W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > w3c-wai-ig@w3.org > January to March 2002

Re: Pixels vs Points as a unit for sizes

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Tue, 08 Jan 2002 21:40:28 -0800
Message-ID: <3C3BD7CC.1040902@munat.com>
To: w3c-wai-ig@w3.org
DERRICK, Monique wrote:

> What I want to know about this is if we use em's then that completely
> changes the design if the viewer uses larger sizing, how do you take this
> into account when designing a site.

I'd like to respond to this if I may.

A large part of the problem (IMO) with most web sites today is that the 
site developers (or more accurately "designers") do not understand what 
a web site is.

Perhaps because we began with the idea of web "pages," most web site 
developers think of sites in terms of pages viewed in a browser. This 
has not been true of most sites for many years, if it was ever true.

A web site is really just a structured collection of data and/or 
services. This data is abstract. It is represented physically by 
magnetic or electric fields themselves representing 0s and 1s.

When you or I use a browser to view a web site, we are essentially 
peering through a window overlooking this data. The data is paraded by 
our window, hopefully in some format that makes sense to us.

Looked at another way, my computer retrieves this data (along with some 
hints for how to format it) and converts these strings of 1s and 0s into 
an arrangement of colored pixels on a screen. The light from this screen 
is absorbed by my retinas and my brain recognizes patterns, converts 
them to symbols, and then converts the symbols into concepts. The end 
result is that a copy of the original information now exists in my brain.

Of course, it could have converted that same data into sounds to roughly 
the same effect.

The issues with any web site are:

1) What information do we want to transmit?
2) How do we get it into the user's brain?

Of course, the information does not need to be verbal. We can transmit 
images, sounds, and moving images in addition to text. And we can create 
new information by the structuring of old information. For example, I 
can place two images side by side that together send a message that is 
not contained in either image. A similar example is Harper's Index (in 
Harper's magazine) which simply lists facts culled from various sources. 
It is the organization of these facts that produce patterns and convey 
the real message.

The best way (IMO) to build a web site is to begin by collecting the 
data. The next step is to structure that data, including creating 
relationships between data. Once you've done this, you have a web site. 
(Yes, this is oversimplified...)

Now comes the question of how this data will be conveyed to the user. 
The best sites will provide a variety of methods and will allow the user 
to adjust the manner in which the data is transmitted to suit her own 
needs. Relative type sizing is just one part of this.

The way a web page is laid out and the choice of elements does have a 
significant effect on the message conveyed. Unfortunately, most of us 
have strong visual biases. It is easy for us to become obsessed with the 
style of a page (which is also a form of communication) and to forget 
the data. Or, in the case of advertising sites (the majority of sites 
on-line currently), the real message is being conveyed by the style, and 
the textual message is only the bait.

This is a very important point that many people miss. Since we go to 
sites (we think) for the data contained therein, we presume that the 
purpose of the site is to convey that data to us. But in reality, the 
purpose of the site almost always has little to do with the data.

Take CNN.com, for example. What is the purpose of the CNN.com site? To 
convey news? Think again. What does CNN.com sell?

A few sites still exist to convey the actual information users come to 
them to find. But most sites use that information as bait. They are 
really selling something else.

So what does CNN.com sell? News? No. Advertising? Not exactly. What then?

Answer: They sell you. They sell space in your mind. The news they 
present (if you can call it that; really it is more "infotainment") is 
only the bait to get you to the site (or to their cable channels). Then 
they sell you and the rest of their audience to their real customers: 
the corporations that pay for advertising.

This means that getting the news across is really of no importance at 
all. That there is any news at all on the CNN.com site is only true 
because they do need *some* bait. But if they could get away with all 
advertising all the time without losing audience share, that would be 
the end of news. (We're about half-way there, I think.)

So what does this have to do with relative type sizes? Plenty.

Most of the people on this list think about web sites from the 
perspective of the user. After all, this list is about accessibility. We 
are not talking about the ability of the web site developer to get 
access to the audience on behalf of the "sponsors," but of the audience 
to get access to the data. So we are user-centered.

 From a user-centered point of view, relative type sizes are the way to 
go. In fact, from a user-centered point of view, the user is king. 
Everything should cater to the user. This is the philosophy behind such 
things as the ability of user stylesheets to override author 
stylesheets. This was not a popular decision among authors.

If you are a web site developer working for a big corporate site (or 
even a small corporate site), you will quickly find that the owners and 
managers of that corporation are not interested in serving their users, 
except to the minimum extent necessary to keep them coming back. 
McDonald's could make burgers ten times better than they do now. That 
would certainly serve their customers better. But instead they do the 
bare minimum necessary to keep the customers coming back. They'll only 
improve service or quality if they have to. Can you imagine any manager 
of any corporation saying, "We don't need this much profit! Let's do 
something nice for our customers and knock our profits down a bit in the 

In fact, McDonald's doesn't even care about hamburgers. That just 
happens to be what they sell. But if they can make more money by selling 
toys, then you'll see a shift to selling toys (they already sell their 
customers to their "sponsors" via movie tie-ins and other products). In 
fact, what saved McDonald's during the lean years in the 1970s was real 
estate. Last I heard, they made more money off of real estate than by 
selling burgers. So McDonald's is first a landlord and only second a 
hamburger manufacturer.

Once you understand this, everything becomes much clearer. In the four 
plus years I've been on this list, I've seen arguments repeated over and 
over again about issues like relative type sizes. But there can be no 
real consensus on this issue because the two sides have different base 
values. One side is user-centered, the other pretends to be 
user-centered (doesn't everyone?), but really is revenue-centered. And 
what's best for revenue generation rarely coincides with what's best for 
the user.

To CNN, CNN.com is not a web site, it is a revenue-generation device. 
All discussion of design must reflect this fact.

So the answer to your question depends on where you fall on this 
continuum. Are you at the revenue-centered end? Or are you more of a 
user-centered type? At some point as you move from revenue-centered to 
user-centered you shift from concern for pixel-perfect layout to 
user-centered design, from fixed type sizes to relative type sizes. 
Whether you are on the fixed or relative side of the line is a question 
that only you can answer.

Of course, this is not to imply that relative type sizes are by nature 
anti-revenue. But that is certainly the view of many designers now. The 
general opinion of most graphic designers that I've met is that the 
designer must have total control over the experience of the user. I find 
this hilarious because it is so obviously impossible (in *every* 
medium), but I regularly encounter this attitude. Most graphic designers 
are horrified when you show them how easily type sizes can be ramped up 
or down when relative units are used.

But maybe this is changing. It may turn out that making sites more 
usable and accessible works better than whiz-bang special effects and 
fancy layouts. At least, this is my opinion. I think that flashy effects 
quickly wear off as users grow tired of them. And the trend on many big 
web sites away from flash to more user-centered designs over the past 
few years seems to confirm this. The big guys are finally figuring out 
that the Web is not TV and that users come to the Web for different 
reasons. It is also (so far) not the sort of medium where flipping the 
channel only transports you to similarly insipid crap.

But if this is happening, it is happening because these companies are 
starting to realize that revenues may be better served by serving the 
user better. It does not represent a shift in values away from the 
profit motive or even a recognition that profit is not the only thing in 
life. To a corporation, profit *is* the only thing in life, by definition.

I realize this is probably not the answer you were looking for. I hope 
you found it useful nonetheless.

Charles F. Munat
Seattle, Washington
Received on Wednesday, 9 January 2002 00:39:31 UTC

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.4.0 : Friday, 17 January 2020 20:36:06 UTC