Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Incredible Shrinking Fonts

This is a rant. If it sounds disorganized that’s because it’s reflecting my sense of disorganization and the turmoil of emotions I’m feeling right now. This is something I take personally and something that I’ve been frustrated about for at least two years now. I have avoided writing about it here--at least not more than a few dropped hints--because I felt that it sounded too much like whining. But right now I’m feeling, So what if it is?! And more than that I suspect that it is incorrect for me to feel that talking about this is nothing more than ‘fussy baby’ spluttering. For now I think it is past time to call attention to the trend towards shrinking fonts all over the Internet because they have to be impacting more than just the elderly and those with visual impairments. In fact, I don’t believe it is too much of a reach to believe they could be implicated someday in damage to the eyesight of children those who currently have excellent vision.

I need to clarify that I have a bias here. This whole trend is squelching the hope I had in computer and Internet technology leveling the playing field for those with disabilities. Those like me. I have a visual impairment called RP aka Tunnel Vision. I usually link to something explanatory whenever I mention it but I don’t have time right now to hunt down the links. Besides, I just recently did so in a post not too many below this one. Anyway, RP causes loss of peripheral vision and night vision in the early stages and until the late stages, leaves the central vision fairly intact. The catch is that those stages are different lengths in different people. They can be days, months, years or decades. The strain inherited in my family seems to be the latter. My mother and grandmother both kept their central vision for decades. My mother, in her seventies now, reads the newspaper with a powerful magnifying glass. I can still read 10pt font for short periods if it is high contrast--a high degree in difference of shade between the font and it’s background color--but I prefer 14pt for lengthy encounters. I am content with what used to pass for normal--12pt.

When the trend online for fancy new designer websites featuring the incredible shrinking font began, I wasn’t too alarmed at first because most of them left intact the browser feature that allows you to adjust font size. But lately the trend has been for these designers to override that and I am increasingly finding pages and whole websites that will not allow the fonts to enlarge.

I get why it is happening. Just like in print mediums they need to limit the space the text uses on the screen to accommodate advertisements and/or more headlines. And unlike print mediums they need to give prominent space to site navigation. But in this medium, which could just as easily have used the technology to circumvent the old limitations of physical paper to create a sense of limitless space, is instead heading toward an even narrower definition of what constitutes available space than the average newspaper or magazine. Can you imagine any newspaper surviving for long if it printed all the news and commentary in 8pt font on less than 30% of the page while leaving the rest for a swarm of ads with space devouring photos and fonts the size of headline? And what if they then shrank the size of the page to one-quarter what it is today?

The fear that people won’t stick around long enough to scroll down to see what is there is groundless. Curiosity alone is enough to ensure they will as long as they have been taught to expect there to be something worth seeing and that they won’t be forced to download another page to read beyond the third paragraph. Can you imagine a magazine in which every time you turn the page you have to wait three minutes to see it? And what if then they limited each page to only three paragraphs or worse 100 words? How long would you keep turning the pages?

The current crop of web page designers seem to have decided that the ‘front page’ is defined by the size of the screen and they have to put everything they consider relevant ‘above the fold’ which is the bottom of the screen even though the technology could accommodate a page the size of a bed sheet no matter what size your screen is. Will this trend continue as cell-phones and Blackberries and other shrinking, portable web-accessible devices proliferate and overtake in number the PC and laptops? If so, they will have shut me out of the online community as surely as wheel-chair bound citizens were shut out of active roles in their local communities before the advent of wheel-chair lifts on city-busses, ramps at building entrances and large stalls in public restrooms. The cost of making the web user-friendly for the visually impaired is miniscule compared to the costs of creating wheel-chair accessible public infrastructure.

I wouldn’t mind the development of the crowded page that squeezes the text content into smaller and smaller sections if it wasn’t accompanied by newer trends that are foreclosing all the tricks I learned to finagle around the new limitations. I mentioned already the way they are now preventing you from using the browser’s font adjuster. Another method I’ve used, where it is available, is the printer friendly versions of pages found especially on online newspapers and magazines. These almost always give me a page with a readable font. But lately some of them have started trying to initiate printing either as the page loads or instead of loading a page in the browser window. Now, aside from the fact that I don’t have a printer and trying to make my computer turn it on when it doesn’t exist is likely to cause it to hang and then shut down the browser window and possibly my Internet connection as well, why would I be willing to ‘waste’ ink and paper to print their text before I’ve even read it when I’ve always been too miserly of ink and paper to print hardcopies of my own rough-draft manuscripts?

Another finagle that is being foreclosed on more and more sites is the ability to copy text and paste it into my word processor where I could use zoom. Now, as a writer myself, I do understand the urge to copy-protect one’s ‘intellectual property’ and I don’t really begrudge those that do this but I do wish they would either use a readable font (in both size and color) or else provide an alterative viewing of the content. The developing popularity in some blogs of something called ‘skins’ shows me that this is possible. They seem to be mostly a gimmicky fad that allows the reader of a page to create an ambience to their taste--they let you choose among title banners and graphic décor, text and background color and occasionally layout of the page. But it seems that font size is the last thing on most of their minds for it is the choice least likely to be offered and yet it is the difference that could make the difference for me as to whether I will be a regular visitor.

Well, I’ve gone on too long already and I haven’t even started in on how this problem impacts activities other than reading content on pages. I wanted to talk about online email accounts that make you work with small fonts, blog WYSIWYG platforms that do the same, not to mention the blog comment forms and almost all other forms online that allow input from the user. Even when site designers were still allowing you to adjust font size in the browser for content, the input forms were already limiting font size to 10pt and below. Tell me, who reads 8pt font anyway? Please!

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