Accessible Typefaces, Fonts, and Text with Jared Smith

"Accessible Typefaces, Fonts, and Text" with Jared Smith who has pale skin and a button-up collared shirt
Image Description: "Accessible Typefaces, Fonts, and Text" with Jared Smith who has pale skin and a button-up collared shirt

Most of our time online is typically spent reading text, yet we don’t often consider how accessible that text is. The typefaces, fonts, and text styling used can have a significant impact on the user experience — and there are few accessibility guidelines that relate to text accessibility. In this presentation, guest speaker Jared Smith provides an overview of how reading is processed in the human mind, and how to minimize the cognitive effort and maximize the visual accessibility of online text.

For most people, the human mind is incredibly adept at reading text. Once sufficient reading skills are achieved the brain can quickly form mental models for texts. This allows us to avoid the visual parsing of distinct letters and even words, so we instead quickly process blocks of character and word shapes and patterns almost instantaneously into meaning.

Typography, font, and text styling choices can significantly impact this, thus slowing reading speed, interfering with text-to-meaning conversions, and increasing cognitive processing that could otherwise be utilized by the reader. View the presentation to learn about the reading processes, and gain recommendations and suggestions to optimize typography and text presentation.

We’ve pulled together the resources and highlights from this meetup with Jared Smith. Explore the resources and watch this video.

Speaker bio

Jared Smith is the Associate Director of WebAIM. He is a highly demanded presenter and trainer and has provided web accessibility training to tens of thousands of web professionals throughout the world.

With over 20 years of experience working in the web design, development, and accessibility field, he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience that is used to help others create and maintain highly accessible web content. Much of his written work, including a broad range of tutorials, articles, and other materials, is featured at WebAIM.org.

Resources

Highlights

One comment:

  1. Hi Jared,

    Excellent video. And I really adore your live transcript widget, that is unbelievably helpful. That is far superior to in-video captions.

    It’s funny you mention Daniel Radcliff and Elijah Wood, and I have a related story. When I was at Warner Bros. in the 1990s, I worked on a film called “Deep Impact” which starred Elijah Wood.

    A few years after, I happened to be playing poker (a popular Hollywood past-time) with a few other Hollywood types, and there was Elijah Wood, seated across from me—I mentioned that I too worked on Deep Impact, as in “Oh hey, Elijah….” but, to my embarrassment it was not actually Elijah… but Tobey Maguire of Spiderman fame (ooops)!

    This points to two things: One, Hollywood casting directors tend to gravitate toward a particular facial structure when a star like Elijah Wood emerges, casting more actors that look like the former. (Robbie Amell who looks and acts like Tom Cruise is another example; see Robbie in the TV series “Upload”).

    The second thing relates to context sensitivity, our memory, and face blindness (prosopagnosia). You’d think that working on a film for months staring at Elijah’s face on the monitor that I’d be able to clearly differentiate him from, in this case, Tobey—but the context was abstracted from the displays in my studio, and Tobey’s hair at the time was more like that of Elijah’s in Deep Impact, just by happenstance.

    Prosopagnosia

    Face blindness likely plays a part here as well. I personally have difficulty recognizing people when I encounter them out of the context I normally associate them with, and this is a trait often found on the autism spectrum.

    As a thought experiment, consider that many on the autism spectrum avoid eye contact when they are young. Consider what effect that might have in the developing neurology of the visual cortex’s filtering for facial recognition. Avoiding eye contact means avoiding looking at faces, and that might result in a deficit in terms of neurological development for face/shape filtering. Anecdotally, it is certainly true in my case.

    Keeping in mind that we don’t reach peak contrast sensitivity until age 20, we can surmise that visual stimulation for the first two decades of life are quite important to our later abilities in terms of recognition and other visual processing tasks.

    Regarding Fonts, Phonemes, and Dyslexia

    Something I find interesting is that dyslexia is almost unheard of in Korea, where the language is clear, and the alphabet was “designed” by scholars, as opposed to “evolving” from a mish-mash of languages, as English has. English is decidedly unclear.

    Most of the so-called dyslexia fonts are not actually helpful. When studies have been conducted that isolate certain aspects such as letter spacing, it was found that any “improvement” from a font like Dyslexie was functionally related to improved letter spacing. When that letter spacing was applied to the common Arial, then Dyslexie no longer had any advantage.

    In terms of contrast, increasing letter spacing improves contrast by lowering spatial frequency, as spatial frequency is the primary driver of contrast, subject to the multi-band-pass filtering in V1 of the visual cortex.

    You might be interested in The Readability Group’s recent study, which showed the so-called dyslexic fonts ranking near the bottom, while well designed fonts such as Roboto ranked substantially higher. They present their preliminary results at Deque’s Axe-con.

    FWIW, comic sans ranked near the bottom in their study as well. Ah, poor little comic sans, the most sadly forlorn font!

    As a closing comment, while you didn’t delve deeply in terms of the “look and feel” of a font, this is nevertheless important, as font design certainly colors the perception of the text which in turn affects subtle aspects of cognition.

    One time, a young inexperienced director said to me “oh pick any font”—so as a joke, I started with something like HennyPenny. “Oh not THAT one” she exclaimed, so then I showed “Curlz”… and a few more of the magnificently varied collection of fonts, quickly getting to variations of some more sedate selections. The director remarked she’d never underestimate the importance of font selection again! As it was a comedy, she ultimately choose Curlz as I recall.

    Thank you for reading,

    Andy

    Andrew Somers
    W3C/AGWG Invited Expert
    Senior Typeographer
    General Titles & VFX
    West Hollywood, CA

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