Troubleshooting and managing small fonts in Web sites

There are a variety of reasons why text may appear small in Web browsers. Sometimes this might be desired, but at other times this can be a problem from browser settings, system font corruption, or even cookies.


Every now and then a Web site may appear practically illegible because of small font sizes in articles. Though most Web sites display in relatively standard 12- to 14-point font sizes, there are some that cram more text in by using sizes 10- or 11-point font sizes. Sometimes even if a site is set to display in a relatively large font, errors or odd settings with browsers may result in the font sizes being changed.

The first thing to try if a site's text seems abnormally small or large is to view it with a new browser, especially one that uses a different rendering technology than your current one. For instance, if you use Safari or Chrome for day-to-day browsing and see an issue in it with a Web site, try opening the site in Firefox or Opera, which do not use the WebKit engine and therefore may help you better assess whether the problem is with the site or with your computer's setup.

If the problem happens only in one browser, then cookies may be to blame. As we mentioned in a recent article on managing cookies, you can use the cookie browser in Safari or Firefox to select and remove specific cookies pertaining to the Web sites that are giving you troubles. If you are not sure which cookies might be involved, you can remove all of them but keep in mind that doing this will require some site-specific settings and log-in credentials to be set up again.

Safari minimum font size settings
Setting the minimum font size may require a cache reset, and will not limit the text size during zooming.

Set minimum font size for Safari
The next option is to set a minimum font size for Safari. If for some reason Web developers have set the font size for parts of their site to a size that is too small for you to read, then using this option in Safari may help. Go to Safari's preferences and in the "Advanced" section click the option to "Never use font sizes smaller than..." and choose a desired font in the drop-down menu. If you would like to try intermediate font sizes, you can type the number in manually.

Limiting the font size with this option may require you to reset Safari's cache and then reload the Web page for them to take effect. You can do this by pressing Option-Command-E or by choosing the "Empty Cache..." option in the "Safari" menu.

Safari Zoomed Text
When only text is zoomed (right) the images on the page such as the software update icon here will stay the same size, making the rendering of the Web page appear as if the small text was intended.

Using zoom
The final option in Safari for managing font sizes is the zoom option in the program. This feature will increase or decrease the size of Web page's contents, and can be a source of confusion for some people because it can be inadvertently toggled, especially on systems with multitouch trackpads or magic mice, where a quick pinch gesture will zoom the page.

By default, the system will zoom both images and text proportionally; however, you can limit the zooming effect to only target text by choosing "Zoom Text Only" from the "View" menu. With this option enabled, an inadvertent activation of the zoom feature may be even more confusing, because images will appear normally sized but text may be slightly smaller and be harder to see. Another source of confusion with the zoom feature is even if you have Safari limit the font size in the preferences, the zoom will override this to make text smaller and therefore make it appear as if the limited font size is not working.

Font Validation
Validating fonts can show a number of potential problems. In this case, I have two versions of Arial installed, which results in a "Duplicate fonts" warning.

Troubleshoot fonts
One final option for having odd font sizes is if there is a problem with system fonts, which are used for Web browsing. If there is a conflict with one of the standard Web-based fonts on the system (Helvetica, Arial, Georgia, Times, Courier, Verdana, Lucida) either by having missing fonts, duplicates, permissions problems, or other file access errors then this may result in odd displays in applications, including Web browsers, as they resort to using substitute fonts.

To check for font errors, open the Font Book utility, select all fonts by pressing Command-A, and then choose "Validate Fonts" in the File menu. The validation will run and show a green check mark next to fonts that are OK, but give potential warnings and serious errors next to other fonts. If these errors happen on the common Web fonts, this may be a possible reason for why they are not showing properly. You can use Font Book to either remove problematic fonts by checking them and clicking "Remove" in the validation window, or disable them by selecting them in Font Book and clicking the check button at the bottom of the window.

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