Kay lives here

working with the web

Text sizing and accessibility

I was at Jeff Croft’s session on Elegant Web Typography at Web Directions South when he talked about font sizing. He unwittingly caused a bit of a silent outcry, sending the Twitter back channel crazy, when he mentioned that he uses pixels to size text rather than an IE6-supported relative unit such as ems or percentages.

His reasoning was that people who need to enlarge font size in their browsers will have already moved off Internet Explorer 6 and onto a browser that allows them to do that already (Internet Explorer 6 does not allow resizing of text defined in pixels or points, whereas it does allow resizing of text defined in ems, percentages or keywords).

I’m with the others who commented via Twitter during the presentation – I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. At any rate, at Clever Starfish we almost always use ems for text sizing rather than pixels (I’m sure there are exceptions in certain circumstances, but for the most part, we try).

SitePoint’s Kevin Yank interviewed Derek Featherstone during the conference and have a recording of that session available on their site, as well as a transcript: Derek Featherstone: Accessibility is More Than Compliance. in it, Kevin asks Derek what he thinks about Jeff’s statements and his opinion is what I would expect from an accessibility expert: until we can be sure that IE6 is not being used any more, we can’t afford not to make allowances. It was such a hot topic that Kevin pulled out Derek’s response on just that point for a separate post: Pixel Fonts a Hot Button Topic at WSD08. Does anyone else find it funny that the photo of Derek used on that post is one credited to Jeff?

I remember dancing in glee the day that The Counter told me that worldwide, Netscape 4 usage had dropped to under 2% for the third month running – that was when my previous employer officially decreed that we no longer supported it for general web sites. I’m sure it’s going to be a long time before we can hold Internet Explorer 6 in the same kind of contempt, but hold out web peeps – that day will come. For the record, The Counter reports that in September 2008, IE6 was at 36%, still well ahead of Firefox on 17% but just below Internet Explorer 7 at 41%.

For the record, I think that the rest of Jeff’s session was very good – he covered the basics of web typography, and touched on grid systems and the importance of using proper typographical symbols for quotes, dashes and the like (which I also attempt to do also).


  1. Does seem bit narrow minded. Much as it would be nice to bury our dev heads in the sand we just cannot afford to do so.

  2. Hey Kay. Posting from iphone, so please forgive any typos! First, thanks so much for coming to the talk and the kind words!

    I have to say, I’m really dissapointed that people are blogging that I said we should use absolutley sized text. I think I was very clear that relative sizes were the best bet when accessibility is of top concern. I’m not really sure why people took it otherwise, as I’ve gone back and looked at the slides, and they certainly list the accessibility concerns with abdolutley sized type. That said, I obviously I was unclear in some way, so I absolutley apologize for that.

  3. Hi Jeff – thanks for stopping by!

    I think the issue is that there are quite a few people who feel that accessibility should *always* be a concern on web sites, which essentially means that best practises == ems or percentages, all the time.

    Here’s hoping we can switch to pixels before the end of this millennium, hey… :)

  4. > I think the issue is that there are quite a few people who feel that accessibility should *always* be a concern on web sites…

    I get that (and I certainly feel like accessibility should always be a concern on web sites).

    With that said, the goal of that part of my presentation was to simply outline the pros and cons of each method, and let people decide for themselves. The pro of relative sizes are greater accessibility. The con is more complicated math. Vice versa for absolute sizes.

    I believe the audience was smart enough to take that and decide for themselves which is most appropriate. I don’t like speaking in absolutes (i.e. “ems or percentages, all the time”). Design is about decisions and dependencies, and saying anything involving the words “never” or “always” is just against my nature. I like to give people the tools to make their own decisions rather than telling them what to do.

    That’s all. :)