I’m often asked for advice on how to improve the readability of written text, and over my career I have picked up a collection of ‘best practice’ tips which in my experience have proved to be the most successful.

Before I go through them here though, be aware that what follows are just general guidelines as to what has tended to work well in the past from a readability perspective – they’re certainly not set in stone. Moreover, you will need to take a view on how you balance these functional ‘readability’ considerations with your own creative objectives. For example, from a creative perspective you may have a very good reason to use a large image with white-out text superimposed over it. However, you need to be aware of the drawback that from a purely functional perspective, the reader will have to work harder to read it, compared to an easier-to-read dark typeface on a plain light background.

So let’s begin by thinking about the typeface:

  1. Printed pieces often use serif typefaces (eg. Times) for body copy in order to make it easier to read. This is because the serifs (ie the small lines at the end of the vertical letters) enable the eye to better distinguish the shape of the letter as well as lining up to keep the eye moving along the copy.
  2. However, whilst this has been proven to be more effective for printed pieces, screens can make serifs indistinct, so serif typefaces don’t appear to work as well for digital communications. Instead, it is usually preferable to use a modern screen-specific font such as Verdana or Tahoma when writing online copy. Bear in mind though that as screens become ever higher in definition then perhaps serif fonts will soon prove more effective for digital communications too.
  3. ‘Script’ headlines will be harder to read and make the reader focus more on the physical appearance of the headline as opposed to what it is saying.
  4. Use ‘capitals and lower-case’ as opposed to ‘capitals only’. The eye recognizes shapes rather than letters and can distinguish the shape of words in caps and lower case faster than in caps only.
  5. Emphasise words sparingly (ie CAPS, italics, bold), as they are more difficult to read and can slow down the flow of your communication if they are over-used.
  6. The use of devices such as incorporating a second text colour, ‘handwritten’ notes in the margins, highlights, underlinings and the odd word in capitals can all add variety and interest to letters and e-mails – but as above, they must be used sparingly in order not to look cluttered and unprofessional.
  7. Similarly, don’t change typefaces or sizes without good reason, as this inconsistency creates confusion for the eye and can make the communication appear disjointed. As a general rule, you should be looking at no more than three fonts for a communication piece, the fewer the better.
  8. Don’t use full stops at the end of headlines – they can restrict the momentum you are trying to build.

Now let’s consider text sizing:

  1. Use a minimum 12-point type size for print and 10-point for digital media – it is likely that many of your audience have imperfect eyesight and will struggle with smaller sizes of type.
  2. For digital communications such as the web, it is important that you offer the reader a way to easily change the font size.
  3. Huge headings are not necessary on pieces that are read in close proximity to the reader. They are generally only appropriate where the message is perceived to be extremely important, relevant and simple to covey – ie where your prospective customer recognises that the abrupt tone is appropriate to the content of the message. Otherwise the prospect may feel as if they are being ‘shouted at’ just to grab their attention.
  4. Similarly for body copy – don’t feel you need to set body copy in an oversized typeface in order to create more standout (unless your target audience tend to have poor vision). Most people are used to reading in 10 -12 point type, and will read body copy if it is sufficiently interesting and compelling – not just because it is set in a larger size.

And, finally, let’s consider text colour:

  1. In order to be readable, there must be a clear contrast of tone between the colour of the text and the colour of the background. Copy that is set over tints of other colours can be very difficult to read if there is not sufficient contrast between them, even more so if the background is not a single solid colour. Similarly for copy superimposed over imagery.
  2. For body copy, dark text on a light background is generally easier to read than white copy reversed out of a dark background. This is because the eye finds it difficult to read reversed out text in any significant volume – although it can work well for creating standout for short amounts of copy.
  3. Some research has suggested that signatures in direct mail and e-mail have more standout when printed in blue ink – with a readable signature being preferred.

I hope that’s provided you with some food for thought in terms of making your text more readable – but as mentioned at the start, these ‘rules’ are often meant to be broken – as long as you know what you are sacrificing!

If you’re interested in exploring this area in more detail (together with relevant examples), you might like my recent book ‘Successful Marketing Communications’.  If you have any thoughts or comments, do drop me a line below.

Written by Rob H

I’m a Chartered Marketer with over 20 years’ experience working in digital and offline marketing communications across the financial services, leisure, education and technology sectors – most recently working for a large financial services organisation, managing the acquisition marketing communications team. I gained an MSc in Strategic Marketing from Cranfield Business School in 2005 and the CIM Diploma in Digital Marketing in 2012. In 2012 I became the part-time course tutor at the Cambridge Marketing College for the CIM diploma in ‘Principles of Mobile Marketing’ – also authoring the accompanying Mobile Marketing study materials for the college. In March 2017 I published ‘Successful Marketing Communications‘ (available on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks), which has become recommended reading for delegates at the IDM (Institute of Direct Marketing). When I’m not knee-deeping in reading/ writing the latest marketing communications articles I enjoy outdoor swimming and anything involving snow – with my goal for next year being to combine the two…

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