[ Note: This essay, written in October 1996, remains one of my most requested web documents. Though the Web has changed a great deal since 1996, the FONT element is still around, and still exhibits all the harmful effects described below, even in modern browsers. Fortunately, Style Sheets are much more widespread than they were, and these can avoid most of the harmful effects of the FONT element. ]
When Netscape introduced its FONT element, with its SIZE= and COLOR= attributes, many web authors welcomed the promise of control over the presentation of their documents; the same authors felt a twinge of anticipation when Microsoft introduced an additional FACE= attribute. Many of these authors did not realize that their documents would become invisible, illegible, or inaccessible to many viewers. Yet this is exactly what has happened, due to mistaken expectations and faulty implementation in popular browsers.
Extensions to HTML are said to "degrade gracefully" if they do not interfere with basic legibility in browsers that do not support these extensions. For character-mode browsers such as Lynx, or other browsers that do not support font sizes, colors, and styles, the effects of the FONT element are relatively benign. If the author tries to emphasize specific text by its size or color, the user of the text-mode browser will see the text, but will not see the emphasis. If the author uses font settings instead of HTML headings, the same user will not see headings, and neither will the search engine or indexer looking for keywords in high-level headings to display prominently in the search results. But at least, the Lynx user will be able to see the text.
The truly insidious effects of the FONT element are reserved for users of popular graphic browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer.
The font tag is a hindrance to communication over the World Wide Web because it makes too many assumptions about the user's system, browser, and configuration. Cascading Style Sheets, on the other hand, negotiate between author and viewer to create a carefully-designed appearance that is accessible to all. People create web documents for many reasons. If you have something to say, information to provide, a message to preach, feelings to express, a product to sell, then it's in your interest to make your work accessible. Smart web authors, who want to get their message across, stay far away from the FONT element.
Is the FONT element ever appropriate? Not the COLOR= or FACE= attributes, nor absolute values of the SIZE= attribute (e.g. <FONT SIZE=1>). Relative values may be useful in moderation as a gentle (and expendable) form of emphasis, or to mark legalistic disclaimers or other "fine print." In other words, <FONT SIZE="+1"> and <FONT SIZE="-1"> may be acceptable. But their appearance is precisely duplicated by the long-standing HTML tags <BIG> and <SMALL>. The FONT element is broken in current implementations, is prone to cause unpredictable and unavoidable data loss, and is quickly becoming obsolete with the advent of Style Sheets.Warren Steel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
23 January 2015
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