I have seen studies saying that sans-serif fonts such as Verdana, Arial and Tahoma are "best" for on-screen readability. And also that it is good to stick to about 60 characters/line.
However, it seems that Verdana is "bigger" than Arial and Tahoma. The same pages come out as 61 chars/line (Verdana), but at about 70 chars/line (Arial/Tahoma).
Also, on my (probably representative) system the default sans-serif font is Arial.
In other words, what I'm saying is that a font-family definition such as
font-family: Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, sans-serif;
may not be optimal for readability. Unless there's a way to define the font-size property differently for the various options provided.
I don't know if most systems include Verdana or not. If not, it seems one should stick to Arial (if that is the most common system-default sans-serif relevant to PC/IE) and adjust font-size to obtain the desired character count/line.
You've heard the expression what is one man's junk is another man's treasure. Well, it applies with fonts as well. Apply on top of that another layer because what is installed on a system may or may not be the user's preferred font face.
What is important is to let the user have as much control over the selection. Unfortunately, IE is not as helpful in this area as FireFox (FF allows users to develope their own CSS stylesheets). About the only thing a user has control over is the font size--so be certain to give them access to this when designing your ebook/web page. This means avoid assigning pixels and instead use percentage or em.
You are not going to achieve the 70 chars/line and those studies suggest this as the optimal line for the average reader, which doesn't exist. Jung expressed it this way, "If you have a pile of pebbles the average pebble can be described, but you will NOT find an average pebble in it."
As you already know good HTML practice suggest that a family of fonts be defined, which translates into CYA with a final font style with serif or sans-serif. In other words it is difficult to predetermine what fonts MUST be used other than serif or sans-serif (see WEFT below).
If you want to provide the user with an option for changing font styles, then create different stylesheets that have two options: 1) the specific font style, 2) default serif or sans-serif.
When you have some thumb tweedling time check out the link to "Microsoft WEFT 3." WEFT stands for Web Embedding Fonts Tool. This program gives you the ability to package specific font styles for web pages. It may be your solution, but keep in mind that it will bulk up your ebook's file size and IMHO not worth the effort. http://www.microsoft.com/typography/web/embedding/weft3/
If you do decide to use WEFT let the rest of us know how you like it.
Thanks Storyman - you are always so quick to reply to my queries, much appreciated!
Perhaps I'm just fiddling with minute details - I just thought that everybody was really into all stuff concerning fonts/readability etc.
About fonts: surely most of what resides on a particular PC/windows system came with the windows installation. I for one have not downloaded any "extra" fonts. Since I'm running winXP, and have access to Verdana, I suppose that pretty much everybody else with WinXP also has that.
Also, I for one have never bothrered with setting up my preferred fonts etc for browsing, and I do suspect that relatively few casual web-surfers do.
Moreover, but I may be wrong, since we deal with AEC and thus IE only, the risk of many users having special settings surely must be rather low.
Anyway, in my explorations of CSS so for, I have stumbled across the fact that IE5/IE5.5 and also IE6 by default treat font-sizes as "small". IE6 overrides this in standards-compliant mode to use "medium". But IE5 needs seperat stylesheets. That realization helped me fix a problem with all text appearing LARGER in IE5 as compared to FirefOx or IE6.
Thanks for the link. That's a handy chart to bookmark.
I'd like to compliment you on your concern regarding readability. In my experience I find too few people address these issues.
Have you actually compared the fonts installed on your machine with those in the chart? You may be surprised to find unexpected additions--especially if you have installed any word processing programs, graphics programs (i.e. Photoshop), etc. A lot of programs come with their own font sets and there is never a mention of it when they are installed.
Using the IE hack to fix font size variations between IE versions is a double edge issue. On the one hand you've made the fonts appear the same size in the various browsers. That's helpful.
I don't bother because I figure most web designers do not address the issue. In turn most users have adjusted the font size to their preference, which means if the problem is fixed there is a good chance that users with old browsers will have to re-adjust their font size to accomodate the fix made to compensate for older browsers. The question comes down to if most users adjust the font size that works for them most of the time? Or should the ebook/web designer make adjustments to compensate for the flaws in older IE browsers? In the end what is important is that the end user be able to make the decision on font size themselves.
As for special settings. If you are referring to font style, I'd agree that few people set it. When it comes to font size that is a different story. Although, few people can tell you how to adjust font style the opposite is true about font size. In my mind I want to honor what the user has selected as their default settings as much as possible.
When it comes to current browsers, I will adjust things so the font size is consistent across IE, FF, and Opera. My reasoning is that most designers will build a CSS site to work in IE and FF, but fewer designers have the older IE browsers installed so as to verify against them.
The issue then becomes how far back should one verify against browser versions? It depends. If it is a commercial site that targets an older crowd, then consider a lot of older folks inherit their kids machines and are unwilling to change anything on it--especially the browser. If it is a younger crowd they are likely to have current browsers.
When a site is informational, then less effort is made to be compatiable with older browsers.
For the most part, I'll design for browsers that 4-5 years old. It's kind of silly that someone doesn't upgrade to a newer browser when all three of the biggies offer a free version. BTW a lot of people with older machines are delighted with the free version of Opera. It has a smaller footprint in memory and works faster than IE or FF. For some it has meant a whole new experience cruising the internet.
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