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Information For All: The Importance of Accessible Design for Public Health & Safety Messages

Posted by Aerien Mull on Oct 15, 2015 02:01 PM

It’s no secret that attention spans are becoming more and more goldfish-like as we are being bombarded by thousands of messages per day. Consumers are getting bored, apathetic, and savvy about dodging unwanted marketing messages. But before you drop everything to be seen, are you being understood by all of your intended audiences?

Health and safety information is among some of the most critical messaging we produce, but those who are most in need of receiving these messages may not be able to properly understand or fully comprehend them. Culture, ability, and literacy skills are important to consider when designing communication materials for disparate audiences. The National Assessment for Literacy reported that one-third of U.S. adults have trouble reading and acting on health-related information. The first step of behavior change is awareness—make sure your message is clear, easy-to-understand and well organized.

Put Me First.

A sure-fire way to engage your audience is to speak directly to them—using concrete nouns and an active voice—to tell them what you would like them to do. And, since you can assume no one is reading and everyone is skimming, put the important information FIRST (“Always wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food” instead of “After handling food always wash hands with soap and warm water) and use restraint in your message quantity and length. For literacy, words with one or two syllables are best. Use short lists (3-7 items), short sentences (8-10 words) and short paragraphs (3-5 sentences).

Up Your Points.

Text appearance is probably the most obvious way you can improve your readability. Anything less than 12pt. is dangerous territory for older audiences and those with impaired vision. Break your text with large headlines that are at least 2 point sizes larger than your main body text. Headings and sub-headings that group information in the order that your audience will use it help to cue up your content and increase its usefulness.

Be Picky About Your Font.


Research has shown no reliable difference in reading speed or preference between common serif fonts, like Times New Roman or Georgia, and san-serif fonts like Arial or Verdana when appearing at 12 points. But what is clear is that distinctive letterforms are more easily recognized and understood by our brains. While the variety of the sans serif may be read more quickly in some cases, san serif fonts read more easily at smaller sizes and in digital applications. Sentence Case and Title Case offer the most variety of letterforms and, therefore, are more legible than ALL CAPS.

Avoid fancifully embellished or script fonts. Ensure that your font also has proper kerning (space between letters) so the letterforms don’t become visual ligatures that blend together. A good test is the letters “f” and “i” in the word “fire.” Take note that certain letterforms like “g” and a” are more easily read when they appear the way they are often written – as a “single story” with only one counter space.

Keep it White.

In the land of oversized fonts, it is also crucial to remember to leave room for white space. Ten to thirty-five percent of your design is optimum. White space helps to separate ideas, creates focus, and ultimately improves readability.


Make an Impact with White Space!


Put Your Images to Work.While every designer knows that “white space” doesn’t necessarily have to be “white,” when it comes to legibility, it is also important to limit the use of reverse text on a dark background. It strains the eye and takes longer to read. Black text on a white background can be read up to 32% faster than the reverse.

Photos are great for showing real-life events, but take care to pick culturally sensitive and relevant imagery. Relatability will draw your audience in, so pick imagery that is inclusive and appealing to your intended audience.

Illustrations are best when your idea is complex, procedural, or when you want to avoid specifics to clarify an idea. Symbols, while on the surface may appear to be universal, should be used with caution as some symbols may not have the same meaning across all audiences. Pretest your symbols with your audience to ensure comprehension. Some adults may not be able to read safety messages, but they can understand or mimic an action shown in an illustration. An “X” or red cross are not universally known to mean “no.” For this reason, it’s always best to use a positive image—showing your audience what to do—instead of the negative action that you want to avoid.