Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Covers: Legibility for Low Vision Readers

For those of you keen-eyed young folks who may find yourself designing covers for large print books for weak-eyed old folks, an excellent resource is the site maintained by Lighthouse International, an organization dedicated to fighting vision loss through prevention, treatment and empowerment. Readable book covers are part of the empowerment that the Lighthouse fosters. The Lighthouse's site explains the principles of accessible type design -- not only what looks good, but what a low-vision person, the sort who reads large-print books, might actually be able to see, even to read.

The Lighthouse offers ten rules for making text legible:

  1. Text should be printed with the highest possible contrast. (Black and white is recommended, but colors can be effectively contrasted; see the Lighthouse's instructions for effective color contrast.
  2. Type color is important for achieving contrast.
  3. Point size: Type should be large.
  4. Leading, or spacing between lines of text, should be at least 25 to 30 percent of the point size.
  5. Avoid complicated, decorative or cursive fonts. Condensed fonts are less effective.
  6. A roman typeface, using upper and lower cases, is more readable than italics, oblique or condensed.
  7. Text with close letter spacing often presents difficulties for readers who are partially sighted.
  8. Extra-wide binding margins are especially helpful in bound material because it makes it easier to hold the volume flat.
  9. Paper with a glossy finish can lessen legibility because many people who are older or who have partial sight also have problems with glare.
  10. distinctive colors, sizes and formats on the covers can make it easier to find a book or other document that is buried among similar publications.

If you think about it, these rules make perfect sense, the more so if you're over forty and have begun to notice vision changes. The book cover above was the cover that the large-print book publisher put on Irene Fleming's first book, The Edge of Ruin. The lady's face is sort of pretty but the text is nearly illegible.  I can't imagine anyone with low vision pulling this off the shelf. It's mighty hard for them to see.

Kate Gallison (Irene Fleming)


  1. Kate, I have to take a look at what the large print publisher did with City of Silver, as far as typeface and contrast go. I never got past the fact that they put a picture of Machu Pichu on the cover, when my book takes place about 1000 miles and 1000 years away!! Did they think one South American mountain looks much the same as any other if you are vision impaired? My dear vision impaired friend now reads only on an iPad, but lots of folks in the same boat are not as tech-hip as he. You raise such an important point. We should try to get the large-print publishers to get it right, if they give us a chance.

  2. I'm not sure what they think they're doing. Maybe the idea is, they only sell to libraries anyway, who don't look at the cover, so why bother providing a cover that people can see? By the time the low vision person is looking on the shelf for a book, the publishers already have their money.