Not My Type

Kirk McElhearn
25 November, 2012
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As the years go by, and as my visual acuity decreases, I am becoming increasingly sensitive about the way letters appear on computer displays. Granted, today’s displays are much better. They have nicer contrast and crisper fonts because of both higher pixel density and better anti-aliasing. My Apple Thunderbolt Display has a pixel density of 109 pixels per inch; my Retina MacBook Pro has 220 pixels per inch. This is a step up from the 72 pixels per inch that was long a standard for Mac displays.

But I’m on the other side of 50, and my eyes are not nearly as good as those of the youngsters who develop software. To them, 9-point monospace sans serif fonts might look fine. But to me, whether I’m reading or writing, I need something larger. That’s why I’ve been disappointed with some of Apple’s recent decisions about fonts.

The Fine Print

Let’s start with the Reminders app in Mountain Lion. It offers just one size of type and one font; you’ll find no preferences to choose something more readable.

Or look at Notes. You can choose from three default fonts, two of which (Noteworthy and Marker Felt) are really hard to read; while you can change the font or size for a note that you’ve created, you have no setting for changing the size of the default font. You can add more font options, but that requires editing a preferences file.

In Mail, you have a number of options to set the font and size of text in message lists and in messages themselves, but if you use the three-column view that Apple added to Mail in Lion, you cannot change the size or font that displays in the column showing the subject and senders of your messages.

And in Safari, you can’t change the default font and size. The program’s Advanced preferences let you choose a style sheet, but this is not something that most users will want to do. (While it’s not extremely complicated, it does require creating a document with CSS settings.)

The font in the Reminders app is so small that I have to lean closer to my monitor to be able to read it easily. (I feel stuck with this app, though, because it syncs with Reminders on my iPhone; I haven’t found another to-do app that does.) The new Calendar app has a font too tiny to be useful, but in that case I use BusyCal instead, which allows me to select any font and size that I want.

It’s not just letters, either. In the Finder, you receive a limited choice in the size of icons. If you open System Preferences and click the General tab, you’ll find the Sidebar Icon Size menu, which offers three options: Small, Medium and Large. It’s not obvious, but this setting applies to the Finder, as well as to Mail, but not, for example, to iTunes. For iTunes, you need to go into that program’s preferences, click the General icon, and then, in either the Source Text or List Text menu, choose Small or Large. The size of the icons is exacerbated by their limited colour palette. Remember when there used to be coloured icons in the Finder sidebar and in iTunes’ source list? They’re both monochromatic blurs now.

It Isn’t Necessary

Obviously it doesn’t have to be this way. For example, the Finder replacement Path Finder lets you choose any font size for both the Finder sidebar and for icon labels. Also, most text editors and word proces- sors allow you to select the typeface and font size you prefer.

Yet this downsizing trend seems to be infecting third-party applications as well. Some minimalist text editors either impose their choice of font and size, or offer only a handful of options. Few iOS apps provide much in the way of font or size options, but that’s not as bad, since you typically hold an iPhone or iPad closer to your eyes. (In any case, I need to wear reading glasses to do more than just the basics on my iPhone.)

On a larger display, however, where we do most of our work, providing more font and size options seems to me the simplest way to increase usability. Thanks to glasses, I can still see fairly well, but I wonder what all these changes are like for people with serious visual deficiencies. Yes, you can zoom your entire display when you need to look at something very closely. But there’s no reason why we should have to do that, and no reason we shouldn’t have more options when it comes to the way our applications display their text.


3 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Paul0075 says:

    This is where Windows and Ubuntu / Lubuntu are on a win. You can customise the font size across the system, which makes these sorts of changes a couple of clicks away.

    I have started to growingly dissatisfied with OSX. My i7 2.7GHz machine with 8GB RAM just gets slower and clunkier with each update. On the other hand, when I switch to Windows 7 on the same machine, it’s blisteringly fast and I am not bogged down on waiting for the system to respond.

  2. Kevin Ludwig says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Kirk’s complaints about lack of font size control in Mac OS X. However, in fairness, he failed to mention an option which is used by both my parents and many of my friends: lowering the screen resolution. On small screens this may not always be workable, but on desktop computers with large displays this is a viable if not perfect alternative.

  3. Aaron Shepard says:

    Kirk, I wonder if you’re aware of the “hidden” settings for the Finder. You need to Control-click on a Finder window and choose “Show View Options.” Depending on the type of window, settings can include icon size and label font size, as well as background color. You can then also make those settings the default for that window type.

    At least, this is how it works in Snow Leopard.

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