Has anyone seen my specs?

Stuart Spurring, Sensory Trust

Poor old print. Internet users can decide what font they like, what colour they want the words to be and what colour background they like to read on. They can also choose how big they want the text to be. They can even have a nifty bit of software read the text for them, as fast or as slow as they like, as a man or a woman. Poor old print, so inflexible and rigid.

Print poses a range of issues for designers and writers looking to make their information accessible. As a visual format there are always going to be accessibility issues that can only be overcome with alternative, more flexible, often electronic formats. At the same time the proliferation of design software with extensive lists of fancy fonts and millions of colours means that print publications often stray far from their primary objective; to communicate and inform.

Print for people with visual impairments

People with visual impairments are most often considered when talking about accessible print. This is largely thanks to the work of the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) which estimates that there are two million people in the UK who are registered blind or have a visual impairment that makes standard print inaccessible. The RNIB’s See it Right campaign developed a set of guidelines for the preparation and production of accessible information, including two key print recommendations, Clear Print and Large Print.

Clear Print sets a minimum standard for all printed texts and consists of a range of recommendations for text documents. These include clear and simple fonts, preferably sans serif such as Arial, well spaced and in a minimum of 12 point size or ideally 14point.

Large Print is an alternative, additional format. The larger font size, a minimum of 16 point, means that the text can become unwieldy in a long document.

Whilst Clear and Large Print will make print accessible to many people, those with a severe visual impairment will require an alternative format. Developments in assistive technology mean that increasing numbers of people are using tools such as screen readers (voice software that reads aloud electronic files or web pages), screen magnifiers or document magnifiers.

There are also approximately 20,000 Braille readers in the UK. When creating Braille translations it is important to consider how they will be used. To avoid visitors having to spend half of their visit reading the guidebook Braille and Large Print documents and publications can be sent free through the post under the Articles for the Blind scheme.

Beyond Braille, touch is often neglected as a sense and there are other tactile ways of allowing people to explore. A recent Blind art exhibition in London encouraged visitors to touch the sculptures and also used swell paper (paper that will create a raised impression when it is drawn on and passed under a heating element) to give an impression of paintings and photographs. More durable tactile images such as maps can also be created using vacuum forming. These maps might not be appropriate for wayfinding but they can give an understanding of a setting, its scale and its form. They can also indicate the location of features of interest. These approaches might not replicate an experience exactly but they help to create a more inclusive environment.

Alternative formats

Whilst there is no doubt that print can be inaccessible to people with visual impairments they are not the only ones affected. There are also other people to consider such as those with learning difficulties or learning disabilities and people with communication difficulties. What about the unknown number of people in the UK for whom English is not their first language? There are also the families and friends of all these people who have to read and possibly translate everything. With such a wide range of different needs to consider it is vital to include a variety of visitors with different needs in development of print publications through user testing.

Clear Print will help many users but other techniques and formats can assist more. Using clear illustrations and cartoons for example or photographs that support the subject matter can be a creative way of communicating complex issues. One method that is often overlooked is the use of symbols. Symbols are commonly used on maps but there are whole symbol languages such as Widgit that can be used to create an alternative format for whole texts.

Symbols can also be a useful and simple addition to a piece of text or a sign to help communicate key themes.

Planning and production

With so many options and considerations it is important to plan the production of your print materials.

  • Use clear print guidelines and user testing to develop a house style which can be included in the brief for internal and external designers. Stick to it.
  • Include Large Print and Braille versions as a part of the production process and ensure that they are available both on and off site.
  • Make text files available as well as electronic versions of print designed documents like PDFs.
  • Clarity is a priority. Remember that the reason you are producing a publication is to communicate.

There are also some key recommendation when designing your publication.

  • Use Plain English principles when writing and editing to keep content simple and clear.
  • Do not place images behind text, it can do nothing but make it more difficult to read.
  • Ensure that your text is well spaced.
  • 12point is not the same size in all fonts. Compare other fonts to the same text in Arial 12point for clarity, character size and legibility.
  • Use alternative methods of conveying information such as illustrations, cartoons, or symbols. Do not however use images as a replacement for text.
  • Do not cram the text in by making it smaller. Edit or make the publication bigger.
  • By making your print publications as accessible as possible you are creating a more inclusive environment for visitors. Measures such as Clear Print make¬ reading easier for many more people than just those who have a visual impairment, someone might just have forgotten their glasses.

See also -

RNIB - advice service

Informability Manual: Making Information More Accessible in the Light of the Disability Discrimination Act, Gregory Wendy, 1996



Plain English