Please, Pretty Please, Stop Damaging Everyone’s Eyesight With Small Font Sizes

H/T to Thomas Cott for inspiring this latest entry into what seems to be an ongoing rant regarding font size. No, I’m not complaining about Cott’s font sizes, his are terrific, but one of the articles at arts.gov included in his latest newsletter made me realize that there continue to be far too many arts focused sites out there still using unacceptably small font sizes.

typographyNot only do small font sizes damage a visitor’s vision but it lowers conversion rates and page stickiness; in short, it reduces engagement and can tick-off visitors.

But the really frustrating aspect here is this issue has been hashed out throughout the online web design community for more than five years (which is practically an eon in web developer time).

Although the font family and line height settings (the distance between each line of text) will impact an optimum font size to use, a reasonable target is the 16px or 1.0em neighborhood, in fact, we covered this issue all the way back in 2012 in a post titled 16px Font Size and 48px Wide Buttons Are The New Black.

Let’s take a look at that arts.gov site as an example, currently, they are using a 13px font size which looks like this:

font size - too small

But here’s what it would look like if they bumped up the font size to 16px:

font size - better

Granted, if you’re viewing this on a mobile device, you may need to expand both images to full size in order to get feel the magnitude of improvement but the difference is as clear the nose on your face. The larger font size is easier to read and produces far less eye strain.

And to be fair, arts.gov is far from lonely; a quick scan of my daily bookmarks turned up a few additional tiny font breaches, including MusicalAmerica.com, 13px font size, and The Chronicle of Philanthropy which uses 14px font size, although it comes across as smaller than it is thanks to using a font family with especially heavy serifs. Americans for the Arts is another 14px offender and even though they are using a sans-serif font family, it still produces a good bit of eye strain thanks to some especially tight line height settings.

The really good news here is upgrading stylesheets to use acceptable font sizes is perhaps one of the easiest items to adjust on most websites. In fact, many content management systems provide a way to edit font size through a point and click admin panel that doesn’t require the site manager to know a lick of code nor any help from a programmer.

For a frame of reference, the content you’re reading here at Adaptistration is 16px font size, 1.5em line height, at a high contrast #252525 font color over a #F4F4F4 background color. Granted, as time marches on, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see those figures grow a bit as the field of web design doesn’t seem to be straying from that path any time soon.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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4 thoughts on “Please, Pretty Please, Stop Damaging Everyone’s Eyesight With Small Font Sizes

  1. It’s a problem across a wide range of websites, complemented by the “pale grey” text syndrome and other low-contrast issues. Of course it’s not just websites – I’ve unsubscribed from more than one magazine because of the same crimes being committed on paper.

    In a former life as a software program manager I was constantly lecturing designers about producing something that didn’t require you to be a 25yo with 20:20 vision. Nothing much has changed,

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