I’ve circled the Sun enough times to remember when the term “generation gap” first arose as a way to explain the friction between the under-30 set and the “establishment.” More recently, my peers have been poked for their perceived inability to understand today’s world with the “Okay, Boomer” slam.
Hearing that as a Boomer, am I offended? Not in the least. History finds evidence of generational squabbles as far back as Aristotle, and I’m confident the people who contemptuously fling the “Okay” message today will find themselves grousing about young folks in a couple surprisingly short decades. (You know, they dress weird, have no respect for their elders, and what they call music is just noise.)
As the Boomers swell the senior population, the marketplace is 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 remain consumers longer, too.
However, there’s one critically important area that’s done a poor job of paying attention, and that’s the world of graphic design. I don’t believe today’s graphic designers are deliberately trying to slight Boomers. Instead, I think the issues stem from their comparative youth. The nation’s population of graphic designers skews toward folks in their 20s and early 30s. While they are creating some of the most striking, beautiful work that’s been seen in decades, many Boomers find their skills difficult to appreciate.
It’s not a matter of taste. It’s about vision, and it’s something those young designers will learn firsthand before they realize it. They’ll probably be glancing the menu in a dimly lit restaurant or trying to skim through the Terms and Conditions on a website when they’ll notice their eyes aren’t quite as strong as they were a year before. In lives filled with milestones, that first pair of bifocals is one of the most disheartening.
If your organization creates materials aimed at a more mature audience – the copywriter’s gentler version of “Okay, Boomer” – make sure the designers responsible for your products and materials remember some basic advice.
Friendly fonts. 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. Simple sans-serif faces such as Gill Sans can also be easy to read. For emphasis, boldface and underscoring work better than italics.
Generous sizing. Using small type sizes is particularly 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.
Create cues. Indenting paragraphs may seem boringly quaint to some designers, but older folks have read that way since childhood. Subheads, bold lead-ins, bullet points, and similar devices guide the reader’s eyes and make the hierarchy of information clearer.
Resist reversing. Reversing type (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, sans-serif typefaces tend to provide better results when you choose to reverse.
Celebrate contrast. Make sure the type and the background have enough contrast so the words are readable. Pay attention to contrast when placing two colors side-by-side, because older eyes are less able to perceive subtle differences. 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.
Welcome white space. Most designers jealously guard the white space in their projects, and that’s a good thing when designing for older readers. Healthy use of white space keeps information organized and presentable and reduces visual fatigue. Trust your designer and resist the urge to fill that “empty” space with more text, logos, or other images.
Why is a writer so concerned about how designers approach older consumers? It’s simple: those of us who write persuasive copy want to be sure everyone can read what we work so hard to create. Skilled designers who understand and adapt to their audiences’ needs make our work far more effective and communicative.
Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. His guide to evaluating freelance creative talent, The Smarter Strategy for Selecting Suppliers, can be downloaded at http://sfwriting.com.