A case for more accessible text elements in design
Hi, and welcome back to The Plot! I hope you’ve enjoyed some lovely summer moments since the last edition, whether you take time off in August or not. Now that we’re back to business, let me start with a confession.
I love small text.
Small text in design can look crisp and elegant. The caveat? It’s most likely hard to read. If you’ve ever studied accessibility in design, you know that relatively big text size is recommended. But do you implement this guideline each time you design? If you’re anything like me, chances are, you steer away from it every once in a while. Which probably makes for beautiful designs.
Unless you can’t read them.
At the beginning of August, I had an eye injury. I’ll spare you the details as it’s a story for horror movies 👀 But while my left eye was going through the worst of it, it had the most trouble performing one task: reading small text. When I tried to read a message on my phone or a paragraph in a book with tiny print, I would either see double or blurry. Yikes.
Even though I’m feeling (and seeing) much better now, this experience stuck with me. Today, when I look at a text-heavy object—be it a book, a chart, or a poster—I can’t help but cringe if the letters are too small. For example, look at two book extracts below: the one on the right can be torturous for one’s eyes.
This will be no shock to you: text size matters in information design as well. As practitioners, we have to ponder the topic regularly. What is the right text size for us all to use? How small is too small? And how can we balance elegance and accessibility in our creations? I raised these questions on LinkedIn, and it sparked a much more passionate discussion than I expected.
So what came out of that discussion?
Designing with text is infinitely complex. Not super encouraging, is it? Let’s unpack this a little.
You can get away with a pretty small text size in print. Space in print is really expensive, so if you design for a magazine, for example, you’ll have to adjust your text accordingly. It’s the only medium where you can make 6-7pt size text work.
When we move to the digital side of design, things get much more complicated. You can set a minimum size for a PDF report (12pt?) or a PowerPoint slide, but that may not be enough. The legibility of that text will depend on the type and size of screen your audience is using. A PDF on a phone will look different than on a laptop, and there will be vast differences in the appearance of text between a projected slide deck and an emailed version of it.
To add to this complexity, the text size will depend on the type of font family you’re using. For instance, Verdana has a reputation for looking much larger than most other fonts. N27—a font I used for the new version of my website, which just came out this week—is quite small-looking and hence works best for big headlines.
So what now? Perhaps my struggling eye story can serve as a reminder that we need to think more about text accessibility. I suggest we begin by following these steps, in increasing difficulty:
Avoid making text smaller than 12pt for digital designs.
Have our designs reviewed to make sure the style and contrast don’t fatigue our audience’s eyes.
Encourage the organisations we work for or with to establish data design guidelines that allow for flexible text size choices.
What do you think of these? What would you add? Let’s keep exploring and improving together.
Thanks for reading The Plot! 🔡
See you next week.
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