Accessible Printed Materials, Office Documents and PDFs

There's a tendency to believe that making a document accessible means stripping out all of the formatting, this is definitely not the case! Removing the formatting from a document can often make it more difficult to navigate and understand.

Here is our quick fire guide to creating accessible printed materials. We've also included a section on ensuring that you office documents and PDFs are accessible, as more often than not we avoid printing and rather view office documents on computers and tablet devices.

Whether you're designing flyers, setting up templates for office documents, or generating PDFs here are some simple guidelines to follow. In this section we will cover use of fonts and colours, readability and making office documents (such as PDFs) accessible.

Fonts

Identifying serif and sans-serif fonts

 

This is a graphic showing the difference between serif and sans serif fonts. On the serif fonts the individual serifs have been highlighted.

The little flourishes highlighted in the image above are called "serifs"

Font Types

It may be tempting to use a fancy font to make your work stand out, but by doing so you may be making it more difficult for those with vision impairments or specific learning difficulties to read your content.

Always stick to a simple sans-serif font.

Serif vs. Sans-Serif

In typography, a serif is a small decorative flourish - a line attached to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol. A typeface with serifs is called a serif typeface (or serifed typeface).

A typeface without serifs is called sans-serif or sans serif, from the French sans, meaning "without". A sans-serif font is a font that doesn't have any additional "frills".

Serif fonts also have varied stroke widths, while sans serif fonts have a consistent width. For these reasons sans-serif fonts are generally better for those with vision impairments. 

There are other things to consider when selecting a font. Density and complexity of font type can reduce space – look for a simple font that spaces the letters out.

Consider the length of letters b, d, f, h, k, l, t, g, j, p, q, y in relation to the height of the typeface. Short ascenders and descenders make a typeface less legible.

Consider the individual characteristics of letter shapes. Check whether the font you've selected has a closed "a" which could be confused with a "c" or an "o", or a "3" that could be confused with an "8".

Font Size

As per UK Government Guidelines, the clear print standard requires a minimum font size of 12 point. However, you should note that this is the minimum requirement. You may wish to user a larger font depending on your audience, if you have the space within the document to use 14 point then that will ensure that your document is more accessible. Using a point size of 18 - 18 means that there is no need to have a separate stock of large print documents. You should also always be able to supply large print in various sizes above 16 point, on request.

Colours

Colour combos to avoid:

  • Green & Red
  • Green & Brown
  • Blue & Purple
  • Green & Blue
  • Light Green & Yellow
  • Blue & Grey
  • Green & Grey
  • Green & Black

Minimum Colour Contrasts

In order to be compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines your colour scheme must meet minimum contrast requirements. You can check your colours using many online contrast checkers such as WebAIM.

In order to use these tools you'll need to know the Hex Codes of the colours you are using. These should be easy to locate, for example if you open the colour selector in MailChimp you should see a string of seven characters, a mixture of numbers and letters with a hash sign at the beginning (e.g. #000000 for black and #FFFFFF for white).

Colour as a signifier

Colour should never be used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.

For example, if someone has a red-green colour blindness they will be unable to take meaning from green being used to indicate "go" and red being use to indicate "stop" without having additional text or alternative signifier.

This is extremely important if you are displaying any charts or graphs. People with colour blindness will find it very difficult to interpret data if only colours are used, adding textures can make your charts more accessible to everyone.

one pie chart is displayed with only colours, the other uses lines, dots and other textures as well as colours

Readability

Formatting

While accessibility in font types is focused on individual characters, readability deals with blocks of text. Here are some ket things to consider in order to ensure your text can be clearly read.

  • BLOCK CAPITALS should only be used in headings, very short sentences, or to provide emphasis to individual words. Large sections of text written in block capitals become difficult and strenuous to read as all of the letters are the same height.
  • Avoid underlining and italics. Use of italics and underlining can make text more difficult to recognise.
  • Do not hyphenate words when split over two lines.
  • Use left justification of text in paragraphs or any text longer than one sentence.

Accessible Office Documents

Logical Order

No matter what document you are creating ensure that you are using clear and concise language and a logical order.

If you’re using multiple columns to display content make sure to add these correctly to ensure that the columns make sense when read one after the other as well as side by side. Never use a tab button to create columns within a document, a screen reader will read the first line of each column then the second line of each column which can cause confusion and in many cases completely alter the meaning of the document.

Use Text Styles

You may already be aware of settings available in most programs such as Microsoft Word which allow you to set text styles for a document. This means that you can set "Heading 1" to a specific size and font, and "Heading 2", and "Paragraph" etc.

Not only does this make formatting your document a much fast process, it is also beneficial to screen reader users. Where headings are correctly tagged a screen reader can interpret them as headings where it would be unable to interpret a heading as such if it was simply made bold and larger than the rest of the document.

PDFs

In general, screen reader users will always prefer a Word document to a PDF as they are more accessible and easier understood by a screen reader. PDFs have, however, become much more accessible in recent years.

A PDF which is generated by scanning a document into a computer will never be accessible. The computer, and any screen reader, will treat this document as a picture, and even advanced optical character recognition (OCR) software may have difficulty interpreting the text depending on the quality of the scan.

PDFs that you generate yourself on a computer can be made accessible, here are a few guidelines to follow.

  • Ensure that all text is selectable. You can do this by opening your PDF and trying to select the text with your cursor. If the text is selectable it will become highlighted as you move your cursor over the words.
  • Avoid footers that are "in-line" with the text. If you again try to select your text over the words and do do over a page break you may see that your header and footer content becomes selectable, this means that a screen reader will interrupt any sentences that go over a page break and will read out footer and header content.
  • Ensure alt text is added for images. This is easy to do if you are generating your PDF using a Word document, just make sure you've added alt text to the word document (available in "Format Picture"). If you are using Adobe Acrobat Pro you can add various "tags" to your PDF by editing in Accessibility Mode. Find out more about all of Adobe's accessibility features as well as their built in checker here.