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  1. #1
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    Lightbulb 'Universal' Font Sizing

    By using ems or percentages with CSS, designers can now set font sizes that are precise and proportionally resizable. However, unless the values are thoroughly thought out and tested, other limitations that affect usability can pop up. Even skilled and well-respected designers often do not get it quite right.

    The problem crops up when a designer sizes the fonts to look optimal at the browser's default font setting of 'medium'. But if a user has their browser configured to 'small' font option, the font is unreadable. Because I am one of those unfortunate users, I see this failing a lot, even on sites that are well-coded and validated to current standards. You can see for yourself by resetting your browser font option to small and taking a tour of your favorite tech sites. Welcome to my Lilliputian world.

    It is a mystery to me why designers haven't caught on to this glitch. By testing a page at every font option size in the browser, it becomes painfully obvious.

    Owen Briggs has thoroughly explored the issue of font sizing If designers would take the time to read his conclusions the web would be a much more accessible place. But either designers aren't finding this information or they are not understanding and testing as well as they should.

    Here are the general principles:

    1. Set the body font-size to less than 100%. This frees the page from the browser's default font size which is unusually large in most cases. This 'base' font size will be the one used for most of the text on the page/site.

    2. The font size of other elements can be adjusted up or down as necessary.

    The trick is in getting just the right value set in the body. I find that 80% works well at all font options sizes across browsers but have also used Owens' recommended 76%. The percentages will need to be adjusted slightly depending on the font-family used.

    The first priority of a designer should be accessibility, IMO. Fonts should and CAN be readable from smallest to largest without any one option being excessively small or large. Visitors shouldn't have to do a thing to view a site. If a designer does his job right, they won't have to!

  2. #2
    SitePoint Wizard gold trophysilver trophybronze trophy dc dalton's Avatar
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    Well my dear this is where you and I are going to part company BIG TIME. I was thinking about this ever since you mentioned it to me about my site the other day and Ive come to this conclusion ...... oh well. Now before you blow a gasket here are my thoughts.

    When a user manually reconfigures their browser, especially downsizing fonts like this THEY have taken the responsibility, its no longer in my hands. Now you told me the other day the reason you set your fonts to small is because most sites fonts are huge at the medium setting (which BTW is the default setting on 99% of the browsers.) ... So you are telling me I have to increase the font size up to the HUGE level for the bulk of users who surf with the normal medium setting ... nope aint gonna do it!

    As far as using percentages Ive done it in the past and I HATE THEM... from browser to browser they can vary wildly!

    I WILL cater to those who HAVE to change their browser settings (IE: upping the font size because of vision problems) ........ those who DECIDE to reset everything and then expect me to tailor my pages to them.... NOPE.. Key difference here ...... have to and decide to! Just the minor changes I did talking to you the other day make my site look like CRAP ... reminds me of the Big lined paper in elementary school.

    Sorry ... on this one we will have to agree to disagree.

  3. #3
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    dc . . . it isn't either/or. It's just the best of both. All my sites are readable down to SMALLEST font size (one below my preferred small setting) yet the medium setting is still quite small. Check them out..

    As I said before, I think accessibilty should be a designers #1 priority. You, of course, can have it your way but that will keep me from hanging out on your sites and that's a damn shame. Exclusion is never a good thing IMO . . .
    Last edited by earther; Oct 21, 2005 at 21:14.

  4. #4
    SitePoint Wizard gold trophysilver trophybronze trophy dc dalton's Avatar
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    Well I tried this guys little "trick" with setting the body font-size to 100% and I have to eat a little crow here and admit it does seem to work ..... dont undertand how at all but setting it to 100% and then adjusting all the other fonts to what I want seems fine ........ guess you can teach an old dog new tricks!

    Ill have to do some more testing across the browsers to make sure...

  5. #5
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    Hello

    Its one of Mr. Gates fine Product “Finesses” like you have to give font-size to td’s in IE5 IE 5.5

  6. #6
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    Hey, dc . . . The dcddesigns site looks perfect now. I can even read it at the smallest setting. And now I can come play with the pi$$ed off parrot. YEA!

    I wrote to ALA about this glitch last night (as their site suffers from it also) with hopes that they will get the message out to the design community at large.

  7. #7
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    Talking

    Thanks for your info, earther , this problem bother me long time.


    _____________________
    James Tan
    Malaysia Web Hosting

  8. #8
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    I finally got a response from Jeffrey Zeldman over at ALA. It kinda got my hackles up. He can blame it on the user all he wants but IMO, IT IS THE DESIGNER'S RESPONSIBILITY TO MAKE SITES AS ACCESSIBLE AS POSSIBLE TO AS MANY BROWSER FONT SETTINGS AS POSSIBLE. Hopefully, after some discussion amongst themselves (the door was politely slammed in my face), they will come to the same conclusion also.

    There's a downside to every font sizing method, no matter how accessible it is intended to be. Our method frustrates you, your method would frustrate someone else.

    As it happens, you can easily solve your problem by resetting your browser to medium instead of small. Doing so will give you a better idea of how most sites look to most users, which is something I would think you'd appreciate since you're in the same business we're in ... namely, designing sites.

    As a site designer, you probably want to see what most users see, don't you?

    The medium setting lets you do that.

    The small setting doesn't.

    But you know that.

    If you choose to use only the small setting and you also choose not to change the setting when type looks small on a site like ours, I can't help but feel that your problem is self-inflicted. You're like a person who wears sunglasses to the movie theater and then complains that the screen wasn't bright enough.

    Your alternate method of font solving will solve the problem you're having but could create a problem for a different user. We will think about your alternative method, not because you sent the same rant twice, but because we are thoughtful people driven by an almost insatiable desire to find and create best practices that serve the user and the designer.

    No need to write again; we're done here.

    Thanks for writing and and have a pleasant day.

  9. #9
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    Here's my response to Zeldman et al:
    Thank you for responding to my comments.

    You might be done. I am not quite.

    I am more a than a little shocked by your attitude that anyone who chooses not to use the browser default option is self-inflicting the misery of unreadability. It is rather reminiscent of going to a site and seeing caveats like these:

    "This site is best viewed using Internet Explorer at a screen resolution of 1280 x 1024 ."

    "To view this site you must have Macromedia Flash installed. Please download here."

    Perhaps using a span tag with a larger font, you could post this on your site:

    "This site is only readable at a medium or larger browser font setting. You must reconfigure your browser to view this site."

    You get the idea.

    In any case, this is about usability not about my personal preferences - I'm sure I am not the only one out there who has changed a font setting. When I design a site I torture it at every browser font setting available from smallest to largest. This is from concern for visitors that might come to those sites with a variety of browser configurations. I am at a loss to understand why you have not cared enough for your visitors to do the same. As I keep repeating . . . accessibility should be a designers #1 priority.

    Feel free to continue this discussion. I am a collaborator who works toward the best possible solutions to any problem and am at your service to offer feedback.

    Please do keep in touch and have a wonderful evening.

  10. #10
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    This response just received from Eric Meyers. Obviously, they are going to have it their way. But as the 'gods' of cutting edge web design, I think they are doing a great disservice to not only a certain segment of users but to the community at large for advocating for less than 100% accessibility when a site loads. As I said before . . . it is not either/or; it is the best of both. 100% readability at all font options should be a non-negotiable standard that seems to escape these very talented minds. How sad . . .
    -- I said: In any case, this is about usability not about my personal preferences --
    Yes and no. The site is usable in the sense that it allows the user to resize text, either up or down. It is unusable to you at your browser settings because you have lowered your text setting below the default.

    Your complaint is analogous to a situation where we'd not reduced the font size, and someone who had configured their browser to default to "Large" complained that the text was too big to be easily legible. That objection would be no less valid than yours-- and yet, the site in such a case would be as usable as it is now. It would just annoy a different set of users in a different way.

    Jeffrey made the point that there are no good font sizing choices:

    "There's a downside to every font sizing method, no matter how accessible it is intended to be."

    That's very unfortunately true. It's been a source of constant frustration to me, and to many designers. Pixels are not resizeable in IE/Win; keywords are too inconsistent between browsers; fonts sizes below the default using ems or percentages annoy a very small but vocal set of users.

    Here's how we start:

    body {font: 0.8125em Verdana, sans-serif;}

    From there, the main-content text is set to:

    #main {font-size: 0.88em;}

    This means the baseline is 13px on an unaltered browser (which will default to 16px) and the #main div is 0.88 times that, which works out to 11.44px. Of course, for someone who's set their default to 12px, the math works out to 8.58px. Then again, for someone who's set their default to 20px, you get a #main size of 14.3px. And so on.

    Anyway, the elements in the site all scale from the baseline, as you advocate. Where our approach seems to differ from yours is that we scale down from that baseline, instead of always going up.

    Personally, I'd love to be able to set the keywords to specific percentages of the user's default, or even a percentage of some author-defined but still easily resized default. That's way outside the scope of CSS, but it would still be handy.

    I've thought at times that the only way out of this bind, at least for the time being, is with JavaScript. But that, of course, would ill serve those with JavaScript turned off--which is a larger fraction of the user population than those with their font default set below medium.
    -- I said: I'm sure I am not the only one out there who has changed a font setting. --
    No, but you are one of a very, very small minority. Even among people with genuine accessibility needs, there is next to no awareness that the font size can be changed. I was shocked to discover this, but in talking with members of accessibility support groups, this is what I have found.

    So in the end, I think what we're trying to say is that we understand your points, but there are equally valid points supporting what we've done. We made our choice knowing that there would be some annoyed users, and we're sorry that you are one of them. But had we made another choice, we'd be apologizing to someone else for their annoyance.

  11. #11
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    The saga continues . . .

    FWIW, I sent this off earlier this evening.

    Hello Eric:

    I have admired your many contributions to the web design community for a long time and am honored to 'meet' you.

    Quoting "Eric A. Meyer":

    Your complaint is analogous to a situation where we'd not reduced the font size, and someone who had configured their browser to default to "Large" complained that the text was too big to be easily legible. That objection would be no less valid than yours--and yet, the site in such a case would be as usable as it is now. It would just annoy a different set of users in a different way.
    IMO, this twisted logic is grasping at a rationalization. A large font is an aesthetic annoyance but still readable. Nothing can be read when the font is microscopic. This is more than an annoyance. It is an accessibility show-stopper.

    Quoting "Eric A. Meyer":

    Anyway, the elements in the site all scale from the baseline, as you advocate. Where our approach seems to differ from yours is that we scale down from that baseline, instead of always going up.
    This is a red herring. I have resized up as well as down with nearly identical results.

    Quoting "Eric A. Meyer":

    So in the end, I think what we're trying to say is that we understand your points, but there are equally valid points supporting what we've done. We made our choice knowing that there would be some annoyed users, and we're sorry that you are one of them. But had we made another choice, we'd be apologizing to someone else for their annoyance.
    Please, I would like to ask you under what circumstances the font sizing on any of my sites 1) fails to produce readable content at any of the standard font sizing options and/or 2) hinders the quality in any way. Fonts are readable and clear from the very smallest to the very largest setting. ANYONE who visits will be able to see the content with any browser configuration. Just why is this not a better solution? IMO every visitor to a site should be treated with equal respect. No user group should be marginalized or excluded by a designer. It is unnecessary, arrogant and inexcusable. I really am at a loss to understand . . .

    I also wonder whether in any of your tutorials or in any of your books discussing your recommended method of font sizing, you mention (as a disclaimer) that it requires a certain group users to reconfigure their browser to access sites that implement it? Or does it remain undisclosed? I would really like to know the answer to that question.

    I may not be a hotshot designer whose name is synonymous with cutting edge, standards compliant design practices. I may not write weighty technical books. But I do understand a few things about justice, fairness and human nature. People as talented as all of you are should be able to find a solution to this problem. Please don't read that as MY solution. I don't give a rat's *** how it gets accomplished. It is just the right thing to do. The fact, that you don't even consider it to be a problem or your responsibility as designers is deeply disturbing and IMO a great disservice to the web design community that looks to you for the best of the best. Perhaps it is just a another sign of the madness of these unfathomable times . . .

    Respectfully,

  12. #12
    SitePoint Wizard gold trophysilver trophybronze trophy dc dalton's Avatar
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    God I LOVE that woman! earther you without a doubt as big a pain in the ^SS as I could EVER BE .... My hats off to you!

    Thank GOD I was able to solve MY font sizing issue and at least had enough brains to listen and try .... yesh, you make my wife loook like a rank amatuer when it comes to persitence!

  13. #13
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    Off Topic:

    We are a pair aren't we?!

    Oh yeah, I'm persistent all right. It took FOUR years to finally get a GMO label on some HEB products. It took even LONGER and two shareholder resolutions to get a promise from Whole Foods that they would put a friggin' GMO label on their house brand products. (That was in March. No label yet. It might take another resolution!)

    You get the picture . . . I'm always trying to change things for the better.

  14. #14
    SitePoint Zealot harryzimm's Avatar
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    My 2 pence…

    What an incredible thread. A lot of designer/developers work in isolation (me included) and it is gratifying to know there are people out there willing to take the time and flak to make the web (and beyond) into a better place.

    You have certainly brought the issue of font sizing to the forefront of my thinking.

    On the up-side... even in heated disagreement I am glad to see that Zeldman and Meyer made an effort to respond.

    Thanks for being earther!
    harryzimm

  15. #15
    Robert Wellock silver trophybronze trophy xhtmlcoder's Avatar
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    I like percentages if you set the body less the 100% it will reflect and any em units; on my (beta) http://www.xhtmlcoder.com/beck/ I had plans to use percentages for all the fonts but Opera chokes when the CSS percentage increase gets rather large.

    Anyway, it was interesting watching the correspondence.

  16. #16
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    Thanks for the feedback and support. I was beginning to wonder if anyone was tuned in and/or cared.

    Quote Originally Posted by harryzimm
    On the up-side... even in heated disagreement I am glad to see that Zeldman and Meyer made an effort to respond.
    Well, I had to send my original comments TWICE to get a response. I had no idea that it would be Zeldman or Meyer but that was kinda cool.

    I haven't a clue about the dynamics or politics of the elite web designers community but I am beginning to suspect that something there is contributing to their hardened, tunnel-vision position.

    One more thing . . . I have been remiss in commenting that SitePoint's font sizing proportions are spot-on thanks to webmaster guru, mmj. Way to go!!!

  17. #17
    SitePoint Zealot harryzimm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by earther
    Well, I had to send my original comments TWICE to get a response. I had no idea that it would be Zeldman or Meyer but that was kinda cool.
    The contact page on Zeldman's website says...
    We get more mail than Santa Claus. We appreciate it, but can’t always keep up with it. Santa has elves. We don’t.
    The fact that you got a response at all is really great, what with the run-up to Christmas and all!

    Seriously though, I don't want to take away from the original thread. I appreciate that Zeldman and Meyer have acknowledged and responded to your font sizing thoughts. My take is that this is a good thing.

    harryzimm

  18. #18
    ☆★☆★ silver trophy vgarcia's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by earther
    Visitors shouldn't have to do a thing to view a site.
    I don't fully agree with this view. By this logic, screenreaders should be built into browsers and all TV programs should be on open captioning by default. Accessibility is just as much the user's issue as it is the designer's issue.

    Now for the good part: in theory I do agree with you on the font size issue. However, in practice I know your method is a compromise. Font sizing to me is becoming an all-or-nothing issue. Either I retain full cross-browser/platform control by using pixels, or I keep no control by letting the user's font size preference show through on my pages (or making it slightly larger even). Someone's always going to want a different font size than what you've set, so my thought is to either go for it all on my end or give the user what they say they want (their set size).

    Good thread though, nice to see someone taking on the big boys

  19. #19
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    Thanks for checking in, Vinnie.
    Quote Originally Posted by vgarcia
    I don't fully agree with this view. By this logic, screenreaders should be built into browsers and all TV programs should be on open captioning by default. Accessibility is just as much the user's issue as it is the designer's issue.
    I wasn't thinking so broadly. Just basic browser font settings but didn't expresses myself precisely.
    Good thread though, nice to see someone taking on the big boys
    earther is fearless!

  20. #20
    Photo Adventurer DebNCgal's Avatar
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    earther, I appreciate this thread. I just ran across it today. I was struggling yesterday with how I was going to finally set up the fonts on my site but gave up in frustrated confusion. I'm going to experiment using the info provided here. Thanks a lot.
    Quote Originally Posted by earther
    earther is fearless!
    I'm a believer!

  21. #21
    SitePoint Wizard silver trophybronze trophy Nadia P's Avatar
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    For what it's worth: I use 101% or 101.01% as my base font size on the body ..... here's the reason why - written by a friend on another forum, who's also a CSS guru and I believe most everything he says when it comes to CSS

    Just a word of warning on using ems, it you are going to use that unit
    don't use it as your default unit on the body or you will trigger some
    text sizing bugs in earlier versions of IE (5x) where the font size scales
    oddly and becomes very tiny. IMHO I would use %, set the default size on
    the body to 100.01% and then scale off that. For instance:

    p {
    font-size: 80%;
    }
    h1 {
    font-size: 135%;
    }
    Why 101.01% ??

    Negates a bug in older versions of Opera when scaling off the body, Safari - I believe - has problems scaling from 101%, so 100.01% seems a good solution. ie: works reliably cross browser and cross platform.
    Nadia

  22. #22
    The CSS Clinic is open silver trophybronze trophy
    Paul O'B's Avatar
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    Hi,

    I'm a little confused by ALA's reply because the only reason that their site is unreadable in ie at smaller resolutions is because of a simple ie bug that I thought everybody knew about (and is mentioned in the above post as affecting ie5 but does also affect ie6).

    In the ALA stylesheet they have defined the base size for the body in ems.
    Code:
    body {font: 0.8125em Verdana, sans-serif;}
    Now in all browsers that is effectively the same as setting 81.25%. However when you use ems in IE for the body font-size then the scalability goes all out of whack and the text goes way too small much and way too large when using the text resize from the IE browser controls.

    The simple answer is to use percent for the body font-size and everythng reverts back to normal.

    Code:
    body {font: 81.25% Verdana, sans-serif; line-height: 1; color: #333; background: #FFF;}
    The only drawback is that the text doesn't get as large as before but of course this is just using 81.25% and the page elements could be made a little larger.

    Here are a couple of examples and you can switch between the two to see that there is no difference in firefox but in ie only the percent font-sizing remains readable.

    http://www.pmob.co.uk/temp/text-sizing-em.htm
    http://www.pmob.co.uk/temp/text-sizing-percent.htm

    The ALA stylesheet could be changed to using 81.25% and immediately the whole site is readable at all text-sizing in IE. This has no detrimental effects on other browsers (as far as I can see) and there seems little reason for them not to use it. I copied the site locally and indeed it worked straight out of the box .

    Of course we could also size our elements in em width and the have elastic designs such as this one from zen garden.

    http://www.csszengarden.com/?cssfile...063.css&page=0

    There is also another interesting article here:

    http://www.gunlaug.no/contents/wd_1_03_04.html

    In the end it just comes down to testing and adjusting to make sure that things work (or are readable) in all the ie settings. You can never have 100% control of your layout as users could ignore your font-sizes altogether but it makes sense to make the layout work at various text settings

  23. #23
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    Thanks for jumping in, Paul. Who needs Zeldman and Meyer when we have O'Brien!

    ALA's setting of the body font to 0.8125em is only part of the problem. It is compounded by the fact that they further downsize the other element tags from there! For example, the font-size of the main content float is 0.88em!! So that's a real double whammy. I would only downsize from the base font for selected elements (maybe some footer info that is not of primary importance) but NEVER for the main content of the site.

    Yes, this is an easy bug to fix. I know it. You know it. The question is why does the solution fall on deaf ears? IMO, their position is indefensible yet they keep on trying.

    I am still awaiting an answer to the two questions I asked of them in my last correspondence:

    1. Just how does the method that I/we use fail at any browser font setting the user may choose. What are their objections to it?

    2. Do they disclose the fact anywhere in their books or tuts that the method they use FAILS at only one font setting below default.

    I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for a response . . .

  24. #24
    The CSS Clinic is open silver trophybronze trophy
    Paul O'B's Avatar
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    Well there argument really fails on all levels as far as I can see because even with their compounding of the font-size it it still readable at all text sizes when I copied the site locally.

    I can't really post their site as a demo but you can copy the code for yourself and try it out and it just needs the one change from ems to percent.
    here are some shots at all text sizes when I change that one line of code:

    http://www.pmob.co.uk/temp/images/ala-largest.gif
    http://www.pmob.co.uk/temp/images/ala-larger.gif
    http://www.pmob.co.uk/temp/images/ala-medium.gif
    http://www.pmob.co.uk/temp/images/ala-smaller.gif
    http://www.pmob.co.uk/temp/images/ala-smallest.gif

    In my mind that is much more preferable to what they have in ie at present because the text is already too small at smaller and at largest the whole layout is blown to pieces. Therefore the only usable sizes they have at present are medium and larger.

    Changing from ems to percent makes little or no difference to other browsers anyway so there can be no argument there.

  25. #25
    100% Windoze-free earther's Avatar
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    Yeah, it's a simple fix. WHY AREN'T THEY 'GETTING' IT? What do they gain by having it their way? The logic (or lack thereof) escapes me.


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