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example of type demonstrating x-height and t-height APH Guidelines for Print Document Design

Originally published August 2011

J. Elaine Kitchel
Low Vision Project Leader
American Printing House for the Blind

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) believes guidelines for print documents should be brought to a standard of optimal usability for persons with low vision. The standards should be based on fundamental principles gleaned from research that originated from the study of the impact of print characteristics on readers of print products. This research also includes existing industry standards, where they apply.

With the advent of word processing, document design has become an intrinsic part of writing. Writers for APH encounter a wide array of new printing options. The knowledgeable use of these options helps the writer gain an advantage because readers of APH materials have become accustomed to very well-designed documents. For the writer of documents at APH, it has become an imperative to be knowledgeable about typography and design.

It is impossible to teach the writer everything he/she should know in a brief primer, but here are the essentials:

A. Use a Readable Typeface/Font

For text, a readable typeface means a sans-serif (/san-ser-if/) typeface (or font) made up of mainly straight lines. A serif is a short stroke that projects from the ends of the main strokes that make up a character. These are not desirable for use in a book to be read by persons of all ages and/or persons with visual impairments.

Although serif typefaces often work well in headings and personal stationery, they can be difficult to read in continuous text. Among the better san-serifed typefaces are APHont, Antique Olive, Tahoma, Verdana, and Helvetica.

The minimum size of any typeface to be used on APH documents is 12 points. Most large print is 18 points.

  • 12 pt. = regular print
  • 14-16 pt. = “enlarged” print (not considered large print)
  • 18 and larger = large print
  • 18 and larger, with other formatting changes = enhanced print
  • Note: Students who need print 28 points or larger should probably be considered as candidates for Braille education.

Here are the primary things to think about when selecting a font for use by persons with low vision:

  1. The upper case “I” and Roman Numeral I, the numeral 1, and the lower case l, should all look different from one another.
  2. The font should be wide-bodied with space between each letter. Letters which have a bubble inside them, such as o, d, g, and others should have plenty of space inside the bubble.
  3. Punctuation should be rounded, large and very visible.
  4. For these reasons APHont was developed and is suggested as a font that meets all necessary guidelines.
  5. Font strokes should be solid and without gaps in them.

B. Use White Space

Ample white space makes a page more readable and useful because it provides contrast to the print and creates luminance around the text. The primary ways to create white space on the page are to use generous margins, e.g., margins of at least one inch for letters and other business documents. Another way to provide white space is to provide ample spacing, leading and kerning to text.

APH encourages its writers to:

  • Indent 1 inch at margins
  • Justify left margin, unjustify right margin
  • Use a wide, san-serif font for ample kerning
  • Space 1.25 between lines, especially on forms where underscores and boxes are used to provide space for writing
  • Double space (30-34 pt) between paragraphs or other bodies of text
  • Use block paragraph style, no indents

Other ways include white space are, supply headings and sub-headings, enumerate items in separate paragraphs, subparagraphs, or bulleted lists.

White space is especially important on forms. Lots of horizontal lines, or grids with horizontal and vertical lines can be very difficult for some people with visual impairments to follow across the page. These difficulties can be minimized through the use of pastel, colored background for every alternate line. Example below:

State Year Auto Sales Home Sales Boat Sales
Alabama 2010 309,436 99,307 27,397
Delaware 2010 214,556 78,477 39,765
Virginia 2010 349, 887 125,095 33,482
Washington 2009 272,299 69,433 30,442

Crowded text detracts from readability and usability because contrast is limited by too much black text. In studies, persons with normal vision who filled-out crowded forms often lost focus before they reached the end of the task. Persons with vision impairments struggled more than their typically-sighted peers with forms and text.

C. Use Headings and Subheadings

A common sense approach to headings and sub-headings makes a document much easier to follow. Not only do they serve as navigational aids for readers, they help writers organize thoughts more logically than they might otherwise. The use of color, style, size and typeface of headings and subheadings has a very real effect on the readability and usability of a document. (For more specific information about size and colors of headings, see “Title and Header Set-up Atlas.”)

The best colors for headings (besides black, in descending order) are:

  • Federal Blue – C:100, M:60, Y:0, K:6
  • Regulation Yellow — C:0, M:6, Y:100, K:0 (to be used with dark background)
  • Federal Gold — C:0, M:11.5, Y:94, K:6
  • Regulation Green — C:100, M:0, Y:91, K:6
  • Regulation Brown — C:0, M:79, Y:100, K:72
  • Regulation Purple — C:87, M:100, Y:0, K:8.5
  • Regulation Red — C:0, M:91, Y:65, K:11.5
  • Note: Gray should never be used for either text or background because it offers poor contrast. Red is used only as a last resort because people with color blindness are taught that when they see a color that might be either red or green (they look very similar) they are to interpret it as green. Red is seldom used in documents for users who have altered color perception.

D. Avoid All Caps or All Bold for Continuous or Large Amounts of Text

In the electronic age, an all cap or all bold passage has acquired the visual aspect of implied volume. A MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS IS RECEIVED AS A SHOUTED MESSAGE. Additionally, continuous text in large caps is difficult to read for any length of time, due to the crowding effect. All caps can be altered to one of the following options (listed in order of usability):

  1. Title Case
  2. Title Case bold
  3. Title Case different color
  4. Title Case different color and bold
  5. Title Case bold and underscored
  6. Title Case underscored
  7. Lower Case bold
  8. Lower Case different color
  9. Lower case different color and bold
  10. Lower case bold and underscored
  11. Lower case underscored

E. Avoid Italics

Generally speaking, bold or underscore is preferable to italics. Italics are more difficult to read than regular typefaces because individual letters lean into the territories of their neighbors.

F. Use Lists

Enumerate items by breaking down lists into groups of similar items. Use a tabulated list to allow the writer a method to display the points better, and to improve the sentence structure. Make sure the list falls at the end of the sentence, not at the beginning or in the middle.

G. Use Bullets

When a paragraph or passage includes a list of more than three items, bullets are encouraged. They make lists more readable, and more memorable. In a case where many lists are used, it may be helpful to color the bullets and/or the text in a list.

H. Use Hanging Indents, but Use Them Sparingly

In most texts, when you indent an item to be listed, whether it’s a bulleted item or an entire paragraph, don’t begin the second line of the item at the left margin. Instead, begin it just below the first one, with the enumerating symbol hanging to the left.

I. Use a Ragged Right Margin

Many readability specialists have demonstrated that unjustified right margins are more readable than justified ones. In letters, contracts, and the like, an unjustified right, (also called “rag right”) margin is often desirable because it eliminates extra spaces between words that one gets with the use of justified right margin.

J. Use Footnotes or Reference Sections

Citations tend to clutter a body of text; one can easily minimize cluttering by moving citations to footnotes or to a reference section in the back of the document.

K. Use no more than 62 Characters per Line

Ideally, a line of type should accommodate 62 characters in 12 point typeface, 39 characters in a large print format, give or take a few characters. In heavy text the reader’s eye tends to get tired in mid-line. One way often used to eliminate this effect is to use a two-column format. But columns are not recommended for text that is to be read by senior citizens, or by people with visual impairments. The visual shift from right, back to left, is the most difficult reading maneuver to do. It is also the point at which most errors occur. Thus the use of columns is discouraged because it doubles the number of visual shifts.

L. Use plain Backgrounds for Text

The use of busy, graphic backgrounds for text is popular now but it renders text very difficult to read, in many cases. Plain backgrounds, preferably of off white, cream, ivory, yellow or pink are best for reading black text.

M. Maps, Charts, Graphs, and Graphics should maintain the same standards as text for readability and usability

All too often, maps, charts, graphs and graphics that accompany text, have smaller type, different fonts, poor contrast, and too little white space. APH has a commitment to keep its maps, charts, graphs and graphics as readable and usable as its text. A document has been drafted which contains all the guidelines for maps. (See document, “What are Essential Characteristics?”) Many of the guidelines for maps are also applicable to graphics used in large format. In general, the primary guidelines are:

  1. Keep only graphic content that is needed for a student to understand the text, perform calculations, or otherwise arrive at an understanding of the desired concept.
  2. Text and numerals should not be overlaid or under laid with graphic content.
  3. Charts and graphs should be simple and use the following colors:
    • Black
    • White
    • Regulation Yellow — C:0, M:6, Y:100, K:0
    • Federal Gold — C:0, M:11.5, Y:94, K:6
    • Federal Blue — C:100, M:60, Y:0, K:6
    • Regulation Brown — C:0, M:79, Y:100, K:72
    • Note: The colors listed here are all visible to 99.992% of students, even those with color blindness. This is why they have been selected. Gray or gray scale should never be used in a chart or graph.
  4. If necessary graphic content appears in color for a student’s peers, it is usually preferable to maintain color for students with visual impairments, provided the colored graphic has good contrast.
  5. Where color is not possible, simple black-and-white line drawings are preferred over grayscale.
  6. Drawings for students with visual impairments should always be simple, have a horizon, and eliminate extraneous material not needed for the interpretation of the drawing.

N. Documents should be bound in a manner that enhances use

Spiral, twin loop, and loose leaf materials are suitable for use by most teachers and students. Occasionally a hard bound book is appropriate, but document designers should take care to understand the setting and manner in which the document will be used in order to select the best binding option.

O. Documents should be printed on light-colored paper:

  • white (non-glare),
  • ivory,
  • cream,
  • pastel yellow, or
  • pink paper

Charts should be formatted as below:

Child’s Name Age Reading Level Uses Optical Glasses? Needs Referral?
ShayAnn Jones 7 4b Yes To optometrist, yes
Wesley Kraimer 8 5c Yes No
Anna Beth Logan 6 3c No To optometrist, yes
Tyrone Rashaim 7 4a Yes To occupational therapist, yes
Veronica Dunham 9 6c Yes No
Karl Rabinowitz 7 5a Yes To optometrist, yes
Carolette Bonifacio 8 6a No No
Mona Creighton-Dahl 6 5c Yes Speech Therapist, yes

Other colors approved for alternating stripes:

  • Regulation Pastel Yellow — C:0, M:0, Y:91, K:0 — #ffff00
  • Regulation Pastel Apricot — C:0, M:8.5, Y:43, K:0 — #f7cc65
  • Regulation Pastel Pink — C:0, M:27.5, Y:11.5, K:0 — #fb8bad
  • Regulation Pastel Lilac — C:30.5, M:43, Y:0, K:0 — #cc90f2
  • Regulation Pastel Blue — C:27.5, M:6, Y:0, K:0 — #97b9ff
  • Regulation Pastel Aqua — C:18.5, M:0, Y:8.5, K:0 — #7df9ef
  • Regulation Pastel Peridot — C:8.5, M:0, Y:60, K:0 — #cbfd75
  • Regulation Pastel Beige — C:0, M:6, Y:18.5, K:6 — #d5c8a1

NOTE: Colors shown approximate.

P. Fills

Sometimes fills are needed in place of colors for charts, maps, and other graphics. For the most part fills containing diagonal lines and evenly-set dots are usable. For a wider variety of appropriate fills, see Elaine Kitchel.

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