Document Design

When designing and developing written communication, remember the importance of selecting an easy to read font size, good spacing and a clear font type. This will make your written communication easier to read by all members of the public.

Key guidance in the design of documents includes:

Use at least 12 point

Use a minimum of 12-point font size for comfortable reading generally. A person’s speed of reading increases as the size of text is increased.

Tip

Different fonts look bigger than others – the size of the ‘x’ is usually the best guide. If the size of the ‘x’ is small in the font you have chosen (such as Times New Roman), it is better to use a 14-point font.

For example,

  • This is 12-point text in Tahoma
  • This is 12-point text in Verdana
  • This is 14 point text in Times New Roman

Use a clear, easy to read font

Use a clear and easy to read font that people are familiar with and recognise easily. It is best to use clear, easy to read sans serif fonts like Verdana or Helvetica. Font style and font size will make written communication easier to read for members of the public.

Comparisons between easy and more difficult to read fonts are illustrated below:

Examples of fonts which are easy to read and fonts which are difficult to read

Tips

Where possible, make your services usable by a wider audience by offering written communication in alternative formats, such as large print (14-point font or more), Braille or ‘easy to read’.

‘Easy to read’ is designed to be easier to both read and understand. It is of specific benefit for people with intellectual difficulties and may benefit younger readers and people with very low literacy levels. Typically, ‘easy to read’ content is supported by images and graphics that help explain the text.

An example of how font size affects how easy it is read. One application form has a cluttered layout and very small text. The other application form has a simpler layout, bigger text and is much easier to read

Make important points stand out

People often scan through documents, brochures and letters, so it is useful to emphasise important information, headings or paragraphs of text.

The general guidance in emphasising important information is to:

  • Avoid using BLOCK CAPITALS.
  • Avoid using italics.
  • Avoid using underlining.

People recognise the shape of familiar words, rather than reading each individual letter. Setting a word in CAPITAL LETTERS, italics or underlining distorts the shape of the word, which makes it more difficult to read, particularly for people with visual difficulties.

People recognise and read words by shape

Use bold or bigger sized font to emphasise text

To show the importance of a word or parts of your text, use a bolder type weight or bigger sized text .

However, bold text should be used for emphasis rather than being used consistently in the main body of the text.

Text should be set horizontally

Text at an angle or following a curved line can be more difficult to read. People should not have to rotate your document to read it.

Text should be set horizontally, text at an angle or a curved line is more difficult to read

Avoid using block capitals, avoid using italics, avoid using underlining and use bold to emphasise important information.

Avoid splitting a word between two lines

Avoid splitting a word between the end of one line and the beginning of another as it disrupts the flow of the text. When using Microsoft Word, and similar programmes, this can be controlled by turning off the hyphenate function.

Templates with accessible formatting

Some organisations may develop their own templates with embedded accessible formatting for documents such as letters, reports and lists which can also be used to produce documents which will be published online.

Use accessible formatting

For reports or documents that provide a lot of information, provide a structure for your document using:

  • Headings and sub-headings: this helps people to find information on a page. A table of contents may be generated from a heading structure.
  • A table of contents: in a long document, this helps people find the information they are particularly interested in.

To create a table of contents that’s easy to keep up-to-date in Microsoft Word or similar programmes, first apply heading styles – Heading 1 and Heading 2, for example – to the text that you want to include in the table of contents. Word finds those headings, uses them to build the table of contents, and can update the table of contents anytime you change the heading text, sequence, or level.

  1. Click where you want to insert the table of contents – usually near the beginning of a document.
  2. Click References > Table of Contents and then choose an Automatic Table from the gallery of styles.

Learn more

Accessible formatting prepares a document for online use. Learn more in Section 3: How to make accessible documents

Use a consistent and logical layout

Use a consistent layout for each section to make information easier to find for the user. Use recurring features; such as positioning headings, logos and page numbers in the same place in each section. This acts as a navigational aid for users. Use:

  • Bullet point lists: these are used to break complex text into lists.
  • Introductory paragraphs: the introduction can give a summary of the section if a section of a document is particularly long.

Use left aligned text

Avoid justified text as it can lead to large spaces of text between words. This can make sentences more difficult to read, particularly if a person uses text-to-speech software.

Limit each paragraph to one idea

It is important that you do not overload readers with information. Therefore, it is recommended that each paragraph is limited to one idea.

The following considerations are recommended for paragraph formatting:

  • Leave a white space between paragraphs.
  • Avoid indents at the start of paragraphs.
  • Avoid continuing a paragraph over the page.

An example showing how clear and uncluttered formatting makes information easier to find

Example showing how leaving white space between paragraphs makes the content easier to read.

Use images and graphs that are relevant to the text

An image should either support the main body of text or be accompanied by a text caption explaining its significance. Images are particularly useful for readers who have literacy, numeracy or learning difficulties or where English is not their first language.

Some key guidance when using images includes:

  • Make sure the graphs or images clarify or add something to your content.
  • Avoid using background images behind text. This makes text harder to read. However, where the image is even in tone, for example a blue sky, text can then be placed on the image. The key deciding factor is whether it is easy to read. Ensure good contrast between the image and the text in this scenario.
  • Use images and graphs with clear edges and good colour contrast.
  • Do not overlay one image over another.
  • Avoid images or graphs with too much detail.
  • Remember that some people may not be familiar with bar or pie charts and how they work.
  • Emphasise the important facts and figures in graphs.
  • Place explanatory text close by but separate to the image.

Use spacing to make your text easier to read

Good use of white space instead of a cluttered page makes your text much easier to read.

Ensure your paragraphs have enough space between them. This measurement is controlled by the “Spacing - After” option in the “Paragraph” feature in Microsoft Word. 12-point spacing between paragraphs is generally a good choice.

Ensure that lines of text within a paragraph also have sufficient spacing. This measurement is controlled by the “Line spacing” option in the “Paragraph” feature in Microsoft Word. Single line spacing between one line and the next should be the minimum in the body of your text.

However, avoid line spacing of one and a half lines or more, as it is harder to read successive lines as a coherent text when they are too far apart.

Space between sentences

The space between one line and the next is referred to as the leading. Generally, the leading should be at least 1.5 to 2 times the space between words on a line.

This is not the same as increasing the leading to 1.5 times the point size. This translates into something like 14-point set on 17 point leading, which is equivalent to the space of 2mm between each word and a spacing of 3.75mm between each line. Another example is 12-point set on 15 point leading.

Create a clear space separating columns

If you are using columns make sure the space between the columns (the gutter) clearly separates them. Where the gutter is too narrow between columns, a person with visual difficulties may read straight across from one column to the adjacent one.

An example of using a wide, clear space to separate columns of text

Images should not break text flow

For text wrapped around an image, you should place the image on the right side of the page rather than the left. By placing the image at the right side of the page, it does not disrupt the flow of the text when the person is reading.

Do not wrap text around an image in the middle of the text, place the image on the right side of the page so it does not disrupt the flow of the text while reading

Do not convey information just through images

All images either should support the main body of text, or should be accompanied by a text caption explaining its significance.

Ensure good contrast between text and background colour

For all documents, from letters and statements to brochures and reports, it is important that you consider the colours used, specifically, the colour of the text and the background. The selected colours affects how easy it is to read the information being communicated.

The image shows three examples of contrast between text and background colours. Avoid using text and background colours or patterns which have low contrast between the text and the background.

Key guidance on colour contrast is as follows:

  • Make sure there is strong contrast between the text and the background colour.
  • If using white text, make sure the background colour is dark enough to provide sufficient contrast. Contrast is best when using very dark colours together with very pale colours.
  • White or cream paper makes text easier to read.
  • Use a light coloured paper or a solid background colour to make a document more colourful.
  • Avoid combining yellow & blue, and green & red, as these are difficult for people with colour blindness to distinguish.
  • White text on a black background typically makes text look smaller, so you may need to increase the size and weight of the text.
  • Avoid placing text in front of an image or patterned background, as this makes it more difficult to read.

Learn more

The National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) provides a design approach for written communication in ‘Make It Clear’