If I can’t read it, it’s ugly!

The older I get, the more I find I can comfortably walk in the shoes of donors.

As a fundraiser, my aim has long been to inspire my readers to generosity, and stir them up to good works. I’ve always tried to be mindful of donors’ hopes and fears.

But my latest experience with the aggravating effects of growing older has made me even more mindful than ever before.

My eyesight just isn’t as sharp as it used to be. In the past, whenever it came time for new glasses, I would simply go to the eye doctor, get a new prescription and the new glasses would make everything as crisp as it had been before.

Not this time. I’m on my third set of new lenses and I’m still squinting, leaning in, and closing first one eye and then the other trying to see straight.

Something has happened that seems to have befuddled the opticians. They’re working on yet another set for me. But in the meantime, I’m learning firsthand what it’s like to be an “older donor” trying to read fundraising materials.

I had always been a proponent of readable type. Now I’ve become a legibility fanatic.

Readability in print: Foundational research

So, if you want your copy to be readable, what should you do? One of the pioneer studies in readability is still a good place to look. Type & Layout: Are you communicating or just making pretty shapes?, by Colin Wheildon, takes a scientific approach to the question to see how different typography and design techniques in print affect reader comprehension.

“To put it bluntly, it’s possible to blow away more than half our readers simply by choosing the wrong type.”
–Colin Wheildon

His research provides devastating evidence that many common print design techniques are flat-out harmful to readability. Some of his sobering findings are — or should be — obvious. But you see these violated almost everywhere you look.

Serif vs San Serif

The small decorative flourishes at the end of the letter on the left are serifs, hence the term serif font. The letter on the right does not have these flourishes and is called a sans serif font.

  • Body type must be set in serif type if the designer intends it to be read and understood.
  • Font size matters, with most readers needing at least a 10-point font for ease of reading. (I personally need it larger.)
  • Leading (space between lines) matters too. Most readers preferred a point or two of extra space between lines.
  • Text should be printed in black as opposed to either muted or high intensity colors.
  • Black text printed on a gray background causes readers to experience difficulties when the shade strength is increased beyond 10 percent.
  • White text reversed out of either a black or colored background is virtually impossible for readers to understand.

Some of Wheildon’s other findings are not so intuitively obvious, but just as significant:

  • Headlines set in all capital letters are significantly less legible than those set in lower case.
  • Italic body type causes no more difficulty for readers than Roman body type.
  • Periods at the end of headlines have a detrimental effect on readers’ comprehension, signaling that the message has already been delivered and the reader can safely stop.
  • Captions with photos (as opposed to relying on descriptions of the photo in body copy) make comprehension easier for readers.

Wheildon’s book has many other recommendations too numerous to discuss here. He has his detractors among the ranks of designers who love to make pretty shapes. But his work is grounded in solid research. And I have yet to see another readability study with as much practical application.

Online design: Different rules, same principles

Wheildon first published his research back in 1984, so designing for the web was not an issue for him. With the explosion of online communications and marketing, designers discovered many more ways to make reading difficult.

The principles for good visual design and typography online are really the same as in print. As in print, you want to remove barriers to comprehension. You want to make your type as legible as possible. And you want to reduce friction that hinders the reader.

In short, the best design whether in print or online is where the reader does not notice the design or the type, but comprehends the message.

However, some of the techniques are different because the medium is different.

Our eyes interact one way with light reflected from paper, and another way with light from a screen. Even the way our brains behave is different depending on the medium.

I’ll leave the finer points of web design readability for the experts. My colleague Ryan James will take it from here in a blog coming soon.

A curmudgeonly final word

I’ve long been suspicious of fashion trends, especially design fads. My career in direct marketing has confirmed this. Many of them are insidious.

I know this because direct marketing lives and dies by results, not personal preference. If you adopt a trendy design and your results drop, your trendy design is harmful.

Fashion is all about the latest craze, the cutting edge and what the cool kids are doing. It’s all about personal preference.

Frankly, I don’t give a rip how cool something is. I care about design doing its job. It needs to convey a message, and do it clearly and concisely. I need to be able to read it without getting a headache.

And in fundraising, design needs to inspire the reader to be generous.

If it accomplishes that, it’s beautiful. If I can’t read it—no matter how pretty it is—it’s ugly.

I can’t say it better than Stanley Morison, the eminent English typographer, who commissioned such famous fonts as Times New RomanGill Sans and Perpetua.

“… any disposition of printing material which, whatever the intention, has the effect of coming between author and reader, is wrong.”
–Stanley Morison