Font size is becoming too small

Warning: rant, no futures insights enclosed.

Last night, we went for a very pleasant meal with friends. The restaurant was in a lovely location, the service was excellent, the food was excellent. The only irritating thing was a pesky fly. However, for some reason, the menu was written on nice paper in 6 point text with about 15mm line spacing. Each line went about 2/3 of the way across the page. I hadn’t brought my reading glasses so was forced to read small text at arm’s length where it was still blurred.

My poor vision is not the restaurant’s fault. But I do have to ask why there is such a desire across seemingly every organisation now to print everything possible with the tiniest font they can manage? Even when there is lots of space available, fonts are typically tiny. Serial numbers are the worst culprits. My desktop PC is normal tower size and has its serial number printed on a tiny label in 1mm font. Why? Even my hated dishwasher uses a 2mm font size and that stretches my vision to its limits.

Yes, I am ageing, but that isn’t a crime. When I was a school-kid, I took great pride in irritating my teachers by writing with the finest tipped ball-pen I could get (Bic extra-fine) in the smallest writing I could manage. I rarely submitted a homework without getting some comment back on my writing size. But then I grew up.

It makes me wonder whether increased printer capability is a problem rather than an asset. Yes, you can now print at 2000 dpi or more, and a character only needs a small grid  so you can print small enough that a magnifying glass is needed for anyone to be able to read the text. But being physically able to print that small doesn’t actually make it compulsory. So why does it make it irresistible to many people?

When I do conference presentations, if I use text at all, I make sure it is at least 16pt, preferably bigger. If it won’t fit, I re-do the wording until it does. Some conferences that employ ‘designers’ come up with slide designs that contain a massive conference logo, bars on the side and bottom, title half way down the page, and any actual material has to be shrunk to fit in a small region of the slide with eye-straining font sizes on any key data. I generally refuse to comply when a conference employs such an idiot, but they are breeding fast. If someone can’t easily read text from the back row, it is too small. It isn’t actually the pinnacle of cool design to make it illegible.

Mobiles have small displays and small type is sometimes unavoidable, but even so, why design a wireless access login page with a minuscule login box that takes up a tiny fraction of the page? If there is nothing else on the page of any consequence apart from that login details box, why not fill the display with it? Why make it a millimetre high, and have loads of empty space and some branding crap, so that a user has to spend ages stretching it to make it the important bit usable? What is the point?

To me, good design isn’t about making something that is pretty, that can eventually be used after a great deal of effort. It is about making something that does the job perfectly and simply and is pretty. A good designer can achieve form, simplicity of use and function. Only poor designers have to pick one and ignore the others.

The current trend to make text smaller and smaller is pointless and counter-productive. It will cause eye problems for younger people later in their lives. It certainly discriminates against a large proportion of the population that needs glasses. Worse, it does so without no clear benefit. Reading tiny text isn’t especially pleasurable compared to larger text. It reduces quality of life for many without increasing it for anyone else.

It is time to end this stupid trend and send designers back to school if they are somehow convinced that illegibility is some sort of artistic goal.

The primary purpose of text is to communicate. If people can’t easily read the text on your design, the communication is impeded, and your design is therefore crap. If you think you know better, and that tiny text is more attractive and that is what really counts, you should go back to school. Or find a better school and go to that one.

5 responses to “Font size is becoming too small

  1. New subscriber here. Fantastic blog; really enjoying it. Agree with your font-size point completely. But then, one wonders why the font size of this very blog is so small! :-) FYI: I am comparing it equally to other blogs with my web preferences, settings, and “View” settings exactly the same.

    Physician, heal thyself!

    Otherwise, keep up the good work.

    • I have had a look in the wordpress menus, but I can’t find anywhere I can change the blog font size. If you can tell me how, I’ll happily up it a notch. Meanwhile, if you have a mouse with a wheel, hold down the left ctrl key and roll the scroll wheel forwards, it will magnify what is on your window.

      • Harald Johnson

        Hi Ian. Yes, I can magnify any page I’m on, of course, but I’m suggesting a global font-size change for you. It will probably be related to your Theme (Coraline). Check first in the Appearance sub-menu in the Admin of your site. It may require a CSS modification. Go to the support forum for this Theme, and you’ll find the answer there (or you can ask the question).

        BTW: I added a softening element after the “Physician…” directive but WP didn’t display it. I don’t want to appear too pushy; only helpful.

      • Thanks, I just checked again and found the answer. I can’t change any of the fonts without subscribing the Custom Design service so I’ll leave it as it is for now. When I upgrade, I’ll probably pick a whole new appearance and redesign. However, I don’t see any tiny fonts and certainly none that are anything like what I was moaning about. Even the smallest are well within normal readability. When and if I do upgrade to a premium service, I’ll look at increasing the smaller ones in line with the main text or a point below.

        I did publish Space Anchor (my sci-fi book) in a larger font size a few months ago, but it (12pt) is actually irritatingly big for me and I wouldn’t want to do that to my site. It’s clear that there is a balance to be had where it is comfortable for most people and getting that balance at an optimised level is something the wordpress people probably understand very well. I went smaller again for the next book and it is about right. For me, when I redesign my blog, font size of 6 or 9 for the minor areas, ads and links, between 9 and 11 point for the main text and 14 or 16 for the titles will be about right. I would only increase the main text by one point, but then I’d probably change font too to one that is Sans Serif.

        best wishes

      • Harald Johnson

        Aha… didn’t know about the Custom Design service.

        Not sure if you’re talking about onscreen or paper, but onscreen, the resolution one has for the monitor makes a difference. e.g., on my 27″ iMac, my screen resolution is 2560×1440 and everything I’m seeing here on your blog is very small. I could change to 2048×1150 and font sizes will appear larger but then other things are out of whack. For paper (i.e., dead-tree books), a normal font size is 12pt with ~14pt leading (line spacing).

        Send me a coupon or voucher or something for your ebook and I’ll tell you what I’m seeing ;-)))

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