When I was first starting out as a designer, I had a memorable conversation about type with a colleague – a senior designer who I had a lot of respect for.
She asked me a simple question I've never forgotten: “Have you ever gotten to the end of an article in Wired magazine?”
“Sure,” I replied. “But it’s rare.”
She explained that the typeface in Wired is notoriously difficult to read. Whether you realize it or not, your eyes and brain are working overtime and, more often than not, you just give up. It doesn’t matter how slick, cool or interesting a typeface is if people can’t or won’t read it.
Before this enlightening conversation, I didn’t think it was a designer or typographer’s job to worry about attention spans, after all, isn’t lack of focus a pathology of our time? Every day we’re flooded with content that competes for what’s left of our disintegrating attention spans – it’s no wonder we have trouble making it to the end of an article. But the waning of focus can’t be blamed entirely on our frenzied consumption of media. Design and typography also have a role to play.
Too often, designers scan over headings and text blocks – paying attention only to the shapes of the letters and ignoring what the reader will experience when wading through the text. This is a mistake. Typography should be scrutinized and anyone working with words on a page, digital or otherwise, should begin by empathizing with the reader and their accessibility needs.
Below are some tips to help make your digital and print materials easier to read and more accessible. Whether you’re a designer or simply someone who creates written documents, you can benefit by using these tips to give your work a once-over.
1. Use ALL CAPS sparingly.
Many people choose all caps text treatment to heighten the elegance of a design. All caps text is boxy and structured and can make the text feel more sturdy, symmetrical and authoritative.
For short headings, all caps can be a smart choice. But for full sentences or paragraphs, all caps makes the text too difficult to read. This is because we’re used to scanning over the curvature of the letters as we read. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the shapes of lower case letters draw our eyes through the word and sentences and create a sense of flow, allowing us to read quickly and easily. But capital letters interrupt this flow, which is why capitals are used them at the begin sentences – they bring our eyes to a natural stop so that the ideas contained within each sentence don’t run together.
2. Know the difference between leading, tracking & kerning.
Leading is the space between lines of text, tracking is the space between words and kerning is the space between letters. The terms all date back to the origins of typesetting and the printing press. Leading is named after the long piece of lead that typesetters would place between text lines to ensure consistent line spacing – and it’s the typographical error I come across most often.
“Good leading can carry the eye optically from one line to the next, giving confidence and stability, and enabling it to absorb and remember more easily what is being read.” – Josef Muller-Brockman
Adjusting the leading can have a subtle but powerful impact on the experience of the reader. If the lines are too close together the reader may have trouble staying on the right line and their eyes may jump up and down between lines. Lines packed closely together will also appear too dark and, according to Muller-Brockman, “the lines will forfeit their optical clarity and restfulness.” On the other hand, if there’s too much space between the lines it disrupts the readers flow as they read. The lines of text appear as separate, isolated elements, leaving a “static and inactive impression.”
Responsive websites have made it more challenging to ensure consistent and effective leading, so it’s important to check leading across all devices. Spacing that looks comfortable on a desktop may be too spaced out on a mobile device, or headings that become multi-line when compressed in a mobile view may overlap.
3. Columns are your friend.
Consider adding columns to break up long lines of text. The general rule is that there should be an average of 7-10 words per line. If there are too many words on a line of text, it becomes strenuous for the reader because they have to work to keep their eye on the correct horizontal line. If the line is too short, however, the eye must switch lines too often and will get tired quickly. Breaking up large blocks of text can make a huge difference in readability and in the overall aesthetics.
4. Consider pace when planning content for websites and print documents.
Pace is the sense of movement throughout a design that created by varying how the design elements appear. In music, the pace is created through the slowing down and speeding up of tempo. In a film, the pace is created through changes in the level of activity, excitement or dramatic action. Without a variety in pace, an audience will become overstimulated or bored.
In design, the pace is often created through the amount of content on the page and the size of that content. White space, for example, creates a place for readers to rest, slowing down the pace. A page that’s tightly packed with text and images, on the other hand, is much more action and therefore “faster.”
When planning publications, designers often create an imposition plan, where the page arrangement and sequence is mapped out to get a sense of where the bulk of the content lies and where “rest spots” should be.
Whether you’re creating print materials or a website, consider where the “action” should be and where you can give your audience a break without losing their attention.
5. Learn about clear print guidelines
Clear print guidelines are a series of recommendations for making printed materials accessible for people who are blind or partially sighted. Using these guidelines not only ensure accessibility, they’ll also help you create materials that are more enjoyable to read. Some of the clear print principles have been discussed in greater detail in previous the previous tips. Here are the guidelines that relate to typography:
Type colour – type is easiest to read in black or white. If using colour, keep it to headlines and headings.
Type size – bigger is better. Use type that’s between 12 and 18 points.
Leading – Leading should be at least 20-30% of the point size. The heavier the type size, the larger the leading needs to be.
Font families – avoid complicated or overly ornate typography. Sans-serif typefaces are easier to read than serif ones.
Font weight – use medium weight fonts over light or bold fonts.
Kerning – make sure there is sufficient space between letters – don’t crowd your text.
Margins & columns – Columns make the text easier to read. Use wide margins for printed materials to accommodate bindings.