How to make documents more legible and readable

Follow the Goldilocks Principle:  not too big, not too small

In last month’s issue, I explored some of the whys and hows of making everyday documents—both printed and digital—more accessible:  namely through the use of establishing hierarchy, not relying on colour alone in charts, and captioning images to add context and increase understanding.

There’s a lot to learn in the realm of accessible document design, both from design and technical standpoints, so in this article we’ll dive into ways to improve legibility and readability in any document you wish to make more accessible. 

Typographic legibility affects the recognition of individual letters and words, whereas typographic readability affects the ability to read passages of text easily, and both affect accessibility. The overarching rule is to resist typographic extremes. Think of it as The Goldilocks Principle: not too big, not too small…juuuuuuuust right. 

In hindsight, everything is much clearer

With regard to legibility and accessible document design, the width (condensed to extended) and weight (ultra light to extra bold) of a typeface should fall somewhere in the middle of each. The width-to-height ratio (or scale) of a typeface should ensure that letters are not too narrow or too wide, which impedes legibility. Furthermore, a medium typeface is preferable to the thin and bold typefaces on either end of the spectrum. These lighter and heavier weights and widths makes it more challenging for our eyes to recognize letterforms quickly, thereby impacting overall accessibility, especially for those with low vision. Furthermore, very thin widths don’t translate well to pixels. The example below is a screenshot of a GoogleForm in the Chrome browser on a Mac. The low contrast, ultra-thin typeface used makes it difficult for even those with excellent vision to read. 

Highly stylized typefaces that are intended for displays and headlines should be avoided in documents you wish to make more accessible. Text typefaces that are designed specifically for reading are ideal for both long passages of text, as well as headlines. Text faces contain easily-recognizable characters for optimum legibility. 

Black and white and read all over

With regard to readability, spacing and alignment play a large role in creating easily readable documents. The Goldilocks Principle applies here too.  Too much or too little space between characters or words makes a passage more difficult to read. Also, too little space between lines of text (leading) can cause unwanted collisions between descenders from the line above and ascenders from the line below. Too much space can make it difficult to navigate from one line to the next and understand visual hard returns and paragraph breaks. Left aligned text in North America is the norm because our eyes know to find the next line of information directly below the current line on the left-hand side, therefore it helps make a document more accessible to all readers. Justified text creates alignment on both the left and right sides of a paragraph, which can make text look tidier, however it can also cause excess hyphenation and rivers (distracting white lines that appear as though they’re running through the paragraph), which can impede readability. Also, it’s not good practice to centre large blocks of text, which creates ragged edges on both the left and right of the paragraph, making it difficult for our eyes to know where the next line starts. 

Lastly, the Goldilocks Principle should be considered when it comes to capitalization and the use of bold and italicized type. “It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.” Avoid using all caps whenever possible. It impedes one’s ability to read a passage quickly and easily. The overuse of bold or italicized type can do more harm than good by distracting the reader. It’s the same idea as someone overusing exclamation points. Used sparingly, bold and italicized type aid in comprehension and help readers decipher the most important information quickly and easily. 

When it comes to creating accessible documents, choose typefaces with a width, weight, style that’s in the middle of all extremes to establish optimum legibility. Establish spacing and alignment that makes it easy to navigate from one line to the next. Choosing the road that’s paved right down the middle of all extremes may sound boring, but it doesn’t have to be; especially if a seasoned designer is up to the task of creating both accessible and beautiful documents.  

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Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.