How big is big enough?

Anybody who’s been working in the Exhibit or Interpretation field for a while will agree with me on this – type sizes in graphics just keep on getting bigger. It’s inevitable, really. We have societal demographics that are trending older all the time, and an increased awareness of our universal accessibility (UA) responsibilities. Everybody struggles with this, and everybody knows that 14 point labels just don’t cut it anymore. While the push to upsize our presentation continues, written content isn’t getting any shorter, and the available space is often just as constrained as it ever was. How big is big enough? It’s a real issue, and it’s one that very often falls to designers to sort out.

I had the opportunity recently to do some research into best practices in UA for interpretation. Most of my clients struggle with this, as there are no hard and fast standards to adhere to, just guidelines developed by various organizations and institutions who are often struggling with it themselves. I was tasked by one of these clients to survey a half dozen of the relevant leading guidelines and look for some consensus on UA for interpretation. We agreed on the guidelines from the following organizations: The Canadian Standards Association (CSA), Parks Canada Media Accessibility Guidelines (PC), Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), Smithsonian Institution Exhibition UA Guidelines (SI), California Parks Accessibility Guidelines (PC), and the United Nations Enable Guidelines (UN). The list is Canada-centric, I realize, though I have to say that the Parks Canada Media Accessibility Guidelines are the most complete I’ve seen anywhere, but are sadly out of print, and not available on the internet (that I know of… if I’m wrong, please send me a link!).

My investigation uncovered a lot less consistency than I’d hoped for, but expanded my thinking on the range of UA enhancing tools available to designers for exhibits and interpretation. I’ve distilled these ideas into 10 UA principles for media that designers and planners should consider when developing exhibits and interpretation. Not all these points will be relevant in all cases, but by keeping them in mind, your work will be more accessible to more people, more often.

1.) Type size is the most hotly contested aspect of UA design for interpretive media, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no one right answer. The guidelines were really all over the map, some recommending large sizes that just aren’t practical for most situations. For my own work lately I’ve been using a hierarchy of sizes for indoor work of around 44/30/22/14 pt. (ie- first level body/second level body/label body/credit) For outdoor work, just a bit bigger, more like 50/35/25/14 pt. These sizes are at the lower end of what I found in the guidelines, but are what experience tells me work well.

2.) Line lengths are very important – less than 20 characters and things are too chopped up. Longer than 45 to 55 characters and it’s hard to track from one line to the next. Add more leading the longer the line.

3.) Use fonts that promote easy readability for body text. An obvious one, right? Think Helvetica, Futura in sans faces and Times Roman or Garamond in serif. There are modern fonts that meet this criteria as well or better too. Save the display fonts for large titles.

4.) Avoid graphic finishes that promote glare. Particularly outdoors, some gloss is required to promote washability, but keep it to a minimum. A 60° gloss of 10-25 gloss units, often defined as “eggshell” is a good compromise.

5.) Providing sufficient contrast between text and background is a pretty obvious point, most guidelines recommend contrasts north of 70%. I find that this can easily be quantified by converting a test version of your artwork to greyscale and reading the values in the software. This helps settle disagreements about what is otherwise a pretty subjective call.

6.) Lighting is an important determinant of readability. Most guidelines recommend a minimum of 100 lux, which can be challenging both indoors and out. In an indoor exhibit environment, lighting levels are often kept lower than this to protect artifacts. The best that can be done here is to light the ambient spaces even lower in an effort to make the lighting of text panels seem brighter. If you know the lighting will be dim, maximize contrast. The lack of control of light outside is obvious, if possible we can mitigate this with panel placement to avoid distracting shadows. Where this is not possible, the recommendation from the Smithsonian is that light letters on a dark background be used to avoid blindingly white backgrounds in full sun.

7.) Alternative means of delivering messages or even just key parts of messages can be a very proactive way of increasing UA reach. Audio presentations, or even large print hand-outs can be a good way to supplement graphics for the visually impaired.

8.) Tactile elements are another alternative delivery method that can be effective for reaching the visually impaired as well as children and those with cognitive difficulties. In fact, if done well, everybody benefits. Here’s a good example.

9.) Depending on the subject matter, simple illustrations or diagrams can help communicate complex concepts in a way that is better understood by more people. That’s the essence of UA, right?

10.) Write at an appropriate level and resist the temptation to say too much. There is always a finite amount of space available for graphics, and a given number of words that will fit in that space. In the best cases, there is a good dialogue early on that results in some realistic guidelines for the interpretive writer. In the worst cases, there is no consultation, and no willingness to change text that’s “already approved” – this is a recipe for UA compromise. Please don’t make this mistake.

It should be noted that this list does not deal with the physical layout of the space or positioning of the media – that’s a whole other aspect to the UA puzzle, fraught with challenges, and certainly worthy of it’s own post.

What are you doing to address UA issues in your interpretive and exhibit work? What important considerations have I missed? Please share your knowledge!