Design and legibility: 7 tips for high ad readership

This is part 2 of a 2-part post on ad design and legibility. In this part, we’ll look at how to use basic reading concepts to get more people to read your advertising.

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.

Principles of designing ads for high readership

Assist the left to right Eye Rhythm — Use serif type, because the serifs form a lateral line that helps the eye move left to right. Don’t set type reading down or at an angle, because that’s not the way people read. Don’t overdo the leading, because that makes the next line harder to find — a spit second makes a big difference. Set your type flush left and ragged right in most cases, though a justified right margin can work just as well — though not in letters.

Avoid unnecessary Fixations and generate necessary ones — Most reading should flow along with as few stops as necessary. So throw out anything that makes the eye stop in the main text. However, you want the eye to stop on certain important points, such as the 800 number or the order card. Italics, underlines, and bold subheads, for example, create stops at points of textual significance.

Work within the natural Eye Span — Look at a few magazines and newspapers with a high circulation. (Readers Digest or USA Today, for example.) Notice how the best ones often use narrow columns with 5 to 8 words per line. That’s because narrow columns work with the natural eye span, while long single columns do not. These publications are designed to be read, as should your promotion.

Divide the copy into logical Thought Units — Clustering ideas so that they can be seen in a single eye span helps the brain process information. Most people actually read and comprehend much better when each eye span takes in a single unit of thought.

For example, if you have a headline that reads “Now you can have 12 issues for $12,” consider breaking the copy into 2 visual parts: “Now you can have / 12 issues for $12.” You can do this by putting them on separate lines, by using a second color, with italics or underlines, or any number of ways.

Leaders (…) and dashes (–) also help to divide copy into easily absorbed chunks much better than commas, colons, and semi-colons. “Now you can have … 12 issues for $12.”

Stick to standard Configurations — With words, don’t set type in all caps or put spaces between letters, because that obliterates all configuration. Stay with lower case and initial caps as often as possible, including most headlines. With numbers, remember that spelling helps the reader whiz through it, but using the numeral will produce a short stop. So, spell numbers that aren’t as important and use numerals for numbers that should draw attention.

In addition, my learned colleague James Rosenfield often discusses icons, which he defines as a “communication instantly and involuntarily assimilated by the brain’s right hemisphere.” Configuration is the buck-fifty word for the same idea. Logos, faces, numbers, words, and personal imagery are all icons.

Use Familiar type and layouts — In most cases, use a Roman or serif face for body copy unless there’s an overwhelming reason not to. Roman faces have more irregular features, which makes words more recognizable.

Help the reader avoid Eye Fatigue — Eye fatigue can result from a number of things, including too many regressions, a reduced reading rate, and a slower recognition rate. Do absolutely everything possible to help the readers eyes move along effortlessly.

For example, use type of about 9 to 12 points for body copy, but slightly larger type for older or younger readers. Break up long copy into smaller chunks, indent paragraphs, and space between paragraphs to let the eye rest every here and there. Prefer black type on white paper. And if you must reverse type to draw the eye, keep it short and 10 or 12 point sans serif (because it’s too easy for the ink to fill in the little serifs). Avoid glossy, hard-to-read paper. Avoid text over tints and pictures, unless there is enough contrast.

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.

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2 Responses to “Design and legibility: 7 tips for high ad readership”

  1. G F Mueden on October 17th, 2009 10:44 am

    Good job.

    I had only one problem, the bit about not overdoing the leading. For me it is inadequate leading that makes it hard to find the next line.

    For an older people (me) size comes second to high contrast, calling for bolder type or a really black ink. My current hate is the use of light gray inks instead of good solid blacks. Business Week uses faint printing and colored backgrounds and is not alone. So does PC World, the AAII, and others, and I look at it as giving me short weight; I subscribe for the information, not the elegance of the print job.

  2. Dean Rieck on October 17th, 2009 11:53 am

    By “overdoing” the leading, I just mean not having 12pt type with 200 leading as if the text is merely a design element. And we agree about the light gray type. That’s just annoying.

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