Legible text design, phone books, and rhubarb

I’m yearning for legible text design in pamphlets for old people and in phone books. My vision is temporarily crap so the problem is obvious.

I’m keen on legible text design, which is part of accessibility. I’m not talking about readability here. Of course I’m a fan of clear writing! But today I’m just talking about the appearance and arrangement of words and paragraphs on printed documents.

Various factors combine to make text legible: the look and layout of text, colour contrast, font style and size and colour, and line height. Legibility featured large in my Contented courses in digital writing, for what use is a clear message if people literally cannot read it?

Temporarily, my own close-up vision is blurry. Don’t worry, this will pass. It’s just that after eye surgery for cataracts and astigmatism, my eyes and brain will take a few weeks to settle down and play nicely together.

Meantime, this is a golden opportunity for me to pay more attention to legible text design, both online and on paper. Right now I get to see what so many other people see—and not only old people. Specifically, much of what I usually find easy to read is currently just a blur.

Three documents: why is one hard to read?

Take the three documents in the next image. (Well, one is a cloth: but it has words so I guess it’s a document.) Maybe you can read them all with ease. Yes, no?

Two pamphlets and a document. A, Helping you when you need it most, is easy to read. B, What is advance care planning? is pale and hard to read. C, a screen cleaning cloth, is very easy to read.
Three documents intended for old people. One has elegant text; two have highly legible text.

First, to be fair, please be aware that this is an artificial exercise. Trying to read a photo of a document online is not the same experience as reading the original printed paper. It’s much harder!

Still, when I saw these three documents on my table the contrast was clear. I could read two of them easily. The other one, on advance care planning, was a blur. Conclusions—pretty obvious.

Let’s call them A (top pamphlet), B (bottom left pamphlet) and C (bottom right, screen cleaning cloth).

  1. I could read pamphlet A. without any strain. A. uses a serif font, which helps when there’s a lot of printed words. That’s because a serif is a little knob at each end of every letter, which makes the letters more individual and easily recognised. A. also has a strong contrast between dark background and white letters: another plus for legibility.
  2. B. was a fail for me. The usual me could easily have read this elegant text but the me with poor near vision cannot. Here’s why. First, a pale grey text on a cream background fails the colour contrast test. Cream and pale grey are too similar. Second, it uses a sans serif font: no knobs on the letters, so they provide fewer clues. Those two factors make the pamphlet virtually illegible for me. I know, I’m just a single member of the target audience, old people. But there are many thousands of us out there with poor vision.
  3. C. is fully legible, for me. Like B., it also uses a sans serif font. In this case it’s fine, because the text is short and the letters are big and bold, with strong colour contrast and lots of white space.

White Pages and Yellow Pages on paper: why do they even bother?

Then yesterday, the White Pages and Yellow Pages (formerly known as the phone book) arrived in my letterbox. Most people I know toss it straight in the recycling bin.

Two pages of a phone book with very small tight text.
The phone book for landlines and yellow pages ads: illegible

Anyone I know who has a personal landline phone is not young. Poor vision prevails. So the very demographic the book is aimed at would struggle to use it.

I think some people use the yellow pages—do you? I’d love to see the market research. But as for the white pages, I’m assuming there’s a legal requirement behind the annual publication of this virtually obsolete item.

Rhubarb rhubarb! is the message of illegible text

Fresh young rhubarb in small chunks on a chopping board with a pink-handled knife.
Fresh spring rhubarb: not an inaudible muttering but the real thing

Actors used to say “Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” to imitate an out-of-earshot conversation on stage. Maybe they still do: we wouldn’t know, because all we’d hear is a muffled murmur. As a reader, that’s all I get from illegible text. Inaudible or illegible words are worse than rhubarb, which can be quite yummy. (Especially on a friand.)

Physician, heal thyself

Now I’d better consider my own blog’s accessibility. Is my text legible? Whatever riles me is usually something I’m guilty of too.

Can you easily read the text on my blog? Even on a smartphone? Wherever?

If not, please tell me, with details. I can take it! What makes it hard (or easy) to read? Now that I’ve passed judgement on others is a good time to tell me the worst.

24 thoughts on “Legible text design, phone books, and rhubarb

  1. alison41 says:

    Loud applause from me. Instructions on medicine containers are illegible – teeny weeny print. Both frustrating and dangerous. And don’t get me started on pale grey print on a white background!!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Tiny pill bottles have a practical problem of space. I hate that too and I read the text through my camera lens, enlarging the print. At least the boxes could have legible text

  2. Red on yellow is the worst! Green on white is yukky too. Your blog is easy to read. Text with moving backgrounds are hard to read, which yours doesn’t have, thank you! I think you are using a larger text?? I do that too. For the “normal” font setting I have to zoom in with my screen. I’ve had cataract surgery too! Modern medicine is amazing!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You have reminded me of another another accessibility issue: colour-blind readers. I also shake my ancient head in sorrow at another popular trend: white text on pale aqua background. So glad you can read my text: it’s designed with that in mind.

  3. judibwriting says:

    Reading books on my Kindle has helped as I can adjust the size and boldness of the font. Otherwise I reach for my glasses so much more of the time since my cataract surgery turned me into a non-astigmatic farsighted person after years of being very astigmatic and very nearsighted. Just to be sure I am spelling things correctly, I enlarged the screen on my computer to write my comment.Your writing was entirely legible without enhancement! Those who send me printed matter- please read this post.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Judi, true! Kindle and other ebook readers have transformed life for heaps of us for that reason. Reading books on an iPhone is now pretty comfortable too. Thanks for the feedback on my own site. Your op experience matches mine. Early days yet, but cheap reading glasses are helping me a bit for now.

  4. IRWIN LENGEL says:

    Fortunately, I’ve always been able to read your blogs. And speaking of one who recently had cataract surgery (3 months ago) I know of what you speak. Fortunately, time and new prescription glasses corrected the sight problem and as long as I have my glasses on, I’m good to go.

    I’ve always wondered why some signs (Advertisements and such) use the color combination they do between print and background. Some ads are so easy to read while others have me scratching my head, huh? What are they trying to say?

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hi Irwin. That’s reassuring to know you are functioning well after three months. Accessibility is a big factor (or should be) in all digital design, but I doubt whether all billboard designers learn about it. When I can’t read, I struggle with major writing jobs. Patience, Rachel, patience.

  5. Your blog is fine for reading. I worked for a charity providing housing and care for the elderly and we were always very careful about paper and print colours and choice of font and size. Arial 12 or 14 was widely used.

  6. Alan Ralph says:

    As someone who has done graphic design in the past, including a stint as a magazine layout editor and advert designer, I know where you’re coming from. Unfortunately, too many others – including a lot of software developers – only consider whether text is legible for them. I recently had to stop wearing my glasses when using the computer, tablet or a book as my vision had changed, causing eye strain when I tried to focus on close-up things. I’ve taken to making text larger on screen, and it makes a real difference. Sadly, the printed page can’t be enlarged in the same way. Poor design choices really stick out to me now.

    We’ve not have any phone directory in years, but I remember how dense the text was in those.

    Your blog is very readable, congratulations on choosing a simple design. 🙂

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hi Alan. When I was working with digital designers 10-20 years ago, there was a tendency to think of people with disabilities as outliers. So, many thought of accessibility as a nIce-to-have gesture. They’d say, “there’s only one blind person in our organisation’s 1000 staff, so why bother?” But (don’t quote me) at least a third of us will have some disability in our lifetime, be it chronic or temporary. Plus it’s a legal requirement for public service websites and other particular communications. Advertisers of commercial goods are not so constrained, I think.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    It took three months after my cataract surgery before I had the proper glasses again and could go back to functioning. It was a long three months. I taught art students for 25 years, including many graphic designers. Sadly readability is far down the list of what they were after. They came up with the kind of examples you show in B because they were “interesting.”

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:


      1. Elizabeth says:

        I just wish they had told me. Then I wouldn’t have thought it was me.

  8. I could read your post fairly easily on my phone. I’m waiting for my retina to shrink the bubble in it, and only then will I get new glasses to cope with good vision after cataract removal. If my eyes ever play well together again, reading will be easier.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Anne, what a struggle you’re having. Thanks for persevering with my blog. I realised what a compliment that is, given the eye problems.

      1. I wouldn’t want to miss any of your posts. If I have to, I’ll learn how to make the phone read to me.

  9. Cathy Cade says:

    It’s some of those tiny-teeny nstruction leaflets that get me – too tiny to read even with my specs on and a magnifying glass. How on earth is anyone expected to read them – even without considering the bad translations from their original chinese or japanese?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You’re right. It’s hard to avoid suspecting ulterior motives when there’s no apparent reason for such meanness

  10. haoyando says:

    Yes, I can read it very well, but I am using the computer right now whenever i can take a little break. Haha.

  11. cedar51 says:

    Your blog is fine – I’ve never used my phone for it as I hate the comment boxes.

    Regarding prescriptions, this last one left out a whole line of instructions but that’s okay because I’ve been taking said prescription for at least 8 months. But if I was a new user, I might do it all wrong. I don’t know what other side effect it would have though…as it’s a very precise medication.

    I really like black lettering on the palest solid background available.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s pretty alarming, directions for a precise prescription medicine with one line missing! So glad you’re on top of this.

  12. Clare says:

    Great post Rachael. I always understood that large amounts of text should be serifed but younger people now seem to disagree. I can read your blog fine but note it is all sans serif. Is there a difference between print and digital in that respect?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hi Clare, great to hear from you. Yes, there is a difference. The most legible fonts on a screen are those that were expressly designed for the screen, which displays text in pixels. Think Lego shapes in miniature! Early easy-to-read digital fonts include Georgia(serif) and Verdana (sans serif). I still love them both. So classic fonts like Times just don’t cut the mustard. Most other legibility factors such as size and colour contrast and line height are constant across digital and print, but are harder to control with digital text. Fascinating stuff.

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