A sight for sore eyes

The Disability Act says design must be accessible to all, but an ageing population makes this a commercial as well as legal imperative.

The Government directive on disability access affects taxis, businesses and shops across the country. This is surely a sign that we are becoming a more inclusive society. However, there is another aspect to this story, which begs the question: are we communicating effectively with that large proportion of the country which has less than perfect eyesight?

According to the BBC, an estimated 18 million Britons need glasses to help them read as they become long-sighted with advancing years. The total includes those who cannot read fine print without spectacles – and includes most people over 50. Add to this the 1 million people in the UK who could be registered as ‘blind’ or ‘partially sighted’ and you have a large proportion of the adult population.

The list certainly includes me, but does it include you, or will it? The startling news about our ageing population is that by 2020 more than half the nation will be over 50. To compound this fact, recent research from Age Concern shows that these citizens will control over 80 per cent of the nation’s wealth, so communicating with people who have less than perfect vision will be somewhat important.

Sure, we can all reach for our glasses, but the good news is that Government has been blazing this trail for some years and all Government communications should comply with Royal National Institute of the Blind guidelines. But what about commerce – you’d think big business would have caught on by now – has it?

With design for print, quite simply, few design guidelines specify a minimum type size that is beneficial to long-sighted readers. It’s a fact of life that many young designers act as if the aesthetics of design are more important than legibility. Style over substance is nonsense when you are talking about clear communication. Good designers balance the need for both creative impact and legibility.

It’s a basic human right that everyone should have equal access to information, though it’s not entirely justified to blame designers alone if communications fail to reach us all. It’s true to say designers have an innate desire to create aesthetically sound work – it’s a legacy of their tuition. Surely, though, we’re all responsible? Brand managers, designers, tutors and advocates of good design all have a moral responsibility to produce information that is accessible to all.

How many of us are aware that with the implementation of Section 21 of the Disability Act 1999, there is now a legal duty to meet the communication needs of blind and partially sighted people. Equally, how many of us support or are aware of RNIB’s See It Right campaign, which offers comprehensive advice on how to design and produce communications for people with sight problems. People with sight problems are often treated as a minority due to a perceived lack of demand for information. What’s needed is a collective drive from us all to adopt a better understanding. Producing clear and flexible print guidelines at the outset could not only save money, but could also tap into a huge customer base. Let’s face it, if communications aren’t accessible then they aren’t communicating and if they don’t communicate there is no brand experience.

Corporate communicators need to appreciate that there are big differences between typefaces and simply stating a minimum type size is not enough. This does not allow for the huge variance that can exist between fonts or the difference to readability created by leading and measure. It’s all a trade-off between getting your message across and the space available – the old adage holds true, ‘it takes much longer to write much less’. We need to be clear and concise and designers should be taught to consider the issue properly.

You’ve probably realised that I have reached an age where I appreciate typography that is fit for a purpose. I have to face up to the fact that after a lifetime in the design business, where I have always valued elegant typography, my eyesight is not as sharp as it used to be. If I’m going to put on glasses to really digest an ad or an article, it had better be worth my time.

When we are reviewing creative communications we must check the fundamentals of good communication first. Is it fit for a purpose? Legible? Readable? And finally, is it good design?

Is the design industry really ‘inclusive’?

Very few design guidelines specify a minimum type size

18 million Britons need glasses

There are 1 million people in the UK who could qualify as ‘blind’

The Disability Act 1999 binds us legally to meet the communication needs of the visually impaired

Nick Bell is managing director of design consultancy Bell

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