Font size in CSS - % or em?



%: Some browsers doesn't handle percent for font-size but interprets 150% as 150px. (Some NN4 versions, for instance.) IE also has problems with percent on nested elements. It seems IE uses percent relative to viewport instead of relative to parent element. Yet another problem (though correct according to the W3C specs), in Moz/Ns6, you can't use percent relative to elements with no specified height/width.

em: Sometimes browsers use the wrong reference size, but of the relative units it's the one with least problems. You might find it interpreted as px sometimes though.

pt: Differs greatly between resolutions, and should not be used for display. It's quite safe for print use though.

px: The only reliable absolute unit on screen. It might be wrongly interpreted in print though, as one point usually consist of several pixels, and thus everything becomes ridiculously small.


When setting the size of fonts in CSS, should I be using a percent value (%) or em? Can you explain the advantage?

As Galwegian mentions, px is the most reliable for web typography, as everything else you do on the page is mostly laid out in reference to a computer monitor. The problem with absolute sizes is that some browsers (IE) won't scale pixel-value elements on a web-page, so when you try to zoom in/out, everything adjusts except for those elements.

I do not know whether IE8 handles this properly, but all other browser vendors handle pixels just fine and it is still a minority case where a user needs to enlarge/diminish text (this text box on SO perhaps being the exception). If you want to get really dirty, you could always add a javascript function for making your text size larger and offer a "small"/"larger" button to the user.

Given that (nearly?) all browsers now resize the page as a whole, rather than just the text, previous issues with px vs. % vs. ems in terms of accessible font resizing are rather moot.

So, the answer is that it probably doesn't matter. Use whatever works for you.

% is nice because it allows for relative resizing.

px is nice because it's fairly easy to manage expectations when using it.

em can be useful when also used for layout elements as it can allow for proportional sizing related to the text size.