Pick the right typefaces, font sizes, and structure your copy with an accessible layout.
Creating and designing accessible content is more than just choosing an easy-to-read font. Even with accessible font families, people with low vision, cognitive, language, and learning disabilities may struggle to process the text due to other elements such as font variations, size, spacing, and kerning—to name a few. This module will look into basic design considerations to make your content more inclusive and reach even more people.
A major factor that can strongly impact copy accessibility is the typeface. Your choice of typeface and styling can make or break any page design.
People with reading, learning, and attention disorders like dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as people with low vision, can all benefit when you use accessible typefaces.
Choose common typefaces The quickest way to create an accessible design is to choose a common typeface (for example, Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, Verdana, and many others).
Many typeface studies testing people with disabilities show that common typefaces lead to faster reading speeds and a deeper comprehension level when compared to uncommon typefaces. While these common typefaces are not inherently more accessible than other typefaces, some people with disabilities have an easier time reading them because they have had a lot of experience working with (or around) these typefaces.
In addition to choosing a common typeface, be sure to avoid ornate or handwritten typefaces, as well as ones with only one character case available (for example, only uppercase characters). These specialty typefaces with cursive designs, quirky shapes, or artistic features like thin lines may look nice, but they are much harder for some people with disabilities to read than common typefaces.
Letter characteristics and kerning #
The research on whether serif or sans serif typefaces are easier to read is inconclusive, but certain numbers, letters, or combinations can confuse people with language-based learning and cognitive disabilities. For people with these types of disabilities, every letter and number must be clearly defined and have unique characteristics, so letters are not confused with a numbers.
Common readability offenders are the uppercase "I" (India), lowercase "l" (lettuce), and the number "1". Likewise, letter pairs like b/d, p/q, f/t, i/j, m/w, and n/u can sometimes flip either left-right or up-down for some readers.
The copy's readability also decreases when the letter spacing or kerning is too tight. Pay special attention to kerning, especially between the problematic letter pair r/n. Otherwise, words like "yarn" could change to "yam" or "stern" to "stem," entirely changing the meaning of the copy.
Open source typeface collections like Google Fonts can aid you in selecting the most inclusive typeface for your next design. If you use Adobe products, you can embed accessible font families from foundry partners directly into your designs—this includes select Google Fonts.
When you are looking for your next typeface, pay particular attention to the following:
- Use common fonts whenever possible.
- Avoid using elaborate or handwritten fonts and those with only one character case.
- Pick a typeface with unique characteristics—paying special attention to the uppercase I, lowercase l, and 1.
- Review certain letter combinations to be sure they are not an exact mirror image of one another.
- Check the kerning, especially between the r/n letter pair.
Font size and typographic styling #
People often assume that picking out an accessible font family is all there is to creating inclusive content, but it is also important to consider the font size and how the text is styled on a page.
For example, people with low vision or color blindness may be unable to read some of the copy if it is too small, using an AT—like browser zoom—to read the copy. While other users, such as those with dyslexia or reading disorders, may have trouble reading italic text. Screen readers often ignore styling methods, such as bold and italics, so the intent of these styles is not conveyed to blind or low-vision users.
Since you cannot predict what every user's needs are, when adding fonts to your digital products, be sure to consider the following guidelines:
- Base font sizes should be defined with a relative value (%, rem, or em) to allow easy resizing.
- Limit the number of typeface variations like color, bold, ALL CAPS, and italics to increase readability. Instead, use methods to emphasize words in your copy, such as asterisks, dashes, or highlighting an individual word.
- Use markup instead of text on images whenever possible. Screen readers cannot read embedded text on images (without extra code added), and embedded text can also become pixelated when magnified by low-vision users.
Structure and layout #
Complex layouts can be a real barrier for people with low vision, reading disabilities, and the 6.1 million people in the US with ADHD. These types of disabilities make it more difficult for people to keep their place and follow the flow of the copy due to the lack of clear linear pathways, missing headings, and ungrouped elements.
An important aspect of accessible layout designs is making critical elements distinct from one another and grouping similar elements together. If the elements are too close, it can be difficult to tell where one element begins and ends, especially if they have similar styling.
Think about your copy as a collection of individual bullet points on an outline. This will help you plan out the overall page structure and enable you to use headings, subheadings, and lists whenever appropriate.
Paragraph, sentence, and word spacing is also important as it helps readers retain their focus on the copy and adds to the page's overall visual understanding. Long lines of copy can be a barrier for readers with disabilities, as they have trouble keeping their place and following the flow of the copy. A narrow block of copy makes it easier for readers to continue to the next line.
Content alignment #
Another frustration for many people with disabilities is reading justified copy. The uneven spacing between words in justified copy can cause "rivers of space" to form down the page, making the copy difficult to read.
Text justification can also cause words to be either bunched together or stretched in unnatural ways, so readers can find it difficult to locate word boundaries.
Thankfully, there are clear guidelines on spacing and tools such as Good Line-Height and the Golden Ratio Calculator to help make our copy more accessible. Incorporating these guidelines helps people with attention-deficit disorders, reading, and vision-based disabilities focus more on the copy and less on the layout.
Best practices for structure and layout #
When considering structure and layout, be sure to:
- Use elements like headings, subheadings, lists, numbers, quote blocks, and other visual groupings to break the page into sections.
- Use clearly defined paragraphs, sentences, and word spacing.
- Build columns of copy that do not exceed 80 characters in width (40 characters for logograms).
- Avoid justified paragraph alignment, which creates "rivers of space" within the copy.
Accessible typography takeaways #
Accessible typography can be boiled down to common-sense design choices based on your knowledge of your users' needs. Keeping this module in mind as you design and build out your content will go a long way toward helping you communicate clearly with the greatest number of people.
For readable copy, I should always use high-contrast between my copy and background.True. False.
While high-contrast can be valuable for some people with visual impairments, others may suffer from disabilities which make high-contrast content difficult to read.
Some people with disabilities won't be able to read your content if there is too high of a contrast. If you can, allow the user's operating system settings to determine the contrast.
What fonts are the best for accessibility?System fonts like Arial and Verdana. Accessible typefaces. It doesn't matter.
Common typefaces lead to faster reading speeds and a deeper comprehension level when compared to uncommon typefaces.
Accessible typeface collections like the Google Foundry on Adobe Fonts can aid you in selecting the most inclusive typeface for your next design.
You can have an impact on readability with your font selection. Avoid elaborate scripts and art fonts.