TypeTalk: Designing For the Aging Eye

As we age, our eyes and vision change, making it more difficult to read – and for some, to perceive color and contrast. If your audience includes seniors, there are some important recommendations to take into consideration in order to attract, engage, and hold your readers’ attention. Whether it be for books, magazines, menus, flyers, posters, labels, or signage, the responsible designer will address the needs of their audience, and make senior-friendly type and design choices to help keep reading pleasurable, as well as to enhance understanding and absorption of your message.

Here are some guidelines for setting typography targeted towards the aging eye and those with some degree of visual impairment. NOTE: If designing for readers with more specific visual impairments or limitations, be sure to do your research as they might call for a different approach to maximize legibility and readability. 

Typeface

Use clean, simple, easy-to-read typefaces. Sans serifs are recommended for text for the more visually challenged. Avoid type designs with high contrast and ultra thin strokes, as well as condensed or expanded designs, especially for text. Stick to those with uniform proportions, open counters, and easily-recognizable features. Note that typestyles with taller x-heights have greater readability, especially for text. Avoid fussy scripts, elaborate calligraphic styles, as well as quirky and hard-to-read designs – even for headlines. Keep the number of fonts per page to a minimum, with two being a good rule of thumb.

The setting on the left is more challenging to read due to the the narrow column width and the typeface’s short x-height, tight counters, and decorative characters. The setting on the right with its clean, open characters, generous type size and line spacing is much easier to read. 

Resist the temptation to use display typefaces with reduced legibility, including those that are highly decorative or ornamental, have interior shading, or are extremely extended or condensed – all of which can be challenging for the senior reader.

Type Size

Bigger is better when it comes to type size for seniors. For some readers, a minimum of 12 point text on 15 points of leading is a good starting point (although exact sizes may vary depending on the typeface that you choose). But for the more visually challenged reader with low vision, or with degenerative eye conditions, 16 or 18 point type (or even larger) with generous leading might be preferable. 

Weight

Don’t go too light or too heavy for body text – aim for the middle, such as a book or regular weight. Avoid ultra thin or extremely heavy weights for both text and display. Use boldface to emphasize a word or a small group of words. Keep the use of italics to a minimum; research indicates that italic type is 18 percent more difficult to read than Roman (upright) letters. 

Type formatting

Stick with upper and lowercase when setting continuous text. All-cap settings are harder to read, so save them for only the briefest headlines and signage. Keep the overall letterspacing generous (but not ‘letterspaced’ or tracked out) for maximum character recognition. For the greatest readability, set text left/rag right at a moderate line length, avoiding column widths that are very narrow or extremely wide. 

Color & Contrast

The way one sees and perceives color and contrast can become compromised for the aging eye and the visually impaired. For this reason, maintain high contrast between type and background, and keep medium-value colors to a minimum. Black (or very dark) type on a white or very light background is the easiest to read. Avoid reverse or dropped-out text, which is more difficult to read. In addition, steer clear of busy background patterns, and brightly colored paper for flyers and such.

Even the most friendly and legible of typefaces can be harder to read when there isn’t enough color contrast.

The same type treatment, but with stronger color contrast makes these headlines inviting and easy to read for senior readers.

Break up your text

Avoid long blocks of unbroken text, which can tire the eye and tax the brain. Break copy into chunks wherever possible, use subheads, bulleted lists, boxes, and charts to organize content into smaller units. Information hierarchy should be very clear and easily understood. Make sure to design with lots of white space to reduce eye fatigue.

The treatment on the left sacrifices both legibility and readability in an effort to capture the spirit of the holiday– but what good is it if it is hard to read? The setting on the right is much improved (and still conveys Halloween), with its legible typefaces, generous type size and line spacing, flush-left alignment, greater color contrast, chunked up text, and emphasis on the important information.

Forms

Forms with fields requiring signatures or other information to should be wide, and include generous line spacing in order to accommodate a larger handwriting. In addition, make sure the instructions and field labels are clear enough to be easily read.

 

 When setting forms for the senior reader, make the type easy to read, and the lines and line spacing generous.

 

Additional Resources 

http://lighthouse.org/accessibility/design/accessible-print-design/making-text-legible/

http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/making-your-printed-health-materials-senior-friendly

http://www.aph.org/edresearch/lpguide.htm

http://www.ada.gov/

http://www.rnib.org.uk/

http://www.apple.com/accessibility/resources/

***

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 3rd edition (4th in the works), has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. For more information on attending one or bringing it to your company, organization, or school, go to her site, call The Type Studio at 203-227-5929, or email Ilene at info@thetypestudio.com. Sign up for her free e-newsletter, All Things Typographic, at www.thetypestudio.com.

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Posted on: October 16, 2013

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. For more information on attending one or bringing it to your company, organization, or school, go to her site, call The Type Studio at 203-227-5929, or email Ilene at info@thetypestudio.com. Sign up for her free e‑newsletter, All Things Typographic, at www.thetypestudio.com.

5 Comments on TypeTalk: Designing For the Aging Eye

  1. Good tips for legibility. We have designed a daily wall calendar for seniors that you can see here – http://www.seecalendar.com/ The goal was to make it easy to see from across a room and to have it act as a reminder of the day.

  2. I share articles on your blog with my various social media channels using BUFFER.
    Each time I do, it features a thumbnail image.

    The image choices are usually horrible and have absolutely nothing to do with the post I am attempting to share.

    Is there something you can do to eliminate cached images? The same ones seem to appear each time I Buffer something.

    Thanks, Terri

    PS to Mike Rankin: Congratulations to you as the new editor here. The site looks better.

  3. Good tips! The same principals work equally well for the younger eyes… especially those with shorter attention spans that don’t want to read.

    Scanability. Readability. Legibility.

  4. Most of this is common-sense to those who love type, but it’s surprising how many designers sacrifice legibility for the sake of the overall impact, losing prospective readers along the way. I looked at an issue of venerable TIME magazine recently, and was appalled at how many of their captions and charts were so small and/or low-contrast as to be largely unreadable. I think a lot of designers, especially those under tight deadlines, neglect to proof their work on anything other than their screen, and don’t take into account how much can shift between the worlds of RGB and CMYK.

  5. Ilene, your comparison of Bernhard Modern vs. Avenir is rigged.

    I think you will find that once x-heights are equalized, the Bernhard holds its own.

    For a fair comparison of x-height readability, it would be more instructive to compare Adobe Garamond with ITC Garamond—and that would put the lie to your assertion about x-height readability.

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