A guide to understanding what makes a typeface accessible

Freed Mirza
Published August 3, 2023 by Freed Mirza – Designer

Selecting the right typeface is crucial for creating inclusive visual reading experiences. A well-chosen typeface improves legibility and readability, particularly for individuals with visual impairments, learning disabilities, dyslexia, aphasia, or limited literacy. Ensuring your written content is easily accessible hinges on this pivotal decision.

In this article we outline our guidelines for choosing accessible typography alongside a set of our favourite accessible typefaces.

Recommended guidelines 

Consider your audience 

Considering the intended audience when choosing an accessible typeface is vital because different fonts impact readability and comprehension. For users with visual impairments, legibility and size matter, while dyslexic individuals may benefit from specific font features. Catering to the audience's needs ensures a user-friendly experience, enhancing inclusivity and engagement.

The Braille Institute chooses an accessible typeface for users with visual impairments

When it comes to font choices, the distinction between sans serif and non-sans serif fonts is noteworthy. Sans serif fonts, characterised by their clean and simple letterforms without decorative strokes at the ends, offer certain benefits for accessibility. The less complex letterforms of sans serif typefaces can enhance legibility, especially on digital screens, by providing clear and easily distinguishable letter shapes. This quality makes sans serif fonts particularly suitable for individuals with visual impairments or dyslexia. Moreover, sans serif fonts are often considered more modern and sleek, aligning well with contemporary design trends.

However, it’s important to note that serif fonts, with their small decorative strokes at the ends of letters, can provide a distinct character and improve readability in certain contexts. Choosing between sans serif and non-sans serif fonts ultimately depends on the specific requirements of the content, the intended audience, and the desired visual style, while keeping accessibility at the forefront.

Maintain brand integrity and ensure inclusivity

When considering accessibility features in typography, it is crucial to make considered choices that strike a balance between maintaining brand integrity and ensuring inclusivity for individuals with diverse needs.

One key aspect is the combination of brand font pairing. While it is essential to preserve the visual identity of a brand, it is equally important to select fonts that enhance legibility and readability for individuals with learning disabilities, visual impairments, or dyslexia. By carefully pairing fonts that offer clear distinctions between letterforms, such as contrasting weights or styles, designers can create a harmonious visual experience that caters to a wide range of users.

Avoid similar letter shapes

To ensure optimal legibility and avoid confusion, it is essential to steer clear of typefaces that feature ambiguous or identical letter shapes, particularly in the case of “iL1” combinations. Some typefaces, such as Gill Sans, may present challenges due to the visual similarity between the uppercase ‘I’, the number ‘1’, and the lowercase ‘i’. This can lead to difficulties in distinguishing between these characters, potentially hindering readability and comprehension for users. To avoid this problem, designers should carefully evaluate typefaces for their distinct letterforms and opt for those that offer clear differentiation between characters.

Ambiguous letter shapes due to the visual similarity of uppercase ‘I’, the number ‘1’, and the lowercase ‘i’

By selecting typefaces with well-defined and easily recognisable letter shapes, designers can ensure that the text remains legible and accessible to all users, regardless of their abilities or potential difficulties in discerning specific letter combinations. Making thoughtful choices in typography can go a long way in preventing confusion and promoting inclusive communication.

Recognise mirroring letters

When considering typography for accessibility, it is crucial to address the issue of mirroring letters, such as “dbqp.” Mirrored or flipped letter shapes can pose challenges for individuals, particularly in the early stages of reading and during ongoing physiological development. Young children, for example, often struggle with differentiating between letters like ‘d’ and ‘b’, or ‘q’ and ‘p’, due to their similar shapes when flipped horizontally. To ensure inclusivity and ease of comprehension, it is important to select typefaces where these letters are distinctly unique in shape, without any ambiguous characteristics.

Mirroring letters can be especially confusing to young children

By opting for typefaces that provide clear visual cues for each letter, designers can facilitate the learning process, promote accurate letter recognition, and enhance the overall accessibility of the typography. By considering the potential physiological development of readers, typography choices can be made that support seamless and effective communication. 

Choose a humanist typeface to enahance eligibility 

When it comes to typography, legibility is of paramount importance, especially for smaller sizes of text. In this context, the choice of a humanist typeface becomes significant. Humanist typefaces, characterized by their organic and calligraphic influences, offer distinct advantages when it comes to readability at smaller sizes. These typefaces feature open counters, generous spacing, and clear letterforms that contribute to improved legibility. By selecting a humanist typeface designed specifically for small sizes, designers can ensure that text remains clear, crisp, and easy to read, catering to the needs of individuals with all types of eye conditions or learning disabilities.

A humanist typeface ensures that the text is clear and easy to read

For individuals with various eye conditions or learning disabilities, having distinguishable letter shapes is crucial for quick and accurate recognition of text. The selection of a typeface that prioritises distinguishable letterforms becomes essential in promoting accessibility and inclusivity. Typeface design choices, such as clear differentiation between similar characters like ‘l’ and ‘I’, ‘O’ and ‘Q’, or ‘b’ and ‘d’, can greatly benefit those with conditions like dyslexia or visual impairments.

Additionally, paying attention to factors like distinct ascenders and descenders, varying letter widths, and clear punctuation marks contributes to easier reading comprehension for individuals with diverse needs. By consciously selecting typefaces with distinguishable letter shapes, designers can create typography that empowers all users, ensuring that information is accessible and comprehensible, regardless of their specific eye condition or learning disability.

Top 5 recommended accessible typefaces for readability

The Atkinson Hyperlegible is a typeface designed for improved readability for low vision

1. Atkinson Hyperlegible

Downloadable from Google Fonts, The Atkinson Hyperlegible is renowned for its enhanced readability, aiding in meeting accessibility guidelines for design and content. 

The Atkinson Hyperlegible typeface has been crafted in collaboration with the Braille Institute. Tailored for readers with low vision, it enhances legibility and comprehension. Notably, this typeface employs innovative design strategies – recognisable footprints, differentiated letterforms, unambiguous characters, exaggerated forms, and opened counterspace – to effectively distinguish frequently misinterpreted letters and numbers.

The Roboto font is a modern and versatile sans-serif typeface optimised for digital interfaces and screens

2. Roboto

Developed by Google, Roboto offers a clean and modern design that ensures legibility on both small and large screens. Its geometric shapes and open letterforms enhance readability, while its extensive character set accommodates multiple languages. 

Roboto embodies a unique duality. Its framework is mechanical and shapes are predominantly geometric. Simultaneously, the typeface embraces warm, open curves. Unlike other grotesque fonts that contort letterforms for strict uniformity, Roboto maintains its integrity, allowing letters to assume their inherent width. This cultivates a seamless reading flow reminiscent of humanist and serif fonts' natural rhythms.

PT Sans is an open-source sans-serif font with a clean and readable design for various uses

3. PT Sans 

PT Sans is a sans-serif typeface designed with legibility in mind. Its large x-height, clear proportions, and distinct letterforms make it highly readable, particularly in small sizes. PT Sans also includes a variety of font weights, providing flexibility in design.

It ensures easy readability for individuals with visual impairments and its versatility across digital platforms makes information more accessible to a wider audience.

Lato is a humanist sans-serif typeface known for its clarity, versatility, and elegance

4. Lato

Lato is a well-rounded sans-serif typeface that combines legibility with a touch of elegance. Its open letterforms, ample spacing, and balanced proportions contribute to its readability, making it suitable for various design applications.

Lato's neutral design and geometric elements contribute to an inclusive experience, making content more accessible and user-friendly for all individuals.

These typefaces are widely available and can be used in diverse design projects, maintaining readability and accessibility for a wide range of users.

Wrapping up

This article explores the importance of using a humanist typeface that works effectively at smaller sizes to enhance legibility. It emphasises the significance of distinguishable letter shapes in typography, particularly for individuals with eye conditions or learning disabilities. By selecting typefaces with clear letterforms and considering factors like character differentiation, varying widths, and punctuation marks, designers can create inclusive and accessible typography that promotes quick and accurate recognition for all users.

If you would like to learn more about designing for accessibility, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

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