Pixel Fonts a Hot Button Topic at WDS08

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Derek FeatherstoneIn 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

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  • mdrisser

    I have to agree with Jeff Croft on this one. I tend to mostly use pixel font sizes. I think that the majority of people who need the ability to resize text have that ability through not only the browser, but also other tools.

    Whether or not Microsoft or any other vendor chooses to support a particular browser, OS, App, whatever is, at best, an unreliable guage on whether or not to support it ourselves.

    I think that the need is less in supporting older browsers and more in educating people. We need to be concentrating on ways to educate, rather than spending too much time supporting outdated technology.

  • Michael Sean Hansen

    I think Mr. Featherstone himself is making quite an assumption: If these users are so uninformed that they don’t know there are other browsers out there, they probably also won’t know about text resizing. Or am I mistaken?

  • http://kay.smoljak.com/ kay.smoljak

    I agree with Derek – until IE6 is stamped off the face of the earth (or at least until it’s usage drops below 2%, which is when I stopped supporting Netscape 4) it’s irresponsible for developers to stop making allowances for it.

  • Jubarr

    I’ve used font sizes in pixel short after IE7 appear, about the users of IE6, for me they get what they deserve for using a crappy browser. if everything look not to broken on it i’m ok with that.

  • http://www.cemerson.co.uk Stormrider

    I didn’t think Safari supported page zooming at the moment?

  • randywehrs

    I didn’t think Safari supported page zooming at the moment?

    Safari 3.1.2 does, text magnification only.

  • Iza

    I was looking forward to this presentation but I left disappointed. Jeff’s comment about using absolute font sizes is just indicative of, what appears to be, his entire approach to web typography. In his quest for elegant and ‘subtle’, pixel-perfect typography he seemed to have forgotten what medium he’s designing for! In fact, most of his advice can be classified as bad practice for web design. I hope he payed attention to the keynote that Jeff Veen delivered the very next day because it contained a clear message for him: if you’re designing for the web, let go of control. Web design should be elegant and flexible, leaving end users in control of their browsing experience. And one more comment for Jeff… I thought that green on green was so subtle, it was barely readable.

  • tactics

    In all browsers (IE7, FF, and Safari 2+) except IE6, the user can increase their font size simply by holding down the ctrl (or Apple) key and pressing the + button, even if the font size is specified in pixels.

    Up until recently, I was adamant about specifying pixels in ems, but then I stopped and thought about it…

    If you had bad vision and you went to a website and tried to resize the text, only to find out you couldn’t, wouldn’t you do a little research to find out why? And once you found out that the problem was unique to IE6, wouldn’t you switch browsers? And if for some reason you absolutely couldn’t switch browsers, don’t you think you would figure out that you can override the size of the font on all web pages by using the accessibility settings in IE6? Just because people have bad vision, doesn’t mean they are stupid, and it’s time we stopped treating them as such.

    It’s fine to use ems if you are building a small, simple site. But I worked for one of the largest social networking sites in the world and quickly figured out it was just not realistic to use ems. The designers hand you a comp where everything is specified in pixels, and you can’t sit there and do a bunch of math to try and figure out what the size of the parent element was, what percentage of that you need to use, etc.

    All that aside, IE6 is almost a decade old and it’s a piece of garbage. If we all stopped pandering to it, it would go away a lot quicker.

  • Michael

    If you had bad vision and you went to a website and tried to resize the text, only to find out you couldn’t, wouldn’t you do a little research to find out why?

    This sort of comment is indicative of someone who spends very little time out in the real world…

    A large – I would suggest a majority – percentage of computer users do not know how to resize text, think “Google” is *the internet* and are fearful when their browser or operating system suggests they upgrade. If your target market is anything older than the teens and 20 somethings, you’d better be designing for readability by those with less than perfect vision. Demographics, at least in North America, suggest that’s a growing market.

  • tactics

    Well Michael, I’ve worked as a frontend developer for several of the top websites in North America. So let me tell you a little something about my experience in the “real world”.

    In a perfect world, accessibility would come first. In the “real world” it’s an afterthought for most companies. I’ve sat in meetings and heard comments from managers like “why would a blind person want to use the internet?”, and “our statistics show all of our users have javascript, so why should we make it unobtrusive?”

    I have argued for using relative font sizing in all of these companies and have been shot down every time. Corporations care if their site looks good and runs good for the majority of their visitors. That’s what makes them money.

    IE6 is down to less than 20% of the market share right now, and it’s continuing to drop by .5 – 1% per month. I’m on a web accessibility list populated by a lot of “real world” people with disabilities, all of them know how to resize their text, and not a single one of them uses IE6. And anyone who doesn’t know how to resize their text, probably also doesn’t know how to increase the default size of their text in their browser settings either. So setting the font size to “.75em” is going to have exactly the same effect in reality as using “12px”

    You know who still uses IE6? People with bootleg copies of Windows XP. That’s because you can’t install IE7 without service pack 2, and you can’t install sp2 without a legit copy of Windows.