Proper font selection improves the accessibility of documents

August 4, 2023

graphic compares the legibility of different size and font typefaces simulated for a person who usually uses 2x glasses
Illustration of how font choices affect legibility for persons with reduced eyesight

Font selection plays a crucial role in shaping the accessibility of printed documents. The choice of font can significantly impact how easily people with various visual impairments, cognitive differences, or reading challenges can access and comprehend the content of written or digital documents.

  • Legibility and Readability: Fonts vary in their legibility and readability. Legibility refers to how easily individual characters can be distinguished, while readability pertains to the ease with which entire words and sentences can be read. Sans-serif fonts like Arial or Helvetica are often preferred for their simplicity and clean lines, making them easier to read, especially for individuals with visual impairments.
  • Size Matters: The size of a font can make a substantial difference in accessibility. Larger fonts, generally 16 points or above, aid individuals with low vision or those reading from a distance. Moreover, adjusting the font size according to the reading environment and audience can ensure better readability for everyone. Although utilizing a 16 point font might not be suitable for most purposes, a minimum font size of 12 point is generally viable for most circumstances.
  • Contrast is Key: The contrast between the text and the background is critical. High contrast enhances visibility, benefiting those with color blindness or visual impairments. Using dark text on a light background or vice versa is a simple yet effective way to improve accessibility.
  • Serif vs. Sans-Serif: While serif fonts (like Times New Roman) have small decorative lines at the ends of characters, sans-serif fonts lack these embellishments. Sans-serif fonts are generally considered more accessible for on-screen reading due to their cleaner design. 
  • Avoid Decorative Fonts: Decorative or cursive fonts might look aesthetically pleasing, but they can be challenging to decipher, particularly for individuals with dyslexia or cognitive impairments. Opting for simpler fonts can make a significant difference in enhancing accessibility.
  • Consistency and Simplicity: Consistency in font usage throughout a document improves readability. Using a single font for body text and another for headings can create a clear hierarchy and guide readers through the content. Additionally, limiting the variety of fonts used maintains a clean and organized appearance, reducing cognitive load.
  • Line Spacing and Kerning: Adequate line spacing prevents crowding of text, making it easier to follow lines. Similarly, kerning (adjusting the space between individual characters) can impact legibility. These factors are particularly important for individuals who may have difficulty distinguishing closely spaced letters. 
  • Context and Audience: The choice of font should be influenced by the document's purpose and audience. For instance, technical documents might benefit from a font optimized for screen reading, while a children's book might require a more playful font.

By making informed font selections, we can create documents that are more accessible and user-friendly, promoting equal access to information for all individuals.