Graphic design through older eyes

As the Baby Boomers move along on their journey from milk to Metamucil, companies are making all sorts of changes to accommodate the needs of their changing bodies. From lumbar supports in car seats to cushioned handles on kitchen utensils, manufacturers and service providers recognize the potential profit in catering to the comfort of an increasingly older population. That population is living longer, so they’ll be consumers longer, too.

“That [older] population is living longer, so they’ll be consumers longer…”

But one element that’s been slow to catch up is graphic design. I believe a big reason is that the nation’s population of graphic designers skews toward folks in their 20s and early 30s. Their designs reflect the tastes and influences of the world they see. And while they are creating some of the most striking, beautiful work that’s been seen in decades, a growing percentage of consumers finds it difficult to appreciate.

If your organization creates materials aimed at a more mature audience – the copywriter’s way of tiptoeing around “older folks” – ensuring that your designers follow some very basic advice will make your materials far more effective at creating connections.

Type choices. Every year brings dozens of new typefaces (fonts), and many designers jump at the opportunity to use the latest. But the most readable typefaces tend to be some of the most familiar, particularly when used in body copy. Serif faces like Times, Palatino, Century, Garamond and Goudy may seem ho-hum to young designers, but they’re much easier on the eye, especially in long text. Simple sans-serif faces such as Gill Sans can also be easy to read. For emphasis, boldface and underscoring tend to be easier on the eyes than italics.

Type size and leading. One trend over the past couple of decades has been to shrink the size of body copy, but that makes it uninviting for older readers. There’s usually no need to go with something as horsey as 14-point text, but think twice before going with anything smaller than 10-point. In most typefaces, 11-point body text works just fine. Another way to enhance readability is to increase the leading (spacing) between lines of text. Using leading that’s at least 25 percent more than type size (for example, 11-on-14) can do wonders.

Visual cues. Indenting paragraphs may seem boringly old-fashioned to some designers, but older readers have read that way since childhood. Use subheads, bold lead-ins, bullet points, and similar devices to guide the reader’s eyes and make the hierarchy of information clearer.

Reverse with caution. Reversing type (i.e., light type on a dark background) can be visually striking, but it’s effective only when it’s readable. Generally, it’s a good idea to increase the type size by a point or so. And while serif type is normally more readable, san serif typefaces tend to provide better results when reversed.

Color contrasts. Make sure the type and the background have enough contrast so it’s readable. In addition, when placing two colors side-by-side, watch the contrast, too. Why? As today’s younger designers move along their own journey, they’ll discover that their eyes are less able to perceive subtle differences in color. And certain colors – such as very pale yellow or pink – may actually appear to be white to older eyes, so a light yellow screen on a dull white paper stock may not even be noticed.

Coupons. “Okay, your name is Seymour Cozonowfski, you live at 13248 North Milwaukee Avenue, you’re 82, and you have Parkinson’s. Now let me see you fill that coupon out!” That’s how a former boss used to teach young designers how to format coupons. Every designer would present his or her first coupon-containing ad or mailer to him with a coupon that could be completed only with a micro-fine pen and a magnifying glass. Although coupons are less prevalent these days, his warning holds for anything you expect customers to complete. Provide plenty of room. Coupons may not be inherently attractive, but they serve an important function, and great designers make functionality beautiful.

White space. Most designers jealously guard the white space in their projects, and that’s a good thing when designing for older readers. Not only does healthy use of white space keep information organized and presentable, it can reduce visual fatigue. Trust your designer and resist the urge to fill that white space with more text, logos, or other images.

It might seem odd that a writer is concerned about what designers do, but those of us who write persuasive copy want to be sure that people can read what we work so hard to create. Skilled designers make our work far more effective and communicative.