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Accessible Design: Fonts

Accessible Design: Fonts

Most of our daily activities involve reading text in some way, but we usually don’t stop to think about it. When you read the nutrition facts on the back of your morning cereal or pick up your tablet to scroll through the morning news, you don’t consider the typeface you’re looking at. In many cases, this is a good thing. Reading would be very difficult if we had to pause and look at every word or character. Information designed to be accessible should not make a reader struggle. Previously, I discussed some of the basics of how to choose a font. This time, I will be looking at font choice through the lens of accessibility. There are two main ways to achieve accessible design using fonts: consistency and familiarity.

Consistency in Accessible Design

First and foremost, you should stick with one or two fonts in your designs. A separate font for a header and body of text are acceptable. It can help readers easily find what they are looking for. Using too many fonts close together, however, can be confusing. It will make a reader stop and think about what they’re looking at. When reading text, flow is important to understanding. Anything that interrupts that flow makes it less accessible. This can also include using fonts that don’t have even spacing between characters, often referred to as kerning.  Wide gaps between characters can cause a reader to stumble, whereas small gaps can simply make words unreadable.

font samples

Consistency can also mean making sure the font you choose has uniform serif or not. Serif refers to the decorative “tail” that letters sometimes have (Times New Roman is an example of a serif font). Sans-serif fonts, like Arial, do not have these decorative marks. There is ongoing debate over which type of font is better for reading in print versus digital. The more important thing is to choose one style and stick with it.

Font Familiarity

There are several standard fonts that are widely available on most devices, such as the previously mentioned Times New Roman or Arial. Using any of these well-known fonts will foster familiarity in a reader. Fonts that are similar to them will do the same. Again, the reason is so the reader doesn’t have to waste any time thinking about what they’re looking at. Characters need to be easy to distinguish. There is a time and place for a fancy script or a bubbly font but limiting it to non-essential information is good accessibility practice. When you want to show something clearly, simplicity is best.

In addition, avoid using highly specialized characters on the web unless they’re appearing in a graphic. People with impaired vision often use screen readers to browse the internet. These special characters often look like a font change to a sighted user, but they cause screen readers trouble. If you’d like to hear how screen readers interpret some special characters, please check out this video from Twitter.

If you found this useful, check out my previous blog about accessibility in design!