A couple of weeks ago I got angry about a plain language petition whose only reference to design was to prescribe 10pt Arial or Calibri (which, let’s face it, looks nothing like Arial, so surely can’t be as legible?).
While the intention of this instruction is, of course, well meant, it’s also fundamentally flawed. A conversation I had with a real compliance person from a client explains why:
Compliance ‘The guidance says all the text has to be the same size.’
Me ‘It can’t possibly say that!’
Compliance ‘Yes, everything has to be the same.’
Me ‘But what about this information here: shouldn’t that be more prominent?’
Compliance ‘But that would suggest that some things are more important than others’
Of course, as a real person, I know that some information is more important than other information. But as a compliance person (but still a real person) meeting the ‘minimum’ standard had become the priority. Inevitably, this thinking leads to leads to something like this:
It’s about more than size
So, more important than a minimum size is a set of styles that mean different types of information can be identified: this example shows some very basic ones.
1) Summary text
Unless you want to write a very long title, it’s probably useful to tell people what the information is about so they can decide if they want to read it. Or it could be your chance to tell them why they need to read it.
Visually this should be more prominent than the normal paragraph text so it looks like a short (and easily readable) piece of text.
2) Body text
Seems fairly obvious, and this is what the ’10pt Arial’ brigade are talking about.
But as well as keeping the text a decent size, there’s also the matter of line length to consider. There are plentiful opinions on what’s best, but what is universally agreed* is that using the full width of an A4/Letter page isn’t the right thing to do.
3 & 6) Key words/definitions
In complex information there are, inevitably, key words and phrases that need explanation. The common solution is to give an explanation in brackets after the first instance, and assume the reader has fully understood the explanation.
That works if you’re only using the key word once. If you’re using the key word or phrase repeatedly, the user will have to work back through the text to find the definition and then get back to where they were – and that’s hard work. Getting definitions somewhere visible (such as number 6) makes that task much easier.
4) Paragraph headings
Unless the whole text is about the exact same topic, a few headings add some structure to the content. Making sure there is more room above these than above a normal paragraph helps break text into blocks, giving an idea about how much is written about each topic.
Yes, these were already there, but again there is the matter of spacing. In most cases, bullets belong with the text before them, which gives them context. Spacing them appropriately keeps this connection.
6) Information panels
In this example, these house the definitions highlighted in 3), but they can work equally well for contact details or actions: information that isn’t necessarily part of the main text.
These 6 basics won’t give you the most perfect design ever, but as I hope you can see from the examples above, they can be a good start to making information look more approachable. And if it does, that’s half the battle won.
*Is it ‘universally agreed’?
Exact opinions vary, but most people seem happy with between 45 characters and 75 characters (which is a pretty big range):