WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

E-mail List Archives

Re: Font size


From: Leo Smith
Date: Jun 4, 2002 11:59AM

> Leo --
> Regarding:
> 'IE/PC appears to install with its font size setting to "smaller" or
> "smallest" in some cases. If you use an em value less than about
> 0.95em, your copy will be unreadable by folks who have IE set to
> "smaller" by default.'
> 'A setting of "medium" by default is the norm, but a noticeable
> number of folks do seem to have installs that set themselves to
> smaller or smallest by default, and from my experiences the
> majority of users out there do _not_ know either that they can
> change their browser's font size setting or how they can change it.'
> I just installed Window 2000 Professional on my machine, and font
> sizes were medium for IE.

Yes, that is the norm in the vast majority of cases. I have yet to
see IE install with "smaller" as the default text size. However, it
appears that there are cases where it does. Other Web developers
have voiced such experiences. We also had an individual in our
Computing Technologies department running Windows XP have IE6
install with "smaller." He was not aware of it until he tried to view
the pages that I had created. We also had about five emails the
first week our site went live from folks complaining they couldn't
read anything as it was too small. These were the five that
bothered to email. I imagine a host of others went away from our
site in disgust.

It is possible to accidently change the font size setting in IE by
simultaneously holding down the Ctrl key while moving a mouse
scroll wheel. This is more of a fluke occurance, and I presently lean
towards the default install as being the main cause of the "smaller"
setting, unless of course someone has changed their setting

I then set Windows screen display to "Large
> Fonts" (120 dots per inch) and this breaks up most Web pages set and
> designed to absolute sizes. Setting IE to "smaller" fonts more or less
> restores the appearance of the page as it typically appears at the
> more common setting of 96 dots per inch. I don't recall a choice
> during the system install that gave me a choice like this, but I did
> not really pay that much attention. I have never gotten anything other
> than 96dpi (small fonts) when installing Windows operating systems and
> a 'medium' setting in Internet Explorer as a result of an OS install.
> The differing display resolution (72dpi on the Mac, 96dpi abd 120dpi
> on Windows) affects most browsers especially with relative sized
> fonts. The newest IE version for the Mac and Netscape 6 for the PC
> have a more or less automated feature to control this and allow more
> consistent display, but IE and Opera for the PC do not, and there are
> other less well known browsers that do not have a setting.

I devised a sniffer script for delivering a custom stylesheet to those
Mac browsers that are by default displaying at 72ppi. That is, NS4x
and IE4x. It is a case of taking em font size values that are
assigned to 96ppi browsers and multiplying by a factor of 1.333.
This will result in roughly the same initial font size display in the
72ppi browsers if the user has not changed the browser's default
font size setting - usually always 12pt. They then, of course, have
the option of changing the size to whatever they want. Having such
a sniffer system, whilst not ideal, does prevent users of these 72ppi
browsers seeing the type significantly smaller than those using a
96ppi one, if they are the type of user that does not adjust default
browser text size settings: I believe these types of user are by far
in the majority.

Scripting is one way to deliver such custom CSS - you could use
@import and others. If scripting is turned off, then since my pages
were designed to display perfectly well without CSS, it was of no
serious consequence other than a purely presentational one. That
is, no font size is specified via coding which is the better way to go
if you can do it on your pages.

> Personally I have noticed users setting font size larger rather than
> smaller, and most sites seem to use font sizing that displays fonts
> smaller than quite a few people can read anyway, usually corresponding
> to HTML absolute sizes 1 or 2 using the FONT element.
> When a design uses relative font sizes, the other aspects of the page
> need to be able to stretch and shrink and still maintain a
> satisfactory appearance when text reflows, or gets larger or smaller.
> I was just looking at http://www.cnn.com/. I found it difficult to
> change font sizes on this site. It uses pixels for CSS font sizing,
> and also has some Javascript for controlling font sizing in Netscape.
> They are obviously trying to maintain a fixed consistent size.
> Do you have some examples of feedback from the users from the site you
> made with relative sizes.?

Well, their feedback was "your font sizes are so small they are
unreadable." This was not due to any Mac/PC resolution
differences as the sniffer I employed worked fine. I did try to elicit
more information from them, but to no avail. I feel sure they were
running IE on a PC that installed inself with font size setting to
"smaller," or that they had accidently changed the setting without
knowing it by way of the fluke that I describe above. They were not
user agent savy, and did not know they could simply change that
setting back to "medium" and all would be OK.

This really only seems to be an issue with em sizes, as the
gradiations of change are so large between "smallest," "smaller,"
"medium," etc. The deprecated font tag and its size attribute do not
have such severe size increments, and neither is seems do
percentage based CSS font size values.

To demonstrate, I have put together a test page. Load the page into
IE on a PC, and adjust your browser's font size setting to "smaller."
View source to see the complete code, including CSS.


hope this is useful.

I believe this is another case where the WAI's guidlelines need to
be adjusted.


Leo Smith
Web Designer/Developer
USM Office of Publications and Marketing
University of Southern Maine

To subscribe, unsubscribe, or view list archives,
visit http://www.webaim.org/discussion/