3 Reasons Why it's Hard to Read the Small Print

06/04/2012 08:51 am ET | Updated Aug 04, 2012

In a scene familiar to many farsighted Boomers, I found myself recently standing in a grocery store aisle, holding a bottle of barbeque sauce at arm's length in order to bring into focus the ridiculously tiny type. "When did children with 20/10 vision start designing all our consumer products?" I wondered.

Spurred by the fact that I've been drawn to the large-print books at my library and Kindle Fire, for its backlit screen, I made an appointment with my ophthalmologist.

"You have presbyopia," he told me at my check up, a grave-sounding diagnosis until he explained it's the street name for farsightedness. Among the body parts that stiffen up beginning in our 40s are our eyes' lenses, he explained; less flexible lenses make it difficult for us to focus on close-up images, especially in dim lighting. It happens to nearly all of us.

Still, I maintain that presbyopia -- easily corrected with reading glasses -- is only part of the difficulty I have when I read. Here are three others.

1. WTF? or What's That Font?
The first font on the moon, engraved on a plaque that the Apollo 11 astronauts left behind in 1969, was set in a sans serif font called Futura. Closer to home, a quick check in my kitchen cabinets suggests that most food packages also employ sleek, clean sans serifs.

By contrast, printed reading materials -- books, newspapers, magazines -- are typically set in serif fonts. Some studies show that serif fonts, with their finishing strokes, are easier to read as they provide tiny clues for our eyes: little feet under a capital A, flares on a lowercase l, for example. (Your computer has possibly familiarized you with the Times font, named after the London newspaper. Since it commissioned the first Times font -- Times New Roman -- in 1931 in an effort to improve legibility, the Times has used various Times fonts including Times Classic and Times Modern.)

2. Size matters.
The size of the type in a New York Times article is 8.7 points. With a little leading (the air between lines) it's a pleasant read. However, the type on that barbeque sauce is much smaller; should I give up trying to read it, the consequence may be that I purchase a product higher in sugar than I had hoped. The instructions on my prescription medicine should, ideally, be an easy-to-read 12-point type, according to the U.S. Pharmacopeia and the Institute for Safe Medicine Practices. "But not all pharmacies follow this suggestion," states Consumer Reports. "Harvard researchers who studied dozens of patient drug labels found that the words that are often the most prominent on labels pertain to the pharmacy itself, not drug information." What a surprise.

3. Sans Familiarity.
When we gripe about illegibility, research says, we may be griping about unfamiliarity. (When the Ikea catalog switched fonts in 2009, there was a mild uprising among loyal Ikeans.) We Boomers grew up reading books set in serif fonts. Our kids, growing up in the largely sans serif world of web pages, might be perfectly content to read books set in sans serif. (Would Hound of the Baskervilles -- Baskerville being a serif font created in 1757 by John Baskerville -- be retitled Hound of the Helvetica?)

I learned of one more interesting and possibly useful fact in my personal research on type fonts and size. A 2011 study showed that when it comes to remembering what we've read, font size doesn't matter; font style does. The harder the font is to read, the more likely we are to remember the content. A challenging font forces our wandering brains to pay attention.

This strikes me as powerful information for anyone trying to get the attention of us boomers through print. Meanwhile, this boomer will test its effectiveness next time I type up a list of chores for a teenager.