Font Size. It Matters!

Awesome article in Smashing Magazine by D. Bnonn Tennant, “16 Pixels for Body Copy. Anything Less is a Costly Mistake”

As the title suggests, the whole point of this article is that websites should be at 16 pixels and above. The default for most browsers is 16 pixels, or about 12 point font or 1 em. Anything less is way too small – take a look at the examples. If you write your CSS to specify a font size, you run the risk of your text being too small for people to read.

But people can change their settings, right? Well, Tennannt says:

The users who will most need to adjust their settings usually don’t know how.


He makes some interesting points about reading online:

  • at age 40, we take in about half the light we did at 20
  • comfortable reading distance from the computer is 28 inches; from a book is only a few inches. That’s why books can be set at 10 or 12 point font.
  • 9% of Americans have a visual impairment that cannot be corrected with glasses.
I admit I don’t particularly like the Smashing layout – I despise red as a link color (it SCREAMS at me) and I’m not fond of the font they use. But that’s their brand, and I don’t have to agree with it.
This does have an impact on educational technology design in two ways:
  1. In my post about the Parent’s Perspective on Standardized Tests, I talk about one companies test that, at the time I reviewed it, did not allow the student to change font sizes. Why would that matter? those kids are all under 20, so they get lots of light to their retina! That may be, but still, each kid is different and might prefer a larger font. The font on the test I reviewed was quite small, and as kids hopefully are 20+ inches from the screen, rather than the few inches from a printed page, the font should be bigger.
  2. Font size also changes with grade level. In my focus groups with teachers, when I asked what makes a website/webpage work well with kids, all teachers — even high school teachers — responded that font size makes a difference. Teachers in younger grades want quite large font with a great deal of white space. Even high school teachers want larger font. Some of them mentioned that when showing a website on their projectors, it is very hard to read blocks of font.
So you web designers and instructional designers. Remember your font size!

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