Childish Font Sizes

We’ve come a long way when it comes to font-size. I remember a time when it was commonplace to set body copy to ten pixels (or smaller!) so we could cram as much text as possible into our static 640×480 layouts. These days, the arguments for a 16-pixel baseline are widely accepted: We have plenty of data supporting its readability, it can prevent unintentional zoom in mobile browsers, and it’s been the default in every major browser for many years.

But there are plenty of reasons to go even larger:

In spite of these arguments, I’ve felt some surprising resistance to larger font sizes. The fact that push-back exists at all is not surprising: It can take years for new browser features or usability best practices to settle into widespread adoption, and anything unfamiliar is a hard sell. It’s the form that feedback takes that surprises me, because it’s so specific.

Across a few different projects with disparate audiences, visual identities and typefaces, the reaction to a larger body font size I hear most often is that it feels a bit “childish,” “child-like” or “like a children’s book.”

Those descriptors might sound pejorative out of context, but I want to be clear: Our customers are polite, lovely people, and we ask for their candid, unfiltered feedback as often as we can. I consider it a success when a stakeholder trusts us with their honest reactions instead of couching everything in layers of indirect language. And it makes patterns of feedback like this one much easier to spot!

So why “childish?” I think the frequency of that response comes down to shared experience. We were all children once, we’ve all seen children’s books, and the tricks that make typography accessible to children are the same that help adults of varying literacy, visual acuity and attentiveness: Larger fonts with generous x-height, balanced word and line spacing, reasonable line lengths, consistent alignment and adequate contrast.

Spread from a 1919 edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” (Library of Congress)

But if these characteristics help adults and children alike, why is the text in our printed magazines, novels, newspapers, textbooks and instruction manuals so much smaller?

Some of that comes down to content: The more experienced the reader, the more complex the information can be. Longer passages of text benefit from sections and headings, with contrasting sizes (larger and smaller) and styles (weight, case, etc.) to establish hierarchy. Tables, charts and figures may be used to convey complex relationships, requiring a certain density of information to be useful. These are still relevant considerations in our digital experiences.

But I suspect the biggest explanation for long-form typographic shrinkage comes down to the physical limitations of the printed page. Larger text means more pages, which means more paper, ink and binding materials… more labor and fuel to design, print, assemble and ship… more space taken up on our shelves and in our carry-on bags. It simply isn’t practical for your favorite novel to significantly increase its font size without increasing its cost or becoming physically unwieldy to read while reclined on the couch.

Web design has plenty of its own limitations, but page count isn’t one of them: Our browsers are windows to an infinite canvas of content. We don’t mind that Wikipedia would fill 3,000+ printed volumes because it never has to: Our devices won’t grow larger or heavier while browsing it, regardless of its font size.

Scott McCloud discusses the opportunities of “infinite canvas” in these panels from his 2000 graphic novel, Reinventing Comics

So until I hear a more compelling argument, I’m going to continue advocating for larger font sizes for longer passages of content, taking care to preserve hierarchy and information density where appropriate. 18 or 20 pixels might feel pretty large at first glance when we’re so used to squinting at 16 or less, but the data is clear and the readability benefits are immediate.

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