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— May 22, 2013 —

Typography, Context and The Desktop

As 95% of the web is typography, both content and context are king, and mobile first is the way to a more ubiquitous web, are we forgetting about the lowly old desktop?

Obviously, at this point, Responsive Web Design is in it's infancy. We're finding our feet and experimenting with techniques and what works across a multitude of viewports, devices and contexts.

Of course, context is the hardest thing to define in any given situation. From a user being outside and their screen being difficult to see in the sun, to someone doing a task whilst being distracted as the kids run riot around their feet, or simply sat in front of their desktop machine in their office.

And it's in the desktop context that I currently find an odd trend developing as we use responsive techniques for typography.

Not that long ago, 16px was deemed to be the smallest size for a good reading experience, but there was no mention of an upper limit.

I really think there should be. At least as a guide. Larger sizes for headlines? Fine. Even blockquotes being larger than the main body copy? Not a problem. But the body copy itself?

This is where we need to make sure we're delivering a good reading experience.

The 'Web Design is 95% Typography' article (linked at the beginning of this post) is a perfect example of a good reading experience, not only at the desktop, but also responsively through other, smaller viewport sizes.

At it's largest, in which context we would currently assume as the desktop, the font-size reaches 21px (this is the computed style, in the CSS it's actually 1.14286em).

However, I've come across a couple of notable sites where, for me, the text is just too large to be readable in my desktop context.

N.B. At this point I'd like to say that this isn't about attacking these particular sites, one is the site of one of the most influential people on the web, the other is a great project providing great insight from it's contributing writers, but for the purpose of this post, they are simply an example of the point I'm trying to make.

Just because I have a desktop machine, and my resolution is 1920x1080, I'm still only 12-24" from my monitor at any given time.

For these particular sites, I have to be at least 36" from my monitor for it to be a comfortable read. But then I can't reach my mouse and keyboard.

So how do we compensate for this? Well, the key, again, is context, the most difficult of things for us to detect in a technical capacity.

There's no real way (as far as I know, so please correct me if I'm wrong) to know the resolution and physical monitor size of an end user. So what can we do?

The only thing I can think of is to give the user control. Admittedly they can do this by using the zooming functionality in the mainstream browsers, but should we be providing users with the ability to adjust sizes for their own specific tastes?

I've noticed a few rumblings on Twitter of some sites allowing their users to disable the responsive design, or at least thinking about it.

Is end-user control over typography size a step to far? Or is it just a small tweak from accessibility and usability standards to allow a users to change stylesheets and font sizes?

I'd seriously be interested to hear what you think.