Small print in graphic communication design and information design: a discussion of issues and interactions (2nd edition)

By Thomas Bohm of User Design, Illustration and Typesetting, April 2023.

Photograph of a hand holding a magnifying glass over small text on a load document

Note

The original 1st version of this paper was published on Usability Geek (https://usabilitygeek.com/small-print-graphic-communication-information-design/) in January 2017. That version still exists and we are waiting to get it taken off, because it is not easy to get edits done, to produce a 2nd version. The 2nd version here on Medium, was published in April 2023, and is the most comprehensive and well-edited version of the paper.

Abbreviation explanations

cal = calories, cm = centimetres, cm² = square centimetres, E.U. = European Union, g = grams, kJ = kilojoules, kcal = kilocalories, mcg = mega calcium gauge, mm = millimetres, m = metres, ml = millilitres, mph = miles per hour, oz = ounces, px = pixels, RI = reference intake, U.K. = United Kingdom, U.S. = United States, x-height = the distance between the top and baseline of the lowercase letters.

Introduction

You might consider small print boring, not valuable, not interesting, or may not even notice it, but discussing the way it is presented and used, could be interesting to explore and could raise some interesting points for writing, graphic communication design and information design in general.

This paper is partly inspired by the point from information designer Patricia Wright from Cardiff University (Wright, 1988):

‘We need to develop theories of NOT reading as well as theories of reading — theories that explore people’s motivation for reading some documents carefully while ignoring others completely’.

Small print is used in a range of situations, from terms and conditions information in financial documents, to food packaging, to TV adverts. I am sure we have all experienced it, with terms and conditions on financial documents being a common one. Medicine information leaflets and packaging, law/legal/directive documents, software terms and conditions, and also forms, are also be examples.

2 definitions of small print are:

  • ‘Text in a formal agreement that is printed smaller than the rest of the text, sometimes in the hope that it will not be noticed: don’t sign anything until you have read the small print’ (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, 2016).
  • ‘Matter in a contract, for example, printed in small type, especially when considered to be a trap for the unwary. The small print of a contract or agreement, is the part of it that is written in very small print. You refer to it as the small print, especially when you think that it might include unfavourable conditions, which someone might not notice or understand. Read the small print in your contract to find out exactly what you are insured for’ (Collins English Dictionary, 2016).

Even at this early stage, we can see small print is not positively or simply referred to.

Car park and payment signs

Martin Cutts of the Plain Language Commission mentions (Cutts, 2011):

‘Presenting important information illegibly, is blatantly unethical’.

Furthermore, Martin received a £60 fine for parking in a car park in Stockport, U.K. see Figure 1. Instead of paying the penalty, he opted to make a case, stating that car park sign did not make a reasonable effort to alert him to the supposed contract and its terms. Indeed, the terms and conditions text was only 5mm high, and from 7m away driving at 10mph ‘people just don’t see, or read this stuff’. Martin eventually won an 18-month battle against Excel Parking Services.

Photograph of a carp park sign, in a car park. Grass on the left ad sky above
Figure 1. Photo of the sign in the car park in Stockport.

TV adverts

Figure 2 below, is a photograph of small print used on a competition TV advert on 5* television in the U.K.

Photograph of the 5* TV advert. Shows a background image of Las Vegas, then small print in a white box in the middle
Figure 2. Illegible small print in a 5* competition TV advert. (Photograph taken in 2015.)

The example below is not a singular case, in fact, many TV adverts display small print in this difficult way. The small print in Figure 2 (see the purple and grey text at the bottom), contains important and contractual information about:

  • How much you will be charged for entering the competition by text (SMS) message.
  • How to decline subsequent marketing text messages (SMS’s).
  • When the competition ends.
  • Where to go for more information.

The small purple and grey text at the bottom of the screen, is unreadable (unless you have your eyes 1cm away from the TV screen).

Another example, is small print from an internet service provider (ISP) like Plusnet and BT, where they tell you crucial aspects about the services they offer, and aspects that would probably change your decision about buying or using their service. These aspects range from things like:

  • Bandwidth/usage cap data amount.
  • Bandwidth/usage cap data overuse charge.
  • Mandatory line rental, that may be required for the service.
  • How long you need a contract with them for the package to be valid (12 or 24 months for example).

And there are different categories of people, who will deal with, interact and approach with small print differently:

  1. Younger people in their 20s, who are potentially more technologically-focused and would more likely want to find out about and read the terms and conditions (small print), for exact details.
  2. Older people in their 60s, may not even be aware or think small details are not that important, that all is okay and they are not serious.

Who cares about different categories of people and what does it matter anyway? Well, if you have a problem or concern about the terms and conditions within the small print, you have to contact the internet service provider (that takes-up your time and effort, and it costs the provider their time, money and resources). You have to sort-it-out, decide if you want to change, cancel or pay. The provider has to allocate staff time and energy for customer enquiries, creating increased calls to their support telephone call centre, emails or responses to a chat application. This also increases the potential damage to the supplier and consumer relationship, and the suppliers brand, and this is critical communication.

Food packaging and drink labelling

Another common place for small print is on food packaging and drink labelling. Typically information about the product will be in a small typeface size, and nutritional information is presented in different ways from plain text, to tabular format, to other graphic devices that use icons and pictograms. It is worth noting that the way nutritional information and data is presented, does not always help people understand what it means. The design, writing and industry specific terms used, does not automatically help people understand what the numbers and values mean, and how they relate to say a daily intake, or what is healthy for a general person.

Between 1999–2000, Frank Philippin a graphic designer from the design studio Brighten The Corners, undertook a research project at the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, at the Royal College of Art, U.K. In his publication Small print: improving visual pack information for older consumers (Philippin, 2000), he discusses and explores a range of issues to do with food packaging, drink labelling, and medicine labelling design, and raises the following points:

  • ‘Many of us also have reasons for reading what is known as “small print”. We might be on a salt or fat-related diet, we might be on a budget, we might suffer from an allergy and must avoid specific ingredients. Finding and reading the small print becomes an exhausting enterprise’.
  • ‘A key message to emerge from the project, is that improving visual information for older people, entails engaging in a moral argument about degrees of honesty and persuasion in packaging design. The central conflict between advertising imagery and “truthful” information in how we “read” packs, must be addressed’.
  • ‘Mandatory information, however, tends to drift-off to some remote area on the sides of the package, “hiding” in light condensed typefaces, away from the keen consumer’s eye’.

Furthermore, the U.K. has an ageing population, that is also living longer than in previous generations. There has been a 1.7 million increase in the number of citizens, aged 65 years old and over (from 15% in 1984, to 16% in 2009). This trend will very likely continue. It is envisaged that by 2034, 23% of the U.K. population will be aged 65 and over (Office for National Statistics, 2010).

Small print and hard-to-read typography on food packaging ‘could be a thing of the past’ (Martindale, 2013), the Food Information Regulation part of GOV.UK, from 13th December 2014, introduced mandatory food labelling guidelines (Department of Health, 2013). Companies are no longer able to supply their own voluntary labelling, and some of the guidelines are below:

  • The term ‘salt’ must be used, since it is more readily comprehensible by consumers, than ‘sodium’.
  • The minimum font size for large packages, should have an x-height of 1.2mm. For small packages (if the largest surface has an area of less than 80cm²), the x-height can then be reduced to 0.9mm. See Waller (2011) for more on aspects of x-heights.

The guidelines aim to bring about clearer instances of writing that people can understand and an increase in typographic legibility, that seem very positive. Although, what challenges will arise for packaging designers, due to the extra space needed for these guidelines?

Nutritional labels

Martin Cutts wrote in Pikestaff 64 (Cutts, 2013a) and Pikestaff 65 (Cutts, 2013b), that drink cans San Pellegrino Limonata and San Pellegrino Aranciata, produced by Nestlé, have 18 teaspoons of sugar in each can (a similar amount as in a can of Coca-Cola). San Pellegrino can contain more than a third of an adult’s guideline daily amount, that is particularly concerning, given the rise in obesity and diabetes. Sugar amount is listed, but only in small print on the back of the can, stating 32g (grams). But how much is 32g, and how does it relate to the recommended daily intake, or what is okay for an adult or child’s daily intake?

Another common issue, is that typographic nutritional information on a wide-range of food and drink packaging is very small, and even people with good eyesight, can only just about read it. So what about individuals who do not have good eyesight, who are ageing, or who do not have their glasses with them? Is this inclusive and usable graphic communication design? I appreciate a large space is not available, but surely we can communicate better then what is typically done?

It is also common to have rectangular signs and boxed information, containing nutritional information and tables, on packaging and labelling, stating energy, fat, saturate, sugar and salt values. And I would like to share what have I observed:

  • Text is displayed too small and people with good eyesight can only just read it. Individuals who are ageing or who require glasses, will have much greater difficulty.
  • There is a concerning amount of industry specific technical terms (lingo, gobbledygook) not in plain English, that is frequently abbreviated and not fully explained. Would you know what ml, g, kJ, kcal and RI stand for? It is wrongly assumed and taken for granted, that people will know what they mean. Do you know what ml stands for? millilitres, g stands for grams, kJ (I have no idea… any thoughts?) kilojoules, kcal is kilocalories, and RI (right intake?, recommended intake?) stands for reference input.
  • Even if the abbreviations are unabbreviated and expanded, what do they mean and relate to? For example, if something says 119kcal, how much is 119kcal? Is it a good or bad amount? Are the values based on a per whole can amount, per pack amount, per ingredient, or something else?
  • Sometimes the values in nutritional information tables are not given in a logical number that people can use, to work out the values or ratios. For example if 1 can is 330ml (as it was), and 1 column on the can’s nutritional information table provides values for per 100ml (as it was), 100ml is neither a half, a third or a quarter, of the total can amount of 330ml…
  • In nutritional information tables, percentage values used do not add-up to 100%, or relate to a whole or a healthy recommended daily amount.
  • On some labelling an asterisks (*) device is used, to mark a point where a longer explanation is, and to expand on abbreviated text (although the explanation of the asterisks is often hidden away, not close the original asterisks and hard-to-find)…
  • The term reference intake of an average adult is widely used, but it is not clear if the amount is per day, per item, per person, or per something else…

What legislation is there for the effective graphic communication design of food packaging and drink labelling?

Food packaging and drink labelling are subject to regulation, that was briefly discussed earlier (Department of Health, 2013). In the U.K., on the GOV.UK webpage called Food labelling and packaging (GOV.UK, 2016), it states that to be able to sell food and drink products, the labelling must be clear, readily visible, not misleading, permanent, easy-to-read and easy-to-understand. In addition to this, certain warning notices, and a list of ingredients (name of the food, quantity information, a best before or use by date) must also be included. Also on the front, side or back of the packaging, a list of ingredients must be provided, any special storage condition requirements must be stated, the name and address of the manufacturer has to be presented, as well as instructions for use or cooking.

In May 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S., announced a new nutritional facts label design, for packaged foods.

Shows 2 black and white nutritional fact labels, on the left the old design, on the right the new design. Both use black bold text and horizontal rules, like a typical table
Figure 3. Previous old label (left label), new label (right label) introduced on 20th May 2016 (Food and Drug Administration, 2016).

I have not seen the label implemented onto any real-life packaging, but in an article from Laura Entis (2015) called Differences between E.U. and U.S. nutrition labels go far beyond ounces and grams, she mentions:

  • Perhaps the largest discrepancy between the 2 systems (E.U. and U.S.) relates to how calories and other nutritional information are communicated to consumers. Nutritional labels in the U.S., have to provide the number of servings per container, so calories can be more easily broken down. Conversely, in the E.U., all calories listed are based on 100g (3.5 ounces), or ml (millilitres). ‘It’s portioned versus grams’, says Gisela Leon, a senior regulatory consultant, at EAS Consulting Group.
  • Each method has its advantages — in the E.U., because all packaged items’ calorie counts, are measured by 100g (grams) or 100ml (millilitres), the metrics are the same, making it easy-to-compare the nutritional content of food items. However in the U.S., carefully researched portion sizes are meant to eliminate the need to do any mathematical working-out.

My initial observations on the U.S. labelling are:

  • It is evident from the labelling that the percentage values are based on a recommended daily value amount (2000 calories). But then of course the question is, 2000 calories for who? A man, woman or child? And what age category of man, woman or child?
  • It is positive that the labelling uses the word calories, rather than the abbreviation cal (calories).
  • There is a new error and difficulty, that has been introduced, any guesses?, the abbreviation mcg. Any ideas as to what it stands for? mega calcium gauge. The use of abbreviations clearly has to stop, because it is extremely problematic for users, as they are not able to decode or expand them.

What I can say from the earlier U.K. drink labelling example (Cutts, 2013a; Cutts, 2013b) in this paper, is label writing and design, in the area of food and drink, is complex, there are values and information on both E.U. and U.S. labels, that are hard and not easy-to-understand. Just because the labelling might not be large in size, or 100s of pages, does not mean it is easy-to-write, easy-to-design or quick to produce…

Websites

On the issue of typeface (font) sizes being too small, in recent years Google (2015) introduced a guideline, recommending 16px minimum typeface size, for typical main body text size of webpages. If the text size on a website is less than 16px, Google considers the webpage to be not mobile-friendly Figure 4, and this will affect the site’s page ranking in Google search. I have noticed in recent years the rise in websites, using larger typeface sizes, that is very positive, and likely to make typographic communication better for a wider-range of people.

Shows a white box and light grey border all the way round. It has the text ‘Page isn’t usable on mobile’ in the middle
Figure 4. Screengrab from Google’s mobile-friendly website test (https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/).

Another example of small print, is on SoundCloud see Figure 5, the text is small, but more troubling is the contrast of light grey text, on a white background… The resulting colour contrast is too faint to read easily, the difference is 0% for white, and 21% for the grey text. It needs to be at least a 35% colour contrast ratio, even for people with good eyesight to be able to read. Why make information so hard-to-read?

Screengrab of the small print on SoundCloud. Shows 2 large black button at the top for the app on Apple and Google, then various small text grey links below
Figure 5. Screengrab from SoundCloud. (Taken on the 5th August 2016.)

Law/legal/directive documents

Looking at Figure 6 below, it might not be typically considered small print, because the text size is a fairly readable and large body text size. However what is interesting, is how information can become, and can turn into small print. When this happens and when it is treated in certain ways, it astonishingly makes the information feel like small print…

Image of a directive document, shows long lines of text, quite close together, and various clauses
Figure 6. The Human Medicines Regulation 2012 — Part 13. 50% of the original A4 size. (The Human Medicines Regulation, 2012).

Yes we know that this type of information and documentation is boring and tedious. Maybe, for this type of document there has to be some strong underlying motivation to read all the text, else people will move onto something else or reject it. Maybe they are trying to find a particular section or part of the documentation. A good and useful question, that David Sless (2008) of the Communication Research Institute rasies is: what do we want people to do (with the law/legal/directive documents)? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find a section or heading.
  • Refer to a particular clause or paragraph.
  • Make a note or mark a section, to refer to at a later date.
  • Show any changes or updates to legislation.
  • Understand the content and terminology used.
  • Read it from start to finish.
  • Feel motivated to read significant amounts of text.
  • Understand what to do if they require help, or have further questions.
  • Recap and help to process.
  • Know where they have stopped reading, so they can restart reading at another time.
  • Find information and make notes.

Rob Waller from The Simplification Centre wrote a paper called Layout for legislation (Waller, 2015), discussing various aspects of legislation documents, then provided design concepts and improvements. Rob Waller organised an event in London on the 13th April 2016, called Simple action 4: the small print. In it, they came up with some interesting responses to the consultation with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) part of GOV.UK, because they were looking for ways to make terms and conditions (T&Cs) more accessible. In a draft report from the event (The Simplification Centre, 2016), they focused on 4 practical measures within the BIS’s executive summary:

  1. For price and subject matter, terms should be prominent and transparent, so that it is easier to make comparisons between the terms and conditions offered by different suppliers.
  2. Put key facts together, bold, and up front (for example, on 2 pages).
  3. Making terms and conditions more navigable, by grouping certain terms under clear headings.
  4. Encourage businesses to enable and support consumers, to actively engage with terms and conditions. Work to reduce the length and complexity, and to make it more likely that terms and conditions have been read, and understood by consumers, boosting both parties confidence in the agreement.

Nick Parker a writer with The Simplification Centre’s group, published an Open letter to Apple (Parker, 2015), addressing the point of why U.K. consumers find themselves agreeing to terms and conditions, under U.S. law, for the software they buy. Here are some points from the publication:

  • The last time my iTunes software updated, a menu popped-up asking me to click and agree to the updated terms and conditions. In the bottom of the screen, the page count said page 1 of 99. Your Apple Music terms are nearly 20,000 words long, and they would take nearly 2 hours of my life to read…
  • I asked lots of people if they read 1 of your end-user agreements. Every single 1 of them, said something along the lines of ‘Of course not! I just click accept!’.

Hazardous product labelling

Is it okay to make the information supplied on high-risk and dangerous products, like bleach and washing tablets extremely small and difficult to read? Harmful properties and aspects of product warnings, and what to do in the event of an accident, are routinely supplied as small print, on a range of publicly available products, and this is particularly concerning.

General observations

As soon as you have to use small print, you have no option but to try and use it. It could be consulting an instruction manual for a new product you have bought, or as David Sless from the Communication Research Institute mentions (Sless, 2004):

‘Reading the instructions on a child’s medicine bottle in the middle of the night, with the child screaming’.

The problems of small print are put under even more pressure, if you have to read something under time pressure, in an emergency or health-critical situation, for instance using information regarding medicines, or in situations like bandaging or plasters.

Or as David Sless from the Communication Research Institute mentions (Sless, 2004) also says:

‘Reading the terms and conditions of an agreement in a crowded, noisy shop’.

People seem to detect very quickly what small print is, probably unconsciously, and decide to not read it, or read it fully, even though it has very real implications and consequences. A recent example that you may have experienced, is the mandatory privacy policy pop-up box, that sometimes appears using Google. David Sless (Sless, 2004) also mentions:

‘It is a matter of common experience in our time, that we are all routinely confronted by more information than we can absorb. As a consequence, many of us have developed information avoidance strategies’.

In some cases there is regulation in place, or a legal requirement to have small print on a product or website, with no choice. A recent example is the E.U. legal directive regarding website cookies (Publications Office of the European Union, 2002):

‘This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. Find out more about how we use cookies, and how you can change your settings. I accept cookies, or I refuse cookies’.

Regarding terms and conditions information typically on the back of bank statements, if they made the information more blatant and put some design and thought into it, they could potentially reduce the number of calls, emails, letters to customers services, or traffic to their help/support website. In a research study and testing with 10 people, David Dickinson and colleagues from Consumation (Dickinson et al., 2010) observed:

‘Layouts that reduce text density, use purposeful sectioning, highlight key messages, and use a logical type hierarchy, helped people to find the right information more quickly’.

If producers of information hide or make information sneaky and hard-to-use, for example, not giving the reader a reasonable chance of reading the small print, or hiding away hidden charges, it causes problems for both sides involved, regarding human energy, cost and resource. A survey showed just 7% of people read the full terms and conditions, when buying a product or service online. While a fifth, say they have suffered from not doing so. 43% of those who do not always read the terms and conditions, say they are boring and difficult-to-understand (Smithers, 2011).

I observed that on both low- and high-hazardous product labelling, there are usually warning devices or boxed information, containing information of what not to do. Ruth Shrensky from the Communication Research Institute, produced a research paper called Boxed risk warnings: research findings (Shrensky, 2006). In this paper, she mentions that from research, testing and observations with people, they either skip, do not read, or ignore boxed information! Yes that is right…

‘Readers might catch sight of the word “Warning” and think “Yeah, yeah, hazardous to health if used improperly, I know, I know, b-o-oring!” and not bother to read the rest’. ‘If they know, or think they know how to use a product, they may not look at the document until a problem occurs’.

The information designer Michael Babwahsingh in his paper called The things you don’t see (Babwahsingh, 2014) says:

‘We can easily ignore important pieces of information, because they may seem too obvious or “common sense” (which isn’t so common at all)’.

There appears to be little written about small print and issues around writing and designing small print, and then its implications.

Regarding lengthy small print information, do we need some extreme tactics to get people to read it? Could we use some kind of CAPTCHA form box (Figure 7), that checks, tests and requires people to answer a question, to check they have read and understood each paragraph within the small print? before proceeding further, and only then can they proceed, if they answer the questions correctly... The downside is that it could be quite stressful or even near impossible for people to use, if they do not accept the strict journey or requirements to progress.

Screengrab of CAPTCHA, shows 2 words above, then a box on the left to type them in, to valid it is a real human request
Figure 7. A CAPTCHA usually has a text box directly underneath where the user should fill-out the text that they see above. In this case ‘overlooks’ and ‘inquiry.’

Do people feel that they can challenge, contest, question or change small print?

Do people accept what is in the small print, can they contest it, is it changeable, what if they disagree, what if they do not understand, or cannot find an answer to their question or concern? And naturally the provider (supplier or business) is asking the reader of the small print, to understand and then accept their terms and conditions… It sounds like a very difficult and prone to fault conversation and relationship…

Conclusions

  • Small print is usually too small (and in a less-than-ideal typeface weight, either condensed or too light). Avoid text sizes that even people with good eyesight will have difficulty reading.
  • Small print information on car park information and payment signs (Cutts, 2011), was presented too small, was not easily legible, contained important information, that affects people and their lives, and also has legal and financial consequences. Attempting to hide or devalue information, has consequences for both sides involved. Did the producer of the information intend to make it difficult-to-read, were they deceitful or unethical on purpose? It would seem so, and it would seem we have some unethical practice going on.
  • Small text on TV screens often in a condensed weight typeface, renders poorly. A non-condensed and bolder typeface weight, is much more advisable.
  • Options to fix small print on TV adverts, would be to make it larger and much more readable, or write-it-in and build it into the main TV advert. A subsequent question is, how much do you build-in and add to the length of the TV advert, how much is too much, how much editing is needed, what is needed and what is not?
  • Stuffing information into small print has consequences, people might not get the information they need to make informed decisions. This costs them time, money and effort at a later date, and also impacts the provider, giving them the same problems. It makes users decisions more difficult and increases errors and requires more money at a later date, than if they designed and tested it well in the 1st place...
  • Sometimes relevant information is contained within the small print, but because it has been designed and presented as not important, people do not value the information and do not read it. The small print information is important, because it relates to the central message of the communication, campaign, product, service and item as a whole.
  • Mandatory guidelines are emerging like the Food Information Regulation (Department of Health, 2013) and Google (2015), that aim to improve issues of unclear writing and text that is too small.
  • Nutritional and ingredient values on food packaging and drink labelling, are not communicated or related in a way, that the public can understand. There are loads of complicated issues in this area, from abbreviations, to measurement values, that people have no idea what they mean or relate to. The industry needs to use good writers, graphic communication designers and information designers, and test the communication and design with people, so they know it can used as needed.
  • Regulation and laws regarding writing, design and communication, has both good and bad effects.
  • A lack of colour contrast plus small text, renders information as small print.
  • Good typographic design, spacing and practice enhances people’s motivation when reading the text. Any printed text that has an x-height of less than 1.5mm, even when held close to the eyes, is bordering on illegible for people with good eyesight.
  • The population of the U.K. is living longer, meaning a higher percent of your users, have less than ideal vision and perceived physical ability.
  • For lengthy small print documents, consider using good typographic practice, illustrations, images or pictograms to support boring lengthy text information. Use images and illustrations, to make information more appealing and interesting.
  • Consider using colour as a replacement for greyscale information, as it adds interest and life.
  • Consider using darker colour shades for body text, typical 100% black is common, default, boring and lacking perceived value and appeal.
  • If the word count length of the small text is significant, consider editing the text as best as possible, to reduce the length. Use headings to relate and show the different parts of information in paragraphs, and to increase accessibility to issues in the content (headings give readers more ways into text information). Use bullet lists to better segment and design the information.
  • If people detect or feel the information is small print, they either dismiss it, skip it, move through the information in a very brief and quick manner, or passively scan it, not retaining much of it.
  • If it is worth writing, designing and displaying, give it good writing and design, it saves your users hassle, improves user experiences and your brands perceived functioning and reputation. Spend money and time in the 1st place, to avoid more faults and money needed later.
  • Use good writers, clear language experts, graphic communication designers, information designers and usability testers, that are concerned with aesthetics, accessibility and usability. Not just aesthetics alone… as is so common and emphasised. In the food and drink labelling example discussed earlier in this paper (Cutts, 2013a; Cutts, 2013b), they seem to not have used a good writer, graphic communication designer or information designer, not done any user testing at all, or used any common sense.
  • If you have to use a long line length of text, as seen on the back of toothpaste packaging and tubes, try splitting the long lines into 2 columns.
  • If you have to provide information that is typically considered small print, give them a chance of being able to read, enjoy, find and understand it, by using and finding out about best practice recommendations based on research, performance, user testing and evidence.

So going back to what Patricia Wright (Wright, 1988) said:

‘We need to develop theories of NOT reading as well as theories of reading — theories that explore people’s motivation for reading some documents carefully while ignoring others completely’.

People do not read small print because

  • Text is too small to read.
  • Text is illegible and more harder-to-read than is normal.
  • There is too much text and information, that takes-up too much time.
  • It is in a box or out of the main flow of information, making it feel not necessary to read.
  • The colour contrast is not high enough.
  • Information is made to look devalued and not important.
  • People are not given a reasonable chance of being able to read it.
  • There is low motivation perceived, and around small print.
  • Small print uses abbreviations and industry specific terms, that a large percentage of the public (non-experts) do not understand, or know how to use in their daily life.
  • They feel they cannot contest or challenge it.

Where to find good writers, graphic communication designers, information designers and usability testers?

References

About the author

Thomas Bohm studied graphic communication design at college (BTEC, Leicester College, U.K.) and university (BA, Norwich University of the Arts, U.K.). Runs User Design, Illustration and Typesetting, a graphic communication design, illustration, text editing and production service. He helps book publishers, organisations and businesses, design and communicate better with their users, focusing on graphic communication design that works well for all involved. Occasionally does self-initiated research, writing and publishing. Has published papers in Baseline, Slanted, Boxes and Arrows, Typography.Guru, Information Design Journal and Usability Geek. Has won international design awards and is a fellow of the Communication Research Institute.

User Design, Illustration and Typesetting offer a range of services like book design, information design and accessible website design. Contact us to find out more, or to read more writing from us, visit our news, awards, writing and ideas webpage.

Copyright

All writing copyright © Thomas Bohm, User Design, Illustration and Typesetting. Images copyright © stated producers. Copyright means you have to get permission from us or the producer, to reuse our writing or photography in any way, and on any media.

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