Creative briefs always boil down to communicating something to someone. Even when working on the tightest of briefs one thing is certain; as comms professionals we should never assume that the audience engaging with our work will interact with it in a universal way. Keeping accessibility top of mind from the start of a design process can ensure that as many people can engage successfully with your work as possible.
It would be impossible to write a list of principles that would ensure every piece of work produced is ‘completely accessible’. Such a list would never end. I would however like to share four core principles used at Scope (the disability charity) that can be applied to many print design projects such as reports, leaflets, and mail packs.
How can paper choice impact accessibility?
Paper choice should be considered as part of the accessibility of your content. Using an uncoated paper stock will result in easier reading of both text and images as it reduces the glare of the page when compared to coated or glossy papers. The use of off-white and warm white paper colours compared to a pure or bright white will further reduce the glare off the page which is especially important for a reader with a visual impairment.
The thickness of paper as well as binding choice for a publication also comes into play as we should not assume the reader will be turning the page using an index finger and/or thumb. Using a slightly thicker paper reduces the risk of ink bleeding through from the other side of a page and has the benefit of allowing more pressure to be applied to the page when it’s being turned. The use of a binding that allows a publication to lay open flat also means a publication does not need to be held open while reading.
Picking an accessible font
When looking for a font, legibility and familiarity are key as some fonts can make it harder for a person to access your content. Font choice can particularly affect people with a visual impairment, dyslexia, Irlen syndrome or low literacy.
While specialist ‘accessible fonts’ exist such as: Hargreaves (Scope), FS Me (MenCAP) or Dyslexie you often find that standard system fonts such as: Arial, Helvetica, Tahoma, Verdana and Times New Roman have a lot of the features to look out for.
- Familiarity and legibility
Simple letter forms that are familiar and legible without lots of added extra embellishment are easiest to read. There is some debate as to if a serif font (such as Times New Roman) or a sans serif font (such as Arial) are easier to read for most people. However, as long as the characters are familiar it is generally accepted that people normally have a personal preference for serifs.
- Unambiguous letters
Each character should have a distinct form that is recognisable and unambiguous from others. A good test of this can be to compare the number ‘1’, upper case ‘i’ and lower-case ‘l’ – which often have a very similar or identical shape.
The similarity in shape can also be seen in characters such as ‘c’ and ‘e’ where gaps in a letter’s form are sometimes reduced for aesthetic effect. Characters that include a gap such as ‘c’ or ‘e’ should have a distinct gap and not a minimised one.
It is also important to ensure your choice has distinctive descenders (falling below the line) and ascenders (rising above the line) on characters such as ‘p’ and ‘b’. As well as an obvious difference in height between capital and lowercase (x-height) letters.
- Mirroring letters
Mirrored letters can pose a particular barrier to people with dyslexia. Characters such as ‘q’ and ‘p’ and ‘d’ and ‘b’ can often be seen as mirrored shapes, such as in Arial, whereas Times New Roman does not have mirrored letters making it easier for someone to identify the individual letters making up a word.
- Space between letters
The space (kerning) between characters is another important factor as every font has different widths. This can often be adjusted (tracking) but you should ensure that letters sitting next to each other such as ‘r’ and ‘n’ do not end up looking like ‘m’ due to them sitting too close together.
- What else to consider
- Avoid using ‘light’, ‘thin’, ‘narrow’ or ‘black’ versions of a font.
- Avoid italics.
- Use bold sparingly.
- Use a minimum type size of 12pt, or 14pt where possible.
- Ensure there is enough space between lines.
- Don’t mix too many fonts and sizes on one page.
The importance of colour contrast
In the UK, one in 12 men and one in 200 women have colour vision deficiency. Ensuring that content has a high colour contrast allows for people with sight loss or colour blindness to access content easier. Contrasts should not just be considered for text but also be checked for illustrations, icons, and graphic devices (such as a line separating sections on a form) as all of this information can be vital to understanding the content of a page.
Colour contrast is the difference between the foreground and background colour and can easily be checked using a free online tool, such as WebAIM. Contrasts go from a 1:1 ratio meaning no contrast up to high contrast ratios such as 21:1 for black on white. The first number is the ‘luminance’ of the lighter colour and the second shows the brightness of the darker colour. It is important to note when using an online checker that you will be checking the contrast of digital (RGB) colours and not printed (CMYK) colours. Therefore, online colour contrast checkers should be used as a guide in combination with visually inspecting a printed proof.
At Scope, we use a minimum colour contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for text under 14pt, but as printed contrasts cannot be changed by an end user, a contrast ratio of 7:1 is preferable. These values are the recommendation of The Web Centre Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and while this is not specific guidance for print the guidelines serve as a good standard to follow.
It is also important to note that if you are using colour to highlight text or an icon you should not only rely on colour to draw attention. The use of bolding and size should be considered, as if the reader is colourblind they may not be able to identify the highlight even with a high colour contrast.
Ensuring that your document has a clear and simple structure will help readers navigate your content to find the information they need. Cluttered and overwhelming layouts can pose a barrier to autistic and neurodivergent people and cause content to be inaccessible.
Publications need to have a clear hierarchy that includes headings, and subheadings, and consider how key information is highlighted from the rest of the content. Using left-aligned text that is unjustified will also help ensure your content is more accessible to a person with a visual impairment or dyslexia. Illustrations and images on the page should complement the content and assist the reader in their understanding rather than cluttering the page or being confusing and irrelevant.
A main barrier to accessibility can be the length of a publication which should be kept as short as possible. Where longer documents are necessary, it is important to consider these points:
- Include a content page so a reader can navigate easily.
- Have page numbers on every page.
- Ensure every page has a clear hierarchy of headings and subheadings and that this same format is used throughout the document.
- Limit the number of layouts you have – if for example, you are listing 10 recommendations over 10 pages use the same layout on each page with clear titles so a reader knows that the content has changed but that they can easily navigate the page to the information they need.
- Use chapter breaks for very long documents that are distinct from the other layouts.
- Consider using footnotes instead of endnotes so the reader does not need to keep moving pages within the publication to source information.
- If you are using a graphic device such as a box or icon to highlight information ensure this is used consistently throughout the document.
These principles will help to ensure as many people as possible can access your content. It is vital though to keep an inquisitive mind when designing for accessibility, to ask questions, test and be open to change. Further information about designing for accessibility can be found in the following articles:
- Designing for disability: quick do’s and don’ts
- Designing for people on the autistic spectrum
- How to make your Word documents more accessible
- Accessible Communication resource
- Building in accessibility from the beginning
- Accessible communications doesn’t have to be complicated
- Top tips for accessible communications
- Making your social media accessible
Banner Image: Katie Rainbow on Unsplash