“I cannot stop myself from clicking away from this website whenever I have to visit it. Just looking at it makes me furious,” complained one of my clients.
My client was in the target market for the management consultancy—but the website in question raised her ire, not her interest.
No wonder. The designers of that website had committed three of the deadliest design sins. It was almost unreadable.
If you want people to read what you have written, avoid these seven design flaws.
1. Small fonts
Readers have to squint to decode small fonts. If it takes too much time or effort, they simply won’t bother.
Eyesight deterioration is an almost inevitable part of aging:
• At age 40, the retina receives only 50 percent of the light that it got at age 20;
• At age 60, it’s just 20 percent.
If you use tiny fonts, you may find that your audience cannot read your website or brochure at all.
Choose font sizes that work for your readers. The best size will depend on the font that you’ve chosen and the medium you are using (e.g. website, brochure, magazine ad, etc.). Your designer should be able to advise you.
2. Block capitals (all caps)
When you read, you recognize words by their shape and context.
So when a text is in block capitals, the shapes of the words are too similar—and this makes them difficult to distinguish and read.
Take a look at:
COMFORT — comfort
• COMPOSE — compose
• COMPOST — compost
The words in capitals have almost identical shapes. They are indistinguishable blocks.
In contrast, the lowercase words have protruding parts (properly called ascenders and descenders) that give them shapes that are easy to recognize.
Use lower-case letters, except when the rules of grammar demand capitals.
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3. Extremely wide blocks of text with narrow margins and lines that go on and on and on
Long lines of text weary your readers, whose eyes have to journey along each line and then travel back to the beginning of the next line.
As their eyes trek across your text, their interest levels and retention rates will plummet.
Use about 50–75 characters per line (about two to three alphabets’ worth of text).
4. Reverse type
Light text on a dark background—which is known as reverse type—plays tricks on your readers’ eyes.
Words can appear to be in a smaller size.
Also, the thin strokes in letters tend to disappear. This makes delicate fonts and fonts that have big variations between their thick and thin strokes particularly difficult to read.
Reverse type can be dramatic. It will work best for your audience if you use a simple font in an easy-to-read size.
Use dark text on light backgrounds, especially in body copy.
5. Gray text
Your readers use the contrast between the color of the type and the color of the background to work out the shape of your words.
The closer the colors of the text and the background, the more difficult it is to make out the words.
The golden rules are:
• Black is easiest to read.
• Gray is more difficult to read than black.
• Light gray and silver may be stylish but they can be almost impossible to read.
• Gray text needs careful handling if you want to keep your readers’ attention.
Dark text on a light background is easiest to read.
6. Backgrounds that fade from one color to another
Readers trying to decipher text on backgrounds with color fades have to cope with a different color contrast on every line.
On the first line, they might have dark text on a pale background. In the middle, they’ll have to read mid-weight text on a colored or shaded background. By the end—if they are still with you—they’ve got to deal with light text reversed on a dark background.
This greatly increases the time and energy it takes to read your text—without increasing the benefits.
In other words, it significantly reduces the value of your writing.
Pick one color for your backgrounds—ideally white.
7. Missing subheadings
Your readers use subheads to navigate through your writing. They work as bullet points and significantly enhance readers’ ability to skim.
This is important because people skim a page or screen before deciding whether to read it more thoroughly. Without subheads, you are casting your readers adrift.
Use subheads to help your readers find their way through your message.
Which design sin do you think is the most deadly? When did you last stop reading something because the design was so bad? Have you ever committed any of the seven deadly design sins?
Margaret Webster is a London copywriter with a love of clear, fresh writing and an allergy to reverse type. A version of this story first appeared on her blog.