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  1. #1
    Don't eat yellow snow spaceman's Avatar
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    Why do (some) web designers love small text?

    Why do some (too many?) web designers favour small (or even tiny) text?

    Apparently (or so I've deduced) tiny text is 'cool' and is consistent with 'good design'. Or even perhaps most web designers are in their 20's, have 20-20 vision, and simply can't get their heads around the possibility that lots of target market people aged 35+ don't have such great eyesight as they do.

    IMHO, the BBC News website is excellent, and the text size they use should be a reference guide for how small (but no smaller) general information text on a website should go.

    Does anyone else have any comments or opinions on this?

    Thanks.
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    This is a good point that you bring up. I also favor the same text and run into the same problem. People cant read the text I put up. I would have to say that the smaller text (usually) looks cleaner and fits most designs easier. I'd say with smaller text, less thought has to be put into the typography selection.

    Yet... On the flip side. 'Most' of those users with vision not so great, tend to have screen resolutions around 800x600 or 1024x768, which makes it more legible even at 10-11px depending on the font. So this may cancel its self out a bit?

  3. #3
    Nicking the Bevel Highway Seven's Avatar
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    Small text was in style for some time, but since Web 2.0 has come around, the trend is leaning towards larger font sizes.

    But if your question is simply "why": it's cool and sophisticated. That's why.

    Think of it as biting one's thumb at homegrown webpages featuring Comic Sans and Times New Roman in 30 pixel font size.
    Daniel

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    Maybe you need a bigger screen? That makes a big difference.

    I started using small text because so many people asked me how to make text smaller, I get thousands of searches about it. Personally, I like how it looks, the density.

    Font-family:small fonts; is about as small as you can get. I guess it depends on your market, like you said, young people prefer small text because it's "kool". I actually have a blog called Koolwriting.

    When I look at my Quantcast stats, the average age is pretty low, so I figure small text makes sense. Also, CPM goes up with small fonts because your ads (with larger text) are more visible, and the surfer isn't scrolling as much.

    And you can always press Alt+ to increase the size of everything on the screen, in all the browsers, try it.

    From an SEO standpoint it's a bad idea. Don't use "font" tags, period. Search engines will probably penalize low-pixel inline fonts. Chances are they won't bother to waste crawl/CPU time to look study your style.css, classes, ids, etc.

  5. #5
    Don't eat yellow snow spaceman's Avatar
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    In reply to the suggestion that "too small? - easy, just hit Ctrl+" my response is

    1) As easy as that is, a wild guess would be that less than 10% of the population (and that's probably being very generous) know this.
    2) Let's assume everyone knows this (above). I would bet you that - given the current state of many 'cool' websites being a font size or two too small - that Ctrl+ would be used a whole heap more than Ctrl-. You don't often (ever?) hear of people complaining that font size is too big and diving for Ctrl- to make the text smaller!

    The point is that the vast majority of non-seriously-visually-impaired folk should IMHO be able to read text on a website comfortably, first time, without having to dive for Ctrl+.

    I've asked raised this same issue with a few web usability consultant friends of mine. Here are some of the links, with selective highlights from the articles, fyi:

    http://www.w3.org/QA/Tips/font-size
    A certain trend among designers, believing that small text gives a Web page a sleek appearance and provides more space per "page" for actual content, sometimes results in the use of unreasonably small font sizes.
    Unfortunately, this does not go well with the diversity of platforms used to access Web pages, from portable devices with tiny screens to projection devices hooked to computers. And even within a specific platform, text settings may vary. The problem here is a basic usability and accessibility issue: a good design should look good without requiring the user to enlarge or reduce the text size.
    http://www.usability.gov/pdfs/chapter11.pdf (see section 11.8)
    Research has shown that fonts smaller than 12 points elicit slower reading performance from users. For users over age 65, it may be better to use at least fourteen-point fonts. Never use less than nine-point font a Web site.
    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20020819.html
    Make your default font size reasonably big (at least 10 point) so that very few users have to resort to manual overrides.
    http://www.webaim.org/techniques/fonts/
    A safe rule-of-thumb is to specify font sizes that the vast majority of people without disabilities can view without difficulty.
    http://desktoppub.about.com/cs/finet.../type_size.htm
    Choose a font size that is easy to read.
    The younger and the older your target audience, the larger the type size should be for comfortable reading. Getting older doesn't necessarily mean poor eyesight for everyone; however, declining vision is a common side effect of aging.
    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20021223.html
    Style sheets unfortunately give websites the power to disable a Web browser's "change font size" button and specify a fixed font size. About 95% of the time, this fixed size is tiny, reducing readability significantly for most people over the age of 40.
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    Don't eat yellow snow spaceman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pjbrunet View Post
    Maybe you need a bigger screen? That makes a big difference.
    Are you serious? . Wouldn't it be a thousand times easier and cheaper and more convenient for the designer to up his font size a point or two, rather than millions of people having to buy larger screens?!?

    Surely designers are prepared to sacrifice 10% 'coolness' for 100% more usability for the greater good of building websites for people other than themselves (which, presumably, is what they get paid to do)?

    Or am I just showing my age (40)?
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    Don't eat yellow snow spaceman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dcfauno View Post
    Small text was in style for some time, but since Web 2.0 has come around, the trend is leaning towards larger font sizes.
    I kinda love Web 2.0 for that simple reason. Big, bold, simple messages.

    e.g. http://www.sendalong.com/index.html

    You don't get much cooler than an Apple iPhone, right? That's not about seeing how small they can go with the text. It's about big, bold, clickable buttons. No user manual required because it's just so easy/obvious/usable. (btw, I don't have one).
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    Quote Originally Posted by spaceman View Post
    Apparently (or so I've deduced) tiny text is 'cool' and is consistent with 'good design'. Or even perhaps most web designers are in their 20's, have 20-20 vision, and simply can't get their heads around the possibility that lots of target market people aged 35+ don't have such great eyesight as they do.
    Being easy to read and use is pretty cool too.

    Part of the 'problem' is that 'design' means different things to different people, and different things to the same people in different conversations.

    If you want to settle this argument, first you must come up with a single, universally accepted definition of 'good design'.

  9. #9
    SitePoint Addict Divisive Cotton's Avatar
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    Surely the smallest anybody can go is 10px, and it can look aesthetically pleasing (and is comfortable to read) at that size in small blocks of no more than a paragraph, but any designer who uses anything less than 12px for a large body of text should be put up against a wall and shot for crimes against usability.
    Last edited by Divisive Cotton; Dec 9, 2008 at 11:41.
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  10. #10
    ☆★☆★ silver trophy vgarcia's Avatar
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    11px/8pt at work. I don't like it (and I use a larger font for internal apps) but I gave up on that fight long ago.

    But really if anything I've seen the opposite trend the last few years on the wider web. Back in '01 or so when Flash was king you'd see 7-10px text all over the place, now it's a lot more reasonable on average, or maybe it's just the sites I visit.

  11. #11
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    I was serious about the bigger screen, it makes a huge difference.

    Something I recently realized, Firefox remembers Ctrl-/+ settings on a site-by-site basis. I have Ctrl- set for all the news sites I visit to scan headlines quickly. If you have good eyes you might as well use them.

    Like look at this page, at default (Ctrl-0) I can only see two posts per page. If you tightened up this forum you could fit a lot more information is a smaller area and your ads would be more visible, CTR would rise, everyone would save time reading, everyone would make more money. Don't take my word for it, try it yourself.

  12. #12
    SitePoint Addict ruby-lang's Avatar
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    My guess is that, in many cases, small text is the result of a compromise between copywriter, that wants a long enough text, and the designer, that wants other graphic elements and some white space to make the page look good. Sometimes even the copywriter doesn't have a say in the matter, and it's the client that wants to make sure some key points are on the front page, above the fold.

    I think fonts grew up a little in the last couple of years partly because everybody scrolls now that every Windows-compatible mouse comes with the scrolly middle button.

  13. #13
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    A friend of mine always designs with 12 px and I always have trouble reading the content. I normally design with .9 em but several clients have requested me to increase the font size so for those I've used about 1.05 em.
    Larry

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    Don't eat yellow snow spaceman's Avatar
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    Another usability expert friend of mine (thanks Scott!) pointed me to this article/study, that refutes the suggestion that youngsters prefer small text:

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/teenagers.html

    One surprising finding in this study: teenagers don't like tiny font sizes any more than adults do. We've often warned websites about using small text because of the negative implications for senior citizens -- and even people in their late 40s whose eyesight has begun to decline. We have always assumed that tiny text is predominant on the Web because most Web designers are young and still have perfect vision, so we didn't expect to find issues with font sizes when testing even younger users. However, small type often caused problems or provoked negative comments from the teen users in our study. Even though most teens are sufficiently sharp-eyed, they move too quickly and are too easily distracted to attend to small text.
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    Don't eat yellow snow spaceman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pjbrunet View Post
    I was serious about the bigger screen, it makes a huge difference.
    I'm not suggesting that getting a bigger screen wouldn't make a difference, because clearly (pun intended) it would. What I'm querying is the sanity/practicality of this as a solution over using larger font sizes in the first place.

    Quote Originally Posted by pjbrunet View Post
    Like look at this page, at default (Ctrl-0) I can only see two posts per page. If you tightened up this forum you could fit a lot more information is a smaller area and your ads would be more visible, CTR would rise, everyone would save time reading, everyone would make more money. Don't take my word for it, try it yourself.
    There's no question that general adherence to good design and layout practices can help optimise a site or page to make best use of screen 'real estate'. IMHO making font sizes smaller (i.e. less comfortably usable/readable) should not be an acceptable part of this solution or goal.

    One fundamental goal of any form of communication is the ease with which that communication is sent and received/understood/processed. Any text size that is less than immediately comfortable for large swathes of the population to read is contrary to that fundamental goal.
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  16. #16
    SitePoint Zealot Crey_Design's Avatar
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    Whenever I get one of my websites reviews, one common criticism I get is that my font is too big, even though it's probably about a 12-13 px font (though I use % and ems).

    I think that you're absolutely right in that people use small fonts because it looks cooler. But I stay away from it because a lot of times the copy on these sites is too small, and really can affect readability.

    I always go back to the idea that design should not always come first, especially in cases of readability.
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  17. #17
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    in general (on paper or wherever) making the text smaller gives you more space, not necessarily to fill but to leave empty hense sophisticated as already pointed out several times. by making the text smaller it gives you more room to play with and allows for more sexy designs -- you get more contrast (always a desirable thing from a creative point of view) by making text smaller because it's relative isn't it; in a way you're not making the text smaller you're making the space bigger when you make the text smaller -- because it changes the scale almost, kind of, of the whole bit of work/page.

    but i agree with spaceman, on average type size on web pages is too small. i'm making a concerted effort on sites i do from now on to go larger than average, but my designer side does kick in and misses the space and style (but i will resist it -- i think it'll still be possible to do smart design with bigger text -- bit more of a challenge though). when i'm browsing pages, for about 70% of pages i visit i press apple+'+' twice (just once for site point). often the layout goes pair shaped but i don't care, so long as it hasn't gone too pair shaped (over lapping etc.), then i can read it much more comfortably. there's nothing wrong with my eyes. from a reading on a screen point of view i just like it bigger and i like to sit further back a bit from the screen than most i think.

  18. #18
    Don't eat yellow snow spaceman's Avatar
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    p.s. the default font size of the main body text for these forums is, IMHO, perfect.
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    SitePoint Guru glenngould's Avatar
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    I have two observations related to this matter, based on my experience in reading traditional media (like printed books):

    -Text size decreases while complexity of the content increases: A best-seller more likely has larger text size than a philosophy book.

    -Text size decreases while the age of the content increases: Works by contemporary writers are published with larger text size than classical writers.

    These are not always true, but I believe this reflects the general tendency.
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    Programming Since 1978 silver trophybronze trophy felgall's Avatar
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    Another consideration is that screen resolutions and screen sizes do not always grow at the same rate and where resolution grows faster than screen size pixels get smaller and the text in all those pages that are done incorrectly using pixels end up appearing smaller than the designer originally intended.
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  21. #21
    SitePoint Wizard Stomme poes's Avatar
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    And you can always press Alt+ to increase the size of everything on the screen, in all the browsers, try it.
    Tried it, doesn't work.

    Oh, you meant works on all Windows browsers... the ones on user agent devices who have those buttons even... huh. : )

    I hate tiny text. I hate destroying the layouts of pages by CTRL++ing (because in addition to being so near-sighted (pun NOT intended) as to start out with ridiculously small text in the first place, these designers are building in Dreambeaver/WYSIWYG on their own monitors and don't build their pages to grow gracefully with text-enlarge).

    Tiny text belongs in one place-- lawyerese and terms&conditions (unless specifically written in lay speak and there isn't much of it). Usually these pages are low on graphics and any text-enlarge doesn't hurt anything.

    You know who's page absolutely sucks re text size? (not every page, I've noticed, they're all a bit different)

    freedomscientific.com seriously it's like they built for the Blind and forgot those with low vision. I think it's pretty ironic actually.

    That piece of research re teenagers was neat. Thx for posting that, spaceman.
    Last edited by Stomme poes; Jan 15, 2009 at 02:42.

  22. #22
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    maybe most designers put into consideration those that are having screen resolutions of 800x600 or 1024x768 but small texts look nice

  23. #23
    SitePoint Wizard Stomme poes's Avatar
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    Actually, it seems most designers have larger-than-average screens, so you'd think they'd design for at least their ginormous screens-- in which case, there are those folks who actually set their screen resolution to 600x800 specifically for the larger-looking text-- like Mike Cherim's daughter, who has a developer for a dad and no visial problems at all, and young eyes. So actually you can give more benefit to smaller resolutions, and if they find the text too large (which is uncommon) they can make it smaller-- a solution I like better than always needing to make text bigger (happens much more often).

  24. #24
    In memoriam gold trophysilver trophybronze trophy Dan Schulz's Avatar
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    What looks good to one person may be horrible to another. For instance, I have (as of 2 years ago, need to get my eyes checked again soon) -550 vision plus astigmatism. Yes, I'm horribly near-sighted and I have astigmatism. Since I never updated my glasses prescription (didn't have the cash at the time as I had medical bills to deal with - oh, and I hate contact lenses) to correct the astigmatism, text - especially small text - can look blurry to me at times.

    Normally in those cases I would just zoom in (I use Opera, which uses page zooming instead of text resizing) but doing so typically breaks the layouts of most Web sites. Definately NOT what I would call accessible or even user friendly.

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    Good point some page have way to tiny of print, but now that I know about 'Ctrl+' increasing the size of the text on my monitor it's probably going to bug me a lot less.
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