Three Considerations To Make Your Typography More Accessible

An Interview with Product Designer Adam Morse

Just as important as a beautiful design experience is an accessible design experience. Typography is the foundation of both a beautiful and accessible design experience. TypeThursday stat down with Adam to discuss how typographic decisions can help or hinder accessibility on the web.


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TypeThursday: Adam, thanks for being here for TypeThursday.

Adam Morse: Thanks for having me on this Monday morning slash afternoon, depending on where you are in the world.

TT: Yes. I really appreciate it. Can you share with us more about yourself?

AM: I am a designer, which I know is a really vast term. I mostly consider myself a problem-solver in a world of constraints. I’m very happy solving problems. Originally I came from an art background and had no idea what design was whatsoever, which probably sounds silly to a lot of people. But I was a late-bloomer and just lucked out by being in the right place at the right time and somebody offered me a job at a design studio. They mostly worked on designing museum spaces and amusement parks. It was an interesting introduction to design as a discipline.

A lot of that work is focused on story-telling, research, crafting words, and identifying what the problems a client had and what their constraints were around budget, time and all that kind of stuff. So it was from there that I kind of moved into the web world just because the world of amusement parks and museums is very slow and at my young age I was slightly frustrated with the fact that you could work on something for five to ten years and construction may or may not have started on your project. From there, I jumped into working on the web and other digital products.

I’ve just been a student of anything people will let me sink my teeth into. From front end design to flowcharts to user-testing. I haven’t found any part of the design process I don’t love yet.

Humanizing The Web

TT: That’s great. I had you come in to talk with us because I know a special interest to you is typography on the web, especially how it relates to usability and people’s participation on the web using type. You had an article where, to paraphrase “To design without the basic needs of the user taken into consideration can be very dehumanizing.” Is that correct?

When I got out of school, I noticed that I wasn’t surrounded by people who were underrepresented in society.

AM: Yeah, I did write that. And that — A huge part of that blog post, not to sound too cheesy, was — It stemmed from two different events that happened in my life. One was I went to a school where I was really fortunate to spend a lot of time with people from underrepresented groups who were very open with me and would just talk about what it was like to be underrepresented and the problems they had in their life. And when I got out of school, it’s one of those things I didn’t notice at first, but all of the sudden I noticed that I wasn’t surrounded by people who were underrepresented in society. I was mostly surrounded in the tech world by people who looked just like me.

I started following blind people, deaf people, trans people, people with long last names, people who live outside the US. And I was just learning so much every day.

I really went out of my way to follow people on Twitter that were not white males and I started to just get this barrage of complaints that I was never thinking about in my own life. And it has been eye-opening. I started following blind people, deaf people, trans people, people with long last names, people who live outside the US. And I was just learning so much every day. Like people with really long last names complaining on a regular basis about not being able to fill out forms with their complete name. That isn’t something I have thought about much. But it’s hard to read this stuff every day and not be affected emotionally.

People shouldn’t be emotionally affected by technology because we didn’t consider them. We should consider them.

There was also this time my mom came to visit me in San Francisco and she was trying to use an app and she couldn’t get it to work. And I took her phone and I was looking at it and I said, “Oh, this is a bug in the software. You’re not doing anything wrong. This is the softwares fault.” And my mom looked at me and she was like, “Oh? I didn’t even know that was possible.” And I could tell she was so frustrated and she was talking about how she just thought she didn’t know how to use it properly. You could tell — I don’t know, my mom is just like one of the most wonderful people in the world. And you could tell that she was emotionally affected by the experience and feeling inferior to her phone. This computer was defeating her, so to speak, and that she wasn’t smart enough to harness it to do what she wanted to do. And so the more I started to read about people’s experiences, the more I started to kind of put myself in other people’s shoes. I definitely get frustrated with technology on a regular basis as somebody who writes a lot of code and tries to design things. But at the same time I also am able to harness technology to do a lot of interesting things for me in helpful things. And so to not have everybody feel that way is a barrier I wanted to try to break down, rather than build up. People shouldn’t be emotionally affected by technology because we didn’t consider them. We should consider them.

As the people building all of these foundations and infrastructures for people, it’s hard to justify cutting corners in an effort to get stuff done faster at the risk of reducing access for some people.

The Web as Infrastructure

TT: Your points in the article about the ADA and building codes to encourage participation and inclusiveness to other communities relates to what you just shared.

AM: Yeah, I think that there has been a lot of work to make it so people have a right to be able to kind of get in and out of buildings, to be able to maneuver within buildings. And I’m sure that it takes more consideration and more time and planning for the people building the buildings, but I don’t think that that’s an excuse to not do it. I forget what the exact quote is in the ADA, but it basically says something along the lines of: “Everybody has a right to exist and participate in mainstream society.” I think that we, as the people building all of these foundations and infrastructures for people, it’s hard for me to justify cutting corners in an effort to get stuff done faster at the risk of reducing access for some people. So to me, I don’t know, it’s a very — like you said — it’s a very simple thing. I want to make people feel human and I never want to take that feeling away from them. And I’m not perfect at it; I have a lot to learn in regards to building things that are accessible, but it’s something that I meditate on all the time as I’m building and designing products.

TT: And you’re saying that just like buildings or infrastructure, the web is kind of its own kind of infrastructure to itself, correct?

AM: Totally.

Age, inherent eyesight, dyslexia are three of the biggest things to consider.

Accessibility and Typography

TT: A very big part of the web, is typography. Could you share with us the instances or examples where typography would be contributing to this lack of participation or dehumanizing?

AM: I put words on a screen because I think that they would be useful for the person using the interface and if they can’t read the words because of the conditions that they’re in, why put the words there in the first place? I mean, I think that just as like a design purist, but I also think that there is — I don’t know the exact numbers. It might be most, but I would say most of my colleagues are people with fairly good eyesight, they have really nice computers, they sit in well-lit rooms, they have a lot of control over their physical device, they generally have newer hardware, and something like light gray text on a white background is not something that slows them down at all. But I know that there are a lot of people just can’t read it. And so I wonder why put it on the page and put barriers in front of getting people to your content? To me content is king. And selfishly from a business standpoint, I want you to be able to consume everything and use an interface as successfully as possible.

But I also just want you to have typefaces that are large enough to read. I have great eyesight, but there are still times where maybe I’m looking at something on a projector, or maybe I’m walking down the street trying to read directions to a place, or maybe I’m in the back of a cab and it’s bouncing up and down, and even with better than 20/20 vision and a nice retina screen, it’s hard for me to read something. It’s just a frustrating experience. And if I can just remove the amount of frustration that technology causes in people’s lives, I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.

TT: So you shared how figure-ground relationship of a light background to a light color text and type size are two ways that typography can affect accessibility of the web for audiences.

AM: Totally. Yeah, and I think — Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.

TT: No, you’re totally fine. Are there any other considerations you think would have a contributing effect?

Research in Typographic Legibility.

AM: Yes. So, one thing that I’ve been learning about more recently is — I’ve always assumed that black text on a white background was good because it’s really high contrast, but I’ve found out that this is more difficult for dyslexic people because the way things kind of run together, there’s almost too much contrast. And that they prefer kind of like really, really light colors as the background. It’s hard to find great data on this, but the things that I’ve read have said really light grays or washed-out yellows or cream colors are ideal. But that a number of super light pastels will all do the job. Typefaces that you choose can have an effect on how easy it is for someone with dyslexia to read your copy. And I believe — I might be mistaken on this — I believe Comic Sans is actually great for dyslexic people.

The problem with it is that I think there are also studies that show people believe a piece of writing less if it’s written in Comic Sans. Like they don’t trust it as much. So I guess it depends on the problem you’re trying to solve. But I think that that’s a problem that I would love more data on from actual scientific research. The scientific research in the world of typography is not perfect. There’s a great website by Alex Poole that critiques about 50 different experiments around typography: http://alexpoole.info/blog/which-are-more-legible-serif-or-sans-serif-typefaces/

He analyzes how all these scientific studies of type have been done and debunks some of them because they weren’t peer-reviewed or that they had ulterior motives. And also shows why some of them are legitimate studies with solid findings. But I think that everybody falls under this category — that you should be able to read everything on a screen. So I think age, inherent eyesight, dyslexia are three of the biggest things to consider. There are probably others that I don’t know about. I’m constantly learning. So if anybody has more that I’m not speaking to, I would definitely love to hear about them.

TT: This has been a great conversation, Adam. Thank you so much for being here.

AM: Thank you so much for having me. It was fun to chat.