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Best Practices for Accessible Print Document Design

I suspect we’ve all been on the receiving end of poorly-designed documents: pages drowning in enormous gray oceans of text with no navigational cues whatsoever; emphasis indicated by text that is bold, all-caps, italicized, and underlined*; color choices that threaten to damage retinas (or that make text practically unreadable); text so small and margins so narrow that it’s obvious the desire to save paper has trumped the desire for clear communication.

As authors, when we create documents for our students or colleagues, we want to make sure they understand the information we’re trying to convey: deadlines, specific requirements, key terms and definitions, for example.

Fortunately, creating readable documents is not that hard, but you have to know what you’re doing, pay attention, and make smart choices. Guest author Evan Snider has written two ProfHacker posts on this topic: “Teaching Document Design, Not Formatting Requirements” and “Document Design: Lessons Learned.” However, if you’re looking for a “nuts-and-bolts” set of guidelines with specific suggestions, then I recommend reading these “Guidelines for Print Document Design” from the American Printing House for the Blind, part of their “Accessible Media Guidelines.”

Below, I’ve provided some excerpts from the APH guidelines, but you should really go and — as they say — read the whole thing.

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…

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…

C. Use Headings and Subheadings

A common sense approach to headings and sub-headings makes a document much easier to follow…

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

[C]ontinuous text in large caps is difficult to read for any length of time, due to the crowding effect…

E. Avoid 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…

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…

H. Use Hanging Indents, but Use Them Sparingly

In most texts, when you indent an item to be listed, begin the second line of the item just below the first one, with the enumerating symbol hanging to the left…

I. Use a Ragged Right Margin

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…

Following the APH guidelines not only makes your documents more accessible to readers with low vision; it improves the readability of your documents for all readers, a classic example of universal design.

What are your best practices in document design? What would you identify as some of the best practices you’ve seen in documents designed by others? Please share in the comments.

(*This is not a hypothetical example. There’s an official, 1-page document on my campus formatted exactly like this.)

[CC-licensed Flickr photo by Meagan]

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