In his talk on Elegant Web Typography at the Web Directions South 2008 conference last week in Sydney, Jeff Croft raised a few eyebrows when he mentioned that, for many of his projects, he has made the transition to specifying font sizes in pixels, rather than a relative unit of measurement like ems.
Traditionally, web designers have avoided specifying font sizes in pixels, because the text could not be resized by users who needed a larger font size to read it. Today, every major browser provides a Page Zoom feature that works even with pixel fonts, but one older browser version still in common use does not: Internet Explorer 6.
Pixel font sizes make it easier for the designer to match up the heights of lines of text with the other design elements on the page and achieve a uniform “vertical rhythm”. The same can be achieved with relative font sizes, but the math involved for the designer is considerably trickier.
Jeff argued that users who needed the ability to resize all text could simply upgrade to a current browser version, so for most projects pixel fonts were fair game. He admitted, however, that in projects where he had a little extra time, or where accessibility was a particular concern, he would still use relative font sizes for now.
This approach to the issue didn’t sit well with a number of audience members at the conference.
I asked web accessibility expert Derek Featherstone what he thought about the controversy in an interview the following day. Here’s what he had to say:
I’m still going to use relative units basically until IE6 disappears. And I don’t know when that will be. I know one of the metrics that I’ve used to gauge whether or not I’m going to support a particular browser is when Microsoft basically says they’re not going to support that browser anymore, or whatever piece of technology—whether it’s a browser, or operating system, or whatever it is. When they stop support for it, that’s when I feel much more comfortable eliminating my support for it as well.
[…] the assumption that Jeff makes is that somebody that will require the capability to resize text will choose a better tool, to me that’s still a bit of a jump. I would like to believe that, I really do. I think we have a long way to go, though, in terms of end-user education, because people don’t… there’s a lot of people that use computers, sadly, that … they don’t necessarily know that they can change browsers. They use what’s on their computer and that’s the end of the story.
Now, having said that, we’re in a position now where, I mean, I have three children; they know more about computers at age four, seven, and nine, than probably I did when I was nineteen, just because we didn’t use them when I was younger. So, times are definitely changing. We still have a group of people that did not grow up with computers, and they’re not necessarily as comfortable. Is that our problem? That’s a really good question, and I’m not sure.
Hear or read the full interview on sitepoint.com:
Listen to the interview (16’06, 11.1MB)
Read the transcript
Image credit: Jeff Croft