will be using WebTV or palms and don't want to scroll horizontally to read each line, and some will have poor eyesight and need larger fonts. Some people like to read wide lines of text so they don't have to scroll down, but I prefer to have narrower columns of text so I can read faster.

People are different. Platforms are different. Browsers are different. These facts are absolute, and fighting them is an exercise in futility.

Darren Collins
Monday, August 19, 2002

Troy, Darren: Bad design frustrates me just as much as it does you guys.

Do I really think a designer's choice on column width and font size should override the reader's choice? Yes. If someone is designing a web page for mass consumption, they need to step up to the plate and learn what is right and wrong just like any other profession.

If they've made the wrong choice, you just don't read their page. Losing audience is the cost of bad design.

Should there be tools to make sites (even well designed ones) accessible to people with poor vision? Of course, but not with font size adjusting. Whatever the solution is, it shouldn't taint or distort the page layout. If tables, columns, etc. jumble up, the meaning of the page may be lost.

Good designs can easily get bad with font size adjusting. Bad designs are rarely fixed with font size adjusting.

Good options are adjusting the display resolution or having a zoom feature in the browser. That way the relative positioning and size of document elements remain the same.

Acrobat, Office apps, Flash all have zoom features. IE probably should too.

>you have an audience here telling you they hate when
>designers impose restrictions upon them. Yet, you're
>ignoring that feedback because you don't want to hear it.
>We're telling you what we like and what we don't like -
>how can we be wrong? It's *our* likes and dislikes.

All design is about imposing restrictions. For example, this forum doesn't let people delete other folks' comments. That's a restriction and, I think everyone would agree, a good one. Also, you can't increase the text column, another good restriction. The column is set to an objectively good width. :)

I just think, on principle, that the artist's vision should remain intact. It may be a crappy vision, but you can always move along.

Just so you see where I'm coming from, I hate when they cut up movies to fit television screens. Pan & scan is horrible. I'd always rather see a letterboxed version. You see what the director wanted you to see.

Luke Duff
Monday, August 19, 2002

Luke, you've mistaken design for art.

I don't know how your employer puts up with someone that says their aesthetic sense is more important than the customer's needs. You must be a college student.

Troy King
Monday, August 19, 2002

Oh man, it looks like we'll never convince Luke.

No matter how you design your rigid layout, it will never look the same on Macs, Wintel, Linux, Solaris, Palm, WebTV, Mozilla, Netscape, IE, and Lynx. You're not publishing a book that looks the same everywhere - you're publishing markup that gets interpreted differently by every browser and platform combination under the sun. You're looking for a level of control that just isn't possible with HTML!

Really, life is much better if you just give up trying to control the uncontrollable, and get back to basics. Liquid design is easy, and despite what you claim, it needn't degrade things like tables, columns, etc. And it will work for everyone.

If you want that level of control over what the user sees, you should publish your web page as one big .gif image or as a .pdf file. HTML is the wrong tool for you.

Darren Collins
Monday, August 19, 2002

Darren, you da man. You said it perfectly -- he might as well use a giant image. I mean, we wouldn't want any poor stupid users harmed by seeing an incorrect font size.

Troy King
Monday, August 19, 2002

> If you want that level of control over what the user sees,
> you should publish your web page as one big .gif image or
> as a .pdf file. HTML is the wrong tool for you.

It seems reality lies between the two extremes.  HTML is meant to be very liquid and resilient.  Part of that flexibility means it supports media objects where the designer can be very anal about placement.  Just visit Apple's site, which combines precise image text and loose html text.

I remember that html was once a particularly ugly and abused way to send information, with blink tags and such. ;-P

Monday, August 19, 2002

Joel, the comment hack is there because I needed a solution that (a) worked with Netscape 4, and (b) only used a single stylesheet (due to limitations of one of the blogging tools that were used by part of my core audience).  Certainly there are cleaner ways to hide CSS from Netscape 4; using @import, for example.

But you will not eliminate all CSS hacks (and they are hacks, I'll admit) because browser support is so poor.  Font size keywords, for instance, are hampered by an off-by-1 bug in IE5/Win, which is fixed in IE6/Win.  Now how exactly do you propose to support both browsers at once without some sort of browser-specific hack?

Mark Pilgrim
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

I agree with you too Darren.

And JD, I despise pdf files too. More than half the tiime Acrobat won't print the darn thing to my printer -- printer returns postscript errors. I don't see this behavior in any other program. Also, Acrobat is unacceptably slow and has abysmal facilities for making notes, searching, copying, etc.

Surely Luke is an alias for some troller.

On these perfectly designed websites, the font size will not get changed because it is perfect & the designer's brilliant vision of genius (assuming you are on the same browser as he) will be maintained intact.

On the rest of the websites, since we can't convince anyone to increase their font size (I've send feedback to at least a dozen sites about this and none of them have changed their site as a result), allowing the browser to increase fixed font sizes would be a nice feature. Hopefully the designers union won't sue Microsoft for design patent violations if they add this feature.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Seems Luke has some good points, but is merely drawing a less than optimal solution.

He is right if he says there are guidelines for readability - but they're only guidelines.
He is right if he says bad design can't be fixed by font resizes.
He is right if he says font resizing is not as good as zooming.

But he does seem to confuse guidelines for strict rules. And he does seem to wrongly assume that a web site must look the same everywhere as a result of that.

As pointed out earlier, browser are different, platforms are different, but most of all people are different. None of the guidelines you can find work for every single person and being a good designer you should know that. Zooming may be a solution for visually impaired, but it is not for the hearing impaired.

Design - meaning structuring the site and the page for usability - is not the same as styling - meaning adding colour, fonts, pictures, whatever. Both are important, but not always to the same degree. Good design improves the user experience, but if your site is about entertainment, styling might be even more important.

But most important of all is always the user's goals. And there is no single design guideline that fits everyone.

Oh, and the movie example might be good for you, but other's prefer not to have the black bars and accept the loss of what might have been somewhere on the edges and probably not significant anyway. I happen to have a TV that manages to show the entire picture and have no black bars. I prefer that to anything else. Besides a movie is primarily about entertainment and not information, so it's a bad example anyway.

Erik van Linstee
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

This is why CSS3 changed the meaning of !important so that the reader/user regained control.

Not that hardly anything supports CSS3 and it means that those users with the need for a fixed point legible font (otherwise it doesn't matter at all), need a local style sheet set up.

Simon Lucy
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Troy: I'm well aware that some fonts can't be changed in size. I'm sorry if this wasn't apparent. My argument was, that Nielsen bashes IE for having a cumbersome way of changing the font-size when it's possible.

Fixed-size fonts are a pain, no doubt. I think we actually agree.. :o)

Søren E
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Truth is designers like Luke get trained to believe that the world is one big design problem requiring their expert solution.
Yes a trained designer will have a much better understanding of leading, font proportions, column widths etc.. but that won't fix the eyesight of a myopic guy over 40 who just wants to 'make the damn text bigger so he can read it'.
I have a client like that. He's a trained designer -- and he's always hitting the text zoom function on (mac) IE; which almost always does a good job of reflowing and resizing.
How is that possible? Because if it's possible to tran an immature design student to follow basic typography rules, it's possible to programme the same rules into a computer. The mac text zoom function ALWAYS works, whether or not you use pixel specific css or not. The only issue here is for PC IE to catch up with the text zoom algorithm in Mac IE. Then this becomes a non-issue.

Jake Grimley
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Søren, I know we agree :). This happened to be a near-and-dear topic for me, a huge pet peeve of mine. I agree with Nielsen on this one, too -- I'd sure like to have the text-larger/smaller individual buttons back in IE. I knew about adding the button and using CTRL-Wheel, but my boss, a very smart guy and a true power user, did not. It actually got me annoyed at MS the day he asked me how to make the text larger on a particular page.

Sometimes MS takes a step backward in their function exposure. Removing the text-larger/smaller buttons from IE, putting the load/noload graphics button only in Options, changing the long-time keyboard shortcuts in Media Player. . . I have a long mental list of changes they've made that rub me the wrong way. Most of their software is still superior to their competitors though.

Troy King
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Wish I'd been here earlier in the argument - looks like you guys have been having fun!

I don't want to get wrapped up in a holy war over whether the design should have exact control over what the user sees, except to say: "use a JPEG".

A handy tip for CSS is to specify the font-size in Ems rather than Pixels or Points. Ems work in every CSS browser I've tried, and scale in all of them. They take a bit of getting used to, since an Em is the height of a standard character. However, once you get used to this it is very easy to work with. I'd usually set my body text to "font-size: 0.8em" and my h1 to "font size: 2.4em" and everything else somewhere between.

Opera has been mentioned a couple of times. It has a handy scaling feature, which not only scales all fonts but also the graphics. It also has a handy button which switches between the page's style sheet and a user defined one. It can be really handy to turn off the stylesheet and just see the text.


James Shields
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Liquid design usually isn't design. It's usually a "I give up, and I'll let the users suffer." It's great for  the developer to create someting for the lowest common denominator, not the end user.

Having a document look exactly the same on every platform is obviously not possible, but it's a goal that every medium should aspire to. TV, DVD, movie theatres, books all work that way.

I think this is an interesting discussion. It's basically about where you draw the line between letting the expert professionals make decisions and letting the end user have control.

Though I admit, most of the people designing web pages these days aren't expert professionals, they're dumbasses. But that doesn't deter me from wanting the system to allow for the real professionals to have a set-in-stone design that communicates in a consistent way to the most people.

Btw, ad hominem attacks are lame. You don't see me making "Your 40 year-old eyes are having problems reading the web, because they don't design porn chat rooms for people of your advanced years" comments.

Luke Duff
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Luke Duff wrote:  "...most of the people designing web pages these days aren't expert professionals, they're dumbasses."

This is certainly true.  What really irritates me are web pages that contain huge amounts of needless graphics (rounded corners, rotating 3-D logos, etc.), as if the average site-visitor is expected to be a moron with a T3 connection.

In the past, I used to send polite, detailed e-mail messages to the webmasters of sites that I frequent (mostly sites that are based in my geographic area, but also alumni sites for my _alma maters_).  In general, I have not found the webmasters to be receptive to constructive criticism.  Usually, I'm lucky if they deign to fix broken links.

J. D. Trollinger
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Luke, I'm the one making ad hominem attacks not because I wish to be a name-caller, but because I'm trying to rationalize how someone can have the opinion that his sense of aesthetics is superior to the needs of his customers, that the appearance is more important than the content, that the style should overrule the substance. The absolute only thing that explains it is that you must be very new to this scene. The fact that you beleive layout and typesetting are difficult, and that they are more important than readability don't make you look professional. They make you look childish.

Having read a number of design books myself, I can vouch that design is not difficult -- usually 70% of design books are pictures. Guidelines for good design are straightforward enough that anyone who has access to the list can follow them. It's not difficult. Anyone who makes out that they're difficult (similar to the HTML typists than call themselves programers) must have seen very little of the real world to think that such a tiny and simple part of it requires professional-level skill.

I suspect your sites look very nice, given how strongly you feel about design and that you seem to have covered the basics of typography and layout. However, if you were my employee, and we received requests to make the site easier to read, and you copped this artiste attitude about it that your desires overruled everyone else's needs. . .

Troy King
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

"Having a document look exactly the same on every platform is obviously not possible, but it's a goal that every medium should aspire to. TV, DVD, movie theatres, books all work that way." says Luke Duff.

The web is different and is designed to be accessed in many different ways. A site will never look the same to a person using a PDA as someone using a PC. Indeed some people can't see the web at all but use screen reading or braille software to access the web.

If you don't give end users control then you end up locking people out of the web. Only a minority of users may change their browser's preferences, but they will tend to be people who have to change preferences to access information at all. Your colour scheme may be great for 99% of people, but the 1% who need to change the colours, should be allowed to.

As a designer I don't aspire to all users getting a site that looks the same. I can only hope to present a design that works and pleases the people it's aimed at. If people have particular needs then any changes should be easy to make and we shouldn't be precious about it.

The web is not simply visual design, pages can be looked at, printed, read out or indexed by robots. Important for design is what goes on beneath the surface of a page and whether the underlying structure makes the pages accessible.

If you want to designs that are "set in stone" stick to print, or even better, stonemasonry. These designs don't work on the web.

Matthew Farrand
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

>I'm trying to rationalize how someone can have the
>opinion that his sense of aesthetics is superior to the
>needs of his customers,
>that the appearance is more important than the content,
>that the style should overrule the substance.

Well, you've got me all wrong.

Style *is* substance. Just like metadata *is* data. It characterizes the content in important ways that shouldn't be lost or twisted by the end user.

As people on here have said before, people won't read a site with tiny text that's gray on black. If the site author actually wanted people to read it, he has failed. Big time! If he was trying to make a point with the design, then I suppose he succeded in some weirdo aesthetic kinda way.

Maybe the author is some Goth kid that doesn't want people over 30 reading his site anyway. He knows his target audience.

It's a bit presumptuous for an end user to say "What he really meant was to make this text black-on-white in a huge font size. And put it in a typeface that I happen to like."

You can zap his colors and increase the font size, but you're no longer viewing or reading the guy's page. You're disassembling it, and taking content out of context.

This isn't 'copping an artiste attitude'. It's a realization that communication takes many channels. Some are not so obvious, but it doesn't make them less important.

>The absolute only thing that explains it is that you must
>be very new to this scene. The fact that you beleive
>layout and typesetting are difficult, and that they are
>more important than readability don't make you look
>professional. They make you look childish.

Readability doesn't trump everything in all cases. Readability is extemely important if you want something to actually be readable though (which should be the case almost all of the time).

>Having read a number of design books myself, I can
>vouch that design is not difficult -- usually 70% of design
>books are pictures.

Heh. Gray's Anatomy has a lot a pictures too. Do you bring your own scalpel to the hospital?

I'm actually a software developer now, but I used to do graphic design. They require different skill sets, but both are very hard to do extremely well.

One problem with graphic design is that *everyone* thinks they are a designer, your clients, your sales people, your project manager, your end users. Maybe that's true because it's hard to objectively measure success (though it can be done).

Yeah, yeah I've had clients that think they're software developers too, but it doesn't happen nearly as often as doing design work.

> your desires overruled everyone else's needs. . .

Not what I'm saying at all.

I'm saying context is often as important as content. Letting end user's modify design at their own whim can be detrimental to communication.

Luke Duff
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Zooming the page will not make a bad fixed-width design any better, merely bigger. Also, since it increases the width of the page, a user with a small monitor might have to scroll the page both ways to read the text. So I still think we need the option of scaling the font itself, not just the whole page, as this is not always the best solution.

Luke: You say that you want to communicate in a consistent way to most people. If then, half of your target audience can't read, or at least have problems reading your text because it's too small, do you consider this a consistent way of communication? Do you want your pages to be consistently hard to read?

I'm 25 years old, and still like my fonts big.  Not because I have poor vision (I don't), and not because my screen is to small (It's a 24" Trinitron) but simply because with large fonts I can lean back in my chair and _comfortably_ read the page.

When I go to a web-site I usually don't go there to admire their great design, but to get information. That makes the readability and accessibility of the information the primary goal, and any design should be created to support this  goal. If the opposite happens the design is a failure, no matter how pretty.

In any case, creating scalable pages that look great is really not that hard, it's merely a creative challenge. Use it to your advantage.

Daniel Staver
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Matthew Farrand says:
"The web is different and is designed to be accessed in many different ways. A site will never look the same to a person using a PDA as someone using a PC. Indeed some people can't see the web at all but use screen reading or braille software to access the web."

Good point, but I don't think the web is so different from print.

Like designing a corporate logo. You have to make sure it looks good on the annual report, on a business card, on a t-shirt, on letter-head, painted 50ft high on the side of a sports arena, faxed, photocopied, photocopied again, color or black and white etc.

Design a hard thing to do. Not everybody can come up with a genius logo like what UPS has for example.

A website for a normal browser and a website for a PDA are two different things. I think it's a cop out to try to make a layout that'll work for both. You can do it, but your end user would be better served by a hand-crafted layout made for their platform (while trying to keep a consistent design theme across the various layouts).

It's like cross-platform software. So easy for the developer, so crappy for the end user.

Luke Duff
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Luke, I think people are picking on you because you've leaned too far to an extreme.

Although you've asserted that context is important, you've conceded that many pages are wrapped in poor design.

It's wonderful when a good designer makes a great page.  But that's not always the case.  Why disallow end-users the ability to more easily access content by changing font size?  Clearly, the current context for them is detrimental.  Perhaps they's on a PDA display or something.

I think we object to your desire to remove a tool because it can be misused.  We feel that since it can be properly used, it should be left in.

David Blume
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Speaking of UPS, did anyone see the television commercials they were running a few months ago?  They kept referring to themselves as "Brown", instead of as "UPS".  E.g., "Brown gets your packages delivered on-time.  Brown has a world-wide network of agents", or something similar.

Weirdness.  Some sort of attempt at re-branding, I guess.  I'm not sure I like it.

J. D. Trollinger
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Daniel Staver says:
"Luke: You say that you want to communicate in a consistent way to most people. If then, half of your target audience can't read, or at least have problems reading your text because it's too small, do you consider this a consistent way of communication? Do you want your pages to be consistently hard to read?"

Me? No, of course not.

I'm saying a font size adjuster feature in a browser doesn't magically turn bad designs into good designs, and in my experience, can hinder good designs.

Lots of sites have text that's too small. Yes, people who do those bad designs should be shot. I'm not a proponent of itty bitty letters.

The problem with the font sizer comes in where a user, in response to the tiny text sites, adjusts their fonts larger to try to make it more readable.

Then they browse on over to your site, which now looks all screwed up through no fault of your own. Headlines break in the wrong places, tables/graphics might not line up right, whatever. Now you look bad.

Sure, you can treat font sizing as another factor to plan for in your design. But it's yet another thing forcing you to dumb down your design, making your site less usable/readable. The more variables you have to plan for, the more liquid (i.e. crappy) your design has to be.

Allowing designers (real ones who know what they're doing) to fix font sizes allows more sophisticated designs that are more readable and easier to use.

Luke Duff
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

You are invited to read this thread at alt.html;

"exact Font size tag"

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

You cannot design for every platform. There are too many ways of accessing the net and two people accessing the net using the same platform can have very different needs.

A sighted person and a blind person can both access a site using IE for Windows. The difference is that the blind person could be using a screen reader. The logs of the site would show no difference.

If you design using web standards it's perfectly possible to have a site where the info is accessible to everyone. If you confine HTML to structural info and use CSS for presentation, the info in your site will be accessible to everyone and the presentation visible to most people. In addition, if the presentation hinders some people's ability to use the site, they can turn it off or change it.

The web was designed to be universal and accessible. For some people particularly many disabled people the hype is true and the web can change their lives. The web has enabled some people to achieve independence and given them access to info they could not have got unaided before.

Good web design is very important. To see web design as nearly identical to print design means you are restricting your audience and restricting your own skills. When film came out people used theatrical techniques at first and it took a while before film makers realised that movies were a new medium with different techniques to learn. Similarly, early TV was like the radio with pictures.

As designers we should aim to make our sites as accessible as possible and avoid these elitist, patronising attitudes that we know best for everyone and our work is sacred.

Matthew Farrand
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

At the doctor's office:

"Here's some pills.  Normally people take 3 a day, but maybe you know better."

Perfect world?

Dave Rutledge
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Wow, quite a lot of extremism here! Luke's making some valid points; David Blume cutions that maybe he's being too extreme; LOTS of extreme positions the other way!

A couple things haven't been directly surfaced in this convo:

The Web is not monolithic. It's not a single-purpose medium. There are sites that are meant to be fonts of information related in verbal form (; others that are meant to be applications (banking, stock market tools, shopping sites); others that entirely about visuals -- painting, animation, and have little to offer to blind people; others playing music and offering little to deaf people (or those uninterested in music). It's available in many contexts -- controlled environments (corporate intranets); tighly focused demographic groups (blind people using Braille readers, teen skate punks); mass markets (news sites, hotel booking engines); the list goes on.  These examples doesn't even *begin* to describe the range of uses to which we put HTML and its various associated technologies.

These uses require various design solutions. Sites about verbal content tend to need that content to be well-organized, accessible to people with a wide range if viewing habits, likes and restrictions, compatible with a wide variety of platforms, etc. Liquid design, highly customizable by the end-user is an appropriate *design solution* for this class of problems. Sites about design have a different class of pronblems; as Luke rightly points out, the design *is* the content. Pr0n thumbnails aside, a site for a professional photographer might legitimately need to have tight control over its visuals *outside* the individual photos themselves.

And, users *are* smart, stupid, engaged, lazy, etc. I see a lot of PeeCee users with their windows still maximized on their 17" monitors running at high resolution. They don't *know* that long lines of text are hard to read; but when presented a lyout that uses columns of an appropriate type size:line length ratio, they indeed find it easier to read. This doesn't make them stupid; it's simply a knowledge domain they areen;t familiar with, and it's the designer's job to help them.

It's the designer's job to make the right decisions in light of the site's goals. Good design IS hard. Just as with desktop publishing, we again have powerful and complex design tools in available to the masses. This cuts both ways: ppl who wouldn't or couldn't publish or design before can do so now. Some have or learn to do it effectively, some don't. The audience votes with its feet; people whose sites dont[ work for their users find out, and decide if they want to fix it or not  based on a variety of criteria. A single user may or may not change a designer's mind; it *depends*.

So, all you dogmatists -- "frames are evil! target attributes break accessibility! I need to be able to change the site myself if I want!" -- you're at least as extreme as you portray Luke. Things are good or bad within a *context*.

If you're a designer, you're trying to make these decisions, and giving the user control is not necessarliy a good thing. If you're not a designer, or your CONTEXT makes user control useful, then there are tools and techniques that can help.

Just my $0.02... I could be wrong.

Val Cohen
Tuesday, August 20, 2002


I won't offer unsolicited criticism.  But, I would like to see sites you've created.  It'll give me more context for your stance on the value of presentation.

In good faith, I admit that presentation means little to me, as is evident by my site.  Google "David Blume"  (I'm Feeling Lucky will take you to it.)

Is yours?

David Blume
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

David Blume, I'm actually not a web designer. I just hang out with them. They'd probably all be happy to hear me standing up for good designers. :)

Geeklife is my site, but I didn't do the design. I use it more as a programming practice space. The typography isn't that accessible but the target audience is very narrow (generally personal friends of mine).

Design-stuff I like on it: fixed columns, non-threaded non-collapsed non-paged message boards (I hate clicking).

I'll pass on any constructive design criticisms to the interested parties.

A very interesting and excellent site to bring into this discussion is where font sizing is actually incorporated into the design. That's totally the way to go.

Giving control to the end user is very valid, but it needs to be an intelligent, well thought-out *design* decision. Not a default.

Luke Duff
Tuesday, August 20, 2002


That's a very nice personal site. Easy to read and fun and I like the map thing very much in your life story. Excellent use of illustration.

Ah, Robotech... Minmai and Rick.
And when the Robotech movie came out - wow!

X. J. Scott
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Well, I weigh in with Luke on every point - except that for a website I think that 'failing gracefully' is part of the spec. That includes failing to give the perfect presentation but still adequate when the user scales fonts (which by and large is something you want). There is a myth that html is like Java, write once run everywhere (I know, another myth),  but it isn't really. You want it to look best on your first target, second best on the second target etc. You also certainly want to have a device version if that is a target. Also, MS actually is the only browser that gets it right, specifying point size means specifying point size. It the wc3 that got it wrong by going with that type of attribute, though I doubt they would ever admit that.

But don't underestimate the importance of good design. If your designer sucks, that doesn't mean good design isn't important - no different than programming. Even purists don't use ascii, because like everyone else they know deep inside that presentation  and structure is important. A (good) graphic designer does that better than a non graphic designer, I hardly see anyone wanting to debate that.

I also disagree the web is 'about' anything. Your page is about something, the next page is about something else - there is no agenda I know of. The web is a bunch of computers hooked together, with some security restrictions. Within those bounds, you are free to send out your message in any way you see fit. Why is it always the people talking about 'universal freedom' that are trying to lock me in a box and take away my pencils? Don't I count?

Robin Debreuil
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

IE Mac has excellent fonts size changing (command + and -), and it always works. You can also set the default DPI of you screen so it translates points into units other than pixels (and other than 4/3 of a pixel as Windows does by default).

What I want now is a column flow algorithm so when I resize the window wide on a Cinema display I get a sereis of columns flowing down then left to rigth wiht a sensible default width.

Kevin Marks
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Robin, no one is arguing that good design is unimportant. Speaking for myself, content is king, not formatting, and if I can't read your content, or at least alter it on my side so I can read it, then who cares how good it looks?

Troy King
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Bet you wouldn't say that about a porn site ; ).

I agree about the resized fonts, in general. At least everyone should be aware that many will have a hard time reading it - the problem is most people don't even know. How would you if you only have one computer and one set of eyes. Not everyone wants to know that much about the stupidities of html... That is probably the biggest problem.

I think its like choosing a mate, you want to look at both the content (brain) and the packaging (body). I would weigh their importance the same too, personally leaning towards content, but appreciating the presentation. I wonder if people would always scale those two areas in the same way (leaning one way or the other for both)?

Maybe there is a deep hidden window to humanity there. Maybe we are on the verge of cracking the code, unlocking untold secrets of the ancients. This could really be the big one! Or maybe this is just another day on the joelonsoftware fourm, notably 21.08.02 9:47pm BST.

Robin Debreuil
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Hooray, some people agree with me and I look less crazy. :)

To sum up for Troy, content is king but take a minute to think about the possibility that often formatting *is* content.

This is why a font-sizer button that can jumble up and destroy a design is as scary to a designer as a button that rearranges words would be to an author.

Luke Duff
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I think the tagline goes:

"The medium IS the message."
- Marshall McLuhan (Oracle of the Electronic Age)

Dunno Wair
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

"The medium IS the message."

In college, we used to say, "Quantity IS quality", when justifying purchases of incredibly cheap beer (usually Goebel's or Stegmeier at ~3.99 a case, circa 1986)

J. D. Trollinger
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Let's look at all the possibilities here:

A site is designed with a large font. Changing it may or may not screw up the site, and the designer may or may not have fixed the font size in CSS. Well, nobody complains about wanting to make a font SMALLER than intended, right? Microsoft's choice doesn't seem to matter here.

A site is designed with a small font, but changing it doesn't screw up the site. The designer wouldn't use fixed font size (except for by mistake, which they could then fix..) and so users can decide their own font size. Nobody argues that Microsoft's new font sizing rules seem fine here.

Finally, a site is designed with a small font and making it bigger screws up the layout of everything else. Therefore, the designer sets the font so people can't change it, because he doesn't want his site to look all stupid. If somebody doesn't want to visit the site because they can't read it, that's fine, it's their decision and the designer's own loss. It was a decision he made when he designed the site. And remember, if a person REALLY wants to read a site, there's always copying and pasting the text into word and making the font size as big as you damn well please! If you're not worried about keeping the web site looking nice, what do you care about just reading the document in a word processor?

I think the new policy works fine and handles all cases in a way that is respectful to both the user and the site designer.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

"if a person REALLY wants to read a site, there's always copying and pasting the text into word"

I do agree with you that this is the attitude many web designers seem to have.

Although it's a small comfort knowing that these badly designed sites may go out of business, it seems unlikely that the owners will think small fonts are what did them in. They're more likely to say it was a bad business model or the world wasn't ready for internet deliver of hot fried doughnuts and move on to their next enterprise with even smaller fonts.

Sarain H.
Thursday, August 22, 2002

I don't have any data to back-up my opinion, but I doubt that illegible fonts are the main cause of surfer dissatisfaction.

Myself, I can't stand sites that are slow to load.  Nothing irritates me more than a page with 200K of worthless graphics on it.  One of the local television stations here has just such a site.  You'd have to have the patience of Mother Teresa to read more than a few articles on the site.

I also hate sites that have un-intuitive navigation systems.  I particularly loathe mystery-meat navigation:

J. D. Trollinger
Thursday, August 22, 2002

"I particularly loathe mystery-meat navigation."

As one of my good friends says,  "Hey!  I resemble that remark."

David Blume
Thursday, August 22, 2002

J.D., out of curiosity, what are the TV station's call letter or their Web address? I peripherally work with several companies that specialize in TV station web sites.

Troy King
Thursday, August 22, 2002

Troy, I prefer not to link to the page directly (they might recognize me from this thread), but you can copy-and-paste  When their "improved" site went live about six months ago, many of the pages had graphics totalling close to 200K.  I haven't checked the site lately, but I bet it hasn't improved much, if at all.

J. D. Trollinger
Friday, August 23, 2002

A very interesting and excellent site to bring into this discussion is where font sizing is actually incorporated into the design. That's totally the way to go.

I tried this site.  On the homepage the fonts are relative, not absolute.  When I re-sized the fonts, the page layout retained its look and form nicely.  So, in essence this page serves an example of not having to use fixed fonts to achieve a uniform layout.  Maybe I missed the point, but isn't this counter to your argument?

And remember, if a person REALLY wants to read a site, there's always copying and pasting the text into word and making the font size as big as you damn well please!

Actually, I do this so much that I ended up writing a Word macro to paste plain text then format the document to my preferences.  The problem generally isn't the page layout or font sizes, though.  The real problem is that there are so many animated GIF's, blinking text ads, and Flash animations that it's hard to focus on reading the content with all that visual noise.

I'd trade a fixed-font size-changer or zoom button for a "Disable Blinking Crap" button any day.

Nick Hebb
Friday, August 23, 2002

> wroctv

Yeah that's pretty bad. It took a minute before the page even started being displayed. And the graphics are still downloading...

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Shoudn't we respect the designer's creative freedom?  They want the dot to be at that exact pixel and the "Z" to be of that exact width.

I mean the magazines and morning newspapers and textbooks does not have this "Changing font size" feature anyway.

If you don't like "Saving Private Ryan", do you complain to Steven Spielberg that it is too violent?  Or to George Lucas that "The Empire Strikes Back" is too dark?  That's their creative freedom and if you don't like, don't watch/read.

Amour Tan
Thursday, August 29, 2002

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