Standard font size

10 Mar 2009 - 5:50pm
5 years ago
10 replies
5265 reads
Marty DeAngelo

I know that there was a discussion on this list a while back, but I'd
love to get a more recent update as to what people feel is the best
'standard' font size for an average audience. We are currently in
a bit of a debate with a client about their 'standard' font size.

Their guidelines dictate using 14px Arial / 13px Verdana for content,
which we feel is too large. We feel that a 12px Arial / 11px Verdana
standard is more reasonable to most users (in essence, using the 75%
base font adjustment from the browser standards and then using ems
from that point forward).

I've done some research of different usability sites and found that
MOST agree that a standard of 75%/0.8em/12px seem to be the best
size, but it is by no means unanimous. But I trust the opinions here
to help me prove my point or theirs.

P.S. We do use font-sizers on all of our sites, and they run at
settings of 1.0/1.2/1.5em (effectively 12px, 14px, 18px), which I
think takes care of the normal gamut of needs; in my opinion, most
users who need a font size larger than that already know how to get
it and don't need us to intervene.


11 Mar 2009 - 4:17am
Mike Padgett


On a scale where 100% = 16px, I prefer 85%/13px as a base copy size because it means I can still comfortably drop to 80%/12px as required. I never use any size lower than that, but it's worth saying that for a long time now I've worked on resources whose user experience consists of a lot of reading and information foraging (Wikipedia articles and Google search results each use 85%/13px Arial-sans).

I would venture to say offhand that our choices are probably still often based on how we remember aliased fonts used to look before the the implementations of anti-aliasing that are now ubiquitous. For the same reasons, eminently more readable serif are too often neglected.

One fact I remember - its origins I cannot recall - is that Verdana occupies 13% more horizontal space than Arial. I almost never use Verdana if I have the choice: it is neat at small sizes, but I don't use those sizes.




11 Mar 2009 - 7:23am
Coryndon Luxmoore

We had this debate on one of my projects a couple of years back. We
were working on a transactional site that targeted older adults with
the ages between 35 - 70. I was a strong proponent of 14px + In our
tests we got no comment negative or positive about the font size from
older test subjects while the younger test subjects consistently
commented positively about readability.

While not enough folks were tested to form any absolute conclusions my
theory was that the older subjects all were using reading glasses and
therefore were not straining as hard and the younger / middle aged
folks without glasses.

Based on that test I would not go below 13px for core reading text. --C
Coryndon Luxmoore
Interaction Designer

coryndon (at) luxmoore (dot) com

11 Mar 2009 - 9:42am
Chauncey Wilson

How far away will your audience be from the text. There is quite a
bit of research and a general formula that uses values of visual angle
and the distance from the eye to the object to determine the actual
physical size of text for people with normal or less than normal
vision. You can search the IxDA archives or I'll post it tonight.
Age makes a difference and you may want to design not for the average,
but for a range that includes older adults.


11 Mar 2009 - 11:07am
Grant Fritts

There is alot of information on the web regarding minimum font sizes and web readability, usability and accessibility.

From a general perspective, the 12pt / 1em does seem to be a good starting point, but there are multiple things to consider as well, for example:

- Who is your audience/demographic? (i.e. if you are targeting AARP members, you might want to forgo the "" font sizes)

- What is the text purpose (paragraphs of information to be read, search results, hyerlinks, etc.? What does the text accomplish? (E.g. I often use > 1 em for copyright text, and auxillary links.)

- What font type and line spacing will be used?

-What are your screen resolution standards / available space (i.e. constrained by panels/frames, window sizes?)

Also, regarding font re-sizing features - I would offer that a design is "good" if it does not require the majority user to enlarge or reduce the text size in order to use the site/product.

11 Mar 2009 - 7:56am
Keith Kmett

I have been using the 'em' tag more and more for my CSS.

To be honest, I set most of my copy to 1em and don't look back. If
you are concerned, provide users with a text magnification option to
resize all fonts.

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Posted from the new

11 Mar 2009 - 12:27pm
Marty DeAngelo

Thanks for the input. So far, between this forum, our own internal
testing and what I've found on the web, the breakdown seems to be
(as unscientific as it is):

1.0em/100%/16px :: 5
0.9em (~14px)/14px :: 4
0.8em (~13px)/13px :: 10
0.75em/75%/12px :: 11
10-12px :: 3
<10px :: 1

Obviously, so far 12-13px seems to be the standard. Of course, there
is a lot of discussion about much of it depending on WHICH font you
use, too. We're restricted to just the two, so I have to focus on

@Coryndon - our target audience is the 25-55 range, so 12 or 13px
equiv. is probably fine. Especially since we are using the text
re-sizer (which people seem to hate on this forum) to accommodate for
larger sizes.

@Keith - I've advocated for relational sizes for years, but it took
a couple forward-thinking developers to make the switch from set px
sizes. Now we use % or ems for all of our development.

@Chauncey and gfritts - again, we have to take the average, because
our audience is fairly broad. The content on this particular project
is mostly informational with some rather long pages, which has caused
some 'scroll length' concerns (although I'm less concerned with
that than the amount of information being above the fold at

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Posted from the new

11 Mar 2009 - 12:28pm
Katie Albers

This isn't an answer to the font-size question, per se, but one of the
things your client may not realize is that font-readability changes
fairly dramatically between paper and screen. Paper relies on
reflected light and screens are a light source. This is the main
factor that contributes to such phenomena as serif typefaces being
easier to read than sans-serif on paper and harder to read on screens.
It also alters the legibility of certain colors.


Katie Albers
Founder & Principal Consultant
User Experience Strategy & Project Management
310 356 7550

11 Mar 2009 - 12:30pm
Andrei Herasimchuk

On Mar 11, 2009, at 5:56 AM, Keith Kmett wrote:

> I have been using the 'em' tag more and more for my CSS.
> To be honest, I set most of my copy to 1em and don't look back. If
> you are concerned, provide users with a text magnification option to
> resize all fonts.

While this in theory is what we should strive for, the cascade and
inheritance problems that occur with using ems or % inside complex
markup make the effort not worth it. Browsers have a zoom function
these days. Best to let the browser do the work there and stick with
an exact measurement so the layout will work and be readable and less
prone to construction error.

Andrei Herasimchuk

Chief Design Officer, Involution Studios
innovating the digital world

e. andrei at
c. +1 408 306 6422

11 Mar 2009 - 1:17pm
Marty DeAngelo

Andrei - we have worked around this to a degree by having a different stylesheet set up for all of the font sizes within the font-size tool, so that the design compensates. Be extension, that USUALLY also handles people who increase the font through other means within that range.

Outside the set range, the design might start to break down, but I think that's going to happen on most sites when the font size grows beyond the 'normal' range (say 24px or larger).

-- Marty
Director User Experience
Digitas Health

11 Mar 2009 - 3:07pm
Andrei Herasimchuk

In all of this discussion the key components that actually matter have
been neglected:

What size physical display do most of your users have? And at what
pixel dimensions do they have it set to? And what font are you using?

The answer to those questions give you your default size.

Now, outside of knowing the answers, or having answers that are too
generalized, your best bet as of today in 2009 is to set base fonts to
13px. This will change in the future as displays get denser and
bigger, but as of right now, this is the best middle ground for
everything outside of Times, which can generally go to 14px to get the
same feel. 13px is a size that works for people using laptops to
people using bigger monitors while still giving you the designer
enough room to actually work and lay out content effectively. I have a
30" Cinema display on my desk, and 13px feels a bit small, but when
I'm in laptop mode, it feels about right, even on the big side.

Beyond that, people can use the zoom functions that most browser have
finally implemented to make their own adjustments. It's best to start
training people that these zoom features exist rather than trying to
constantly jump through hoops to create layouts the are optimized for
everyone but work for no one, realistically speaking.

Andrei Herasimchuk

Chief Design Officer, Involution Studios
innovating the digital world

e. andrei at
c. +1 408 306 6422

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