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?
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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.