A common request from clients is, “Can you increase the font size?” Now, this is a fair concern if legibility is paramount. However, with so much content filling a page, should our default type size really be larger? We must keep in mind that every website is different, and clients will have different goals. Some may want to emphasize emotion and personality. With the rise of web fonts, web designers now have a much larger range of typefaces to choose from for expressing unique character. Other clients may be more concerned with enabling maximum readability. Increasing font size can enhance the personality of a typeface and improving the readability of a site. Jeffrey Zeldman’s re-design illustrates both of these; by enlarging the default type as well as stripping away all unnecessary elements, it allows the reader to focus on the most important element: the content.
We must also consider that not everyone will read the content by the same means. Some may be reading from a large desktop screen, others from a laptop, some from a tablet, and still others via smart phone. Print type is set at 12pt, however if you are looking at 12px on a desktop screen you typically sit farther away than when holding a book or tablet. Also, consider screen resolution differences. Wilson Miner shows an excellent example of comparing the reading distance of a book with a screen. Web browsers default to 16 pixels, most likely because it closely matches the size of printed 12pt type.
Increasing font size may not be correct for all situations; where there is a need to keep as much content “above the fold” as possible, you might choose to go with a smaller font. The New York Times website offers a great example of mixing the two methodologies. On their home page, they employ smaller fonts to increase the amount of visible content, but when you dive deeper into the site to read an article in long form, the font size is larger to increase readability. There is an ongoing debate, however, about whether “above the fold” even applies anymore. Users are less averse to scrolling these days, especially with the increased use of tablets and smart phones. While the issue continues to be studied, there is no definitive answer.
If we are mindful of the copy we write and focus on eliminating anything unnecessary, increasing font size can provide greater focus on content as well as increased legibility. With the current multitude of screen sizes and resolutions that web design is catering to, we must also be aware of the context in which it will be read as well as viewing distance from the screen. Content is king, and while websites aren’t required to be and shouldn’t have one default font size, we must carefully weigh the benefits of increasing font size, carefully measure them with client goals, and act accordingly.
Some useful links and examples of larger type: