Can print designs be more accessible?

Printed materials are everywhere. But we found their designs can’t always be read by everyone. Head of marketing at Solopress, James Shields, explains how print could be made more accessible to all. 

Can print designs be more accessible?

printed billboard in subway

How effective can a message be if not everyone can read itAs head of marketing at a leading online print company, I’m always conscious of this question.

Whether they’re leaflets, posters or business cards, printed materials are all around us. They tell us important information, notify us of exciting events, and advertise the latest products and promotions. However, many people with learning or visual conditions struggle to understand printed messages because of their design.

Our recent survey of 622 UK companies found 56 per cent of all businesses fail to take readability into account when producing printed materials.

"56 per cent of all businesses fail to take readability into account when producing printed materials"

That statistic alarmed me, as I understand the difficulties that come with print accessibility. One of my close family members experiences issues with reading certain wording and designs on account of their dyslexia.

We dug a little deeper into the issue. Working with the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) for Dyslexia Awareness Week (7-13 October), we wanted to help businesses create print that’s inclusive of everyone.

But why do some people have issues reading printed materials?

Read more: Dyslexic celebrities share their success stories


What issues affect people’s ability to read print?

colourblind person

For some, it could be a visual impairment—something two million people in the UK live with. For instance, people with colour blindness can have trouble distinguishing between certain colours, such as reds, oranges, yellows, browns and greens. With so much colourful print out there, this can mean some messages are almost impossible for them to read.

People with a learning condition such as dyslexia can have difficulties reading letters and words in the correct order. Many printed materials don’t effectively space their wording and bombard the reader with lots of information. This can make it incredibly difficult for someone with dyslexia to understand what’s in front of them.

People with literacy problems can find it difficult to understand complex sentences or advanced vocabulary—especially when it comes to something quite wordy like a leaflet. The average reading age in the UK is nine years old—which means complicated print messages can be difficult for many people to read and understand.


Are businesses addressing this problem?

Some are, but many aren’t. Even though 44 per cent of UK businesses do take accessibility issues into account when creating print materials, that still leaves more than half that don’t consider it. We feel this can drive a barrier between these companies and a significant portion of society that struggles to grasp their messages.

"Complicated print messages can be difficult for many people to read and understand"

By excluding so many people, it’s clear that businesses may be inadvertently losing potential customers.

We asked ourselves: how can we help companies to create inclusive printed materials? We decided to pool our own expertise with that of the BDA, to create guidelines that captured the main elements of accessible design.


What classes as an accessible design?

a woman reading a clear leaflet

Both the BDA and the UK Government currently have guidelines on accessible design. The advice covers such areas as:

  • Colourshow colours are combined on printed materials, known as contrast, can affect readability. Maintaining a contrast ratio of 4.5:1 between the letters and their background helps text to be seen and understood. This is vital when accounting for visually impaired readers.

  • FontsSans Serif fonts such as Helvetica, Verdana and Arial are, according to the BDA, the most ledgible for those with dyslexia. That’s because they space out lettering and have a simple design that is easy to read.
  • StructureGovernment guidelines recommend all content should be left-aligned for maximum legibility. Text should broken up into small chunks, avoiding long, unbroken passages. This helps ensure content is digestible and easy to read for those with a learning or visual impairment.

Combining these suggestions can help make printed literature more inclusive to a broader range of people.


How can businesses get started?

When we partnered with the BDA to explore this important issue, we wanted to create something that would make a long-term difference, both to businesses and to those with reading issues.

That’s why we created our accessibility templates. These are helpful guidelines for print designers to follow when they’re creating literature for businesses or services, including:

  • Business cards
  • Leaflets
  • Posters

The guides include many helpful rules and hints. The BDA has awarded them its "Assured" status. This means it recognises they can have a positive influence on accessible design.

You can find our full list of recommendations for designers with our three accessible design templates.

By taking accessibility issues seriously and following design best practice, we can create print adverts, communications and reminders that include a broader range of society.


James Shields is head of marketing at Solopress, an online print company which helps businesses create business cards, leaflets and posters—as well as many other printed products. James has more than 12 years’ marketing experience, leading continuous development in businesses in a variety of industries. For James, design accessibility is both professional and personal. A close family member has dyslexia, and this drives him to pursue accessibility in print.