Too small to read—why readability matters

Okay, I’ll say it, size matters. I bought a new RAID (really fast digital storage device) and pulled out the collateral that came with it, foolishly thinking I could read it. Here’s the picture, and no I didn’t retouch it.

Image of type that is too small to read

While I could finally justify hanging onto my Agfa Lupe all these years, I had to ask “Why would anyone do that?” Even if it was a government requirement, why make the type so small that it was unreadable? That is their warranty in less than 3 pt type, written in 27 languages.

What it did do was make me angry

Was the company trying to hide their return policy? Did the warranty not cover anything? There was nothing positive about the customer experience of trying to read that.

Readability matters

Sadly this was not an isolated incident. Last night I couldn’t read the cooking instructions for some ribs. The label looked great with bold red and black type, but I couldn’t read it without bright light and cheaters. I have 20/20 vision, if I’m having trouble everyone else is too. The information on any box or label needs to be worth reading and readable. If you allow designers to give lots of space to a logo and not enough to vital information, you’re letting them sabotage your products. That isn’t hyperbole. If I had set the oven too high and burned the ribs I would have blamed the product and never bought it again. Cooking times and temps are vital to that product’s success. The cooking instructions deserved enough space on the label to be readable.

Who has control?

Everyone who is involved. Of course the designer should have said “I can’t make it fit and be readable”. The proof reader should have flagged it. The marketing manager and packaging manager should have flagged it. The president of the company should have said “No. Make the label bigger and make the type readable.” There were many people who had the power to change course, but they didn’t think it was more important than a cool label. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for a sexy label, but I’m also a big fan of profit.

Why it matters

Companies spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to get customers to try their products. Making sure customers have a great experience the first time they try something new often starts with telling them how to use the product. A bad experience eliminates a second purchase, erodes brand loyalty and is likely to get shared with friends on social media. This is a no-brainer.

How big does type need to be to be readable?

For older customers nothing below 9.5 pt type. For younger customers 8 pt is as low as I would go for anything that needs to be read comfortably, 6 pt for boilerplate and legalese. Every font has a different readability level so use common sense. Reverse type (Light type on a dark background) is harder to read than dark type on light background and should be bigger. Red type is the hardest to read, and reversing type out of a red background is the worst of the worst—avoid it. When in doubt do two simple tests. First, in dim light hold the work comfortably in front of you and squint at it. If you can read it, there is enough contrast to be read by the 8% of people who are colorblind. (Can you afford to lose 8% of your customers?) Next hold the work out at arm’s length and try to read it. If you’re under 25 just pass it to someone who is the same age as your customer and see if they’re comfortable reading it. This is such an easy mistake to avoid and I’m seeing it way too often. While squinting at a small swath of tiny type a young sales person, trying to be helpful, suggested I take a picture of it with my cell phone and blow it up. He said that’s what he does. Aaaargggghhh!


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  • Sandi Neuman

    Finally! Someone has spoken the unspeakable! As a 50+ consumer, if I can’t read what I am about to purchase, I pass with rare exception. And how about those who insist on putting it all “on-line”? You want to know how to assemble? Just go to our website…….where you have to search even more to find what you need. ARRRGGHHHH! Maybe your comments will start a movement…….

    • Sarah Fletcher

      I’d be so happy if this turned into a movement. It’s way out of control.