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.