A Primer on Reading, Legibility, and Effective Advertising Design

by Dean Rieck

Direct mail and print advertising is all about reading. So legibility is a key for effective advertising design.

Here is a primer on how people read, why legibility is so important, and how to effctively design advertising.

With no special instruction, people instinctively learn spoken language. In fact, within just three years, an infant will master a vocabulary of about 1,000 words. Reading, however, must be taught. It's a difficult process, and even after years of instruction, most people remain relatively poor readers into adulthood.

Reading is literally an unnatural act.

This is crucial for you to understand, since so many marketing efforts, and most especially direct mail and print ads, depend on your getting people to READ. In fact, I would go as far to say:

Direct mail and print advertising is all about reading.

Reading envelope teasers. Reading letters. Reading brochures. Reading order forms. Reading headlines. Reading coupons. Without reading — easy, effortless reading — you have no sales.

Don't confuse "legibility" with "readability." Readability is about content comprehension — ala Rudolf Flesch — and is the responsibility of the copywriter. Legibility, on the other hand, is about form presentation. This is the designer's responsibility.

Assuming that your copywriter has done a good job of writing your copy, your designer can encourage or discourage readership with the general layout and type treatment. So, your designer had better understand something about reading.

The Reading Process

To understand legibility and how design affects readership — and thereby sales — we must first understand how people read. (Forget how people "should" read. We are only concerned with how the average person actually does read.)

Here are the basics of the reading process:

Designing for Readership

Meaningful sales messages are transmitted through language, not design. The goal of design, therefore, is to encourage and support readership. In general, a designer should strive to ...

  1. Draw attention to the copy and help the reader get started reading.
  2. Make reading easy by applying the basic rules of layout and typography.
  3. Help communicate the writer's message (not produce a work of art).

Specifically, a designer should make every effort to work with the realities of how people read and make the process as easy and transparent as possible. Here are the basic principles:

Of course, assuming a designer can successfully apply these basic principles for legibility, he or she should also attempt to improve the "body language" of the message, create the right impression or "feel" through type that is compatible to the message, help establish credibility and value, illustrate the promise of the sales proposition, and a hundred other vital tasks.

However, nothing is more important than legibility. Ever.

Is this creatively limiting? Absolutely not. In fact, it presents a supreme creative challenge. For just as the copywriter cannot write arbitrarily, the designer cannot design arbitrarily.

And remember, what is important here are not the specific rules, but the principles behind them. A designer must always know why he or she is doing something. How it affects readership.

A designer must ask: What does the writer want to say? Am I helping that message reach the prospect or am I getting in the way? What can I do to help the prospect read this effortlessly?

And there you have it — your primer on legibility. Have your designer read it and tape it to the wall. Because in printed media, reading is everything.

Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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