Thursday, August 23, 2007

Patronizing typography?

Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle of the transmission of words and ideas.--Beatrice Warde (1900-1969)
Warde's declaration above is from her 1930 lecture, "The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should be Invisible," and it's saying something that every undergraduate in graphic design is taught: the best font is the one you don't notice.

Well, I noticed. Or rather, my seven-year-old did. When a brochure came in the mail from our regional center, she assumed it was for her, because it was a booklet with bright colors and graphics, and big letters in a child-friendly typeface. Here's a sample:

Excerpt from brochure, showing scrawly typeface
[Image description: On a yellow ruled background that resembles a sheet of paper from a legal pad, there is purple scrawly text, that reads "Yes No Maybe (I would like to hear more about this)" and in the same font, in black, superimposed on a purple trapezoid, "Other Things That Are Important to Your Family."]

But we soon realized, it was for me--the parent of a regional center client--a questionnaire to complete before a routine meeting next week. Why the childish design? Our regional center's client base is diverse, sure, but every parent they serve is an adult, right? Whether you're a parent with a developmental disability, or a parent with limited literacy or English proficiency, you're still an adult. I understand why the questionnaire should use basic, clear language, but I don't see why this childish font would be used for any adult audience, at least any adult audience you wanted to treat with respect.

UPDATE (7/13/11): Four years later, they're still using the same brochure--got another one in the mail just now. Sigh.


Anonymous said...

Maybe if you have a good meeting they will give you a sticker?


Penny L. Richards said...

Sticker? I'm totally holding out for some M&Ms.

Anonymous said...

as a typographer and a designer, this is one of the things that i struggle with all the time : how to give 'expression' to the text and how to do this without using visual or societal cliches.

i see design pieces all the time that, to my mind, reinforce what i think of as stereotypes (adverts for asian restaurants using faux asian type, the faux child-like look you mention, the fake urban hip hop look to appear 'cool') and i wonder if people who see these are as insulted as i am. both for the content and for the designer's lack of imagination.

i am not a huge fan of the crystal goblet, but i think in some cases people should have their typefaces confiscated to avoid these affronts.

Joe said...

It is preferable in nearly all cases, including this one, to place the text equivalent (not a “description” of an image) inside the alt text, not in plain text.

mcewen said...

How very curious!

Kay Olson said...

It is preferable in nearly all cases, including this one, to place the text equivalent (not a “description” of an image) inside the alt text, not in plain text.

I'm hoping Joe can come back and explain the logic behind his comment. There are two reasons I use description of images: One reason is the limits of my technical expertise. I actually did use alt tags for a while , but some of those old tags, inexplicably, no longer show up. Since I don't know why that occurred or how to keep it from happening again, I describe images because I know that text description won't mysteriously disappear.

The second reason is that many things I describe don't have a strictly textual equivalent, or I'm discussing the context of use anyway. My logic for describing context (which may be flawed, that's why I'm interested in what Joe says about this) is that a complete "picture" of what those privileged to see the actual image itself is what someone who cannot see would prefer so they understand the discussion as fully as possible and aren't inadvertently left out of some aspect that would or couldn't be expressed through text equivalent.

Is this wrong?

Jesse the K said...

As a sighted person, I applaud your public descriptions for two reasons.

One, they help me understand why you chose the graphic.

Two, they model both the necessity and the technique of audio description to all site visitors. A.D. is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced. A.D. is as important to universal design as ramps.

My only suggestion is to place them immediately after the graphic being described, to provide closely parallel information flow.

Penny L. Richards said...

First, I want to thank Joe for bringing up this issue, and invite him to come back and continue the discussion further. I also want to thank him for making me do the LONG overdue, and figure out how to put in alt-text. I knew I should be doing it, I just never knew how. Now I think I'm doing it right... I hope?

I also agree with Jesse that I should have put the description immediately after the image, in this case, because it's not just decorative, but part of the flow of the post. I'll do that next.

So, I'll put in alt-text from now on, but I don't think I'll stop doing plain text descriptions of our illustrations. Both formats are valued by readers, as some of the comments here have noted. The plain-text description can be a statement of welcome, not just for readers who don't see the images, but for those who appreciate having the images described for other reasons.

Finally, thank you Anonymous Typographer! I'm glad you stopped by and commented.

Bay Radical said...

I just found your blog through the history carnival, and I really apriciated this post. I used to work for a nonprofit publisher. We produced health education material, and I always used to argue against that child-like font (in fairness, the designers only wanted to use it to simulate handwriting in a drawing that showed people writing notes, but it felt really infantalizing). Anyway, thanks for the blog, I'm going to add it to my regular links to check.

zara said...

Concerning the textual equivalent issue, here are the general uses :

If the image is purely decorative and conveys no meaningful information, use a null alt attribute (alt=""). Note in this case that there is no text between the quotation marks. It is best to use this attribute instead of nothing at all because in its absence screen reader technology will read out the name of the image file which is usually not very helpful and can even be quite annoying.

If the image conveys information and can be described briefly (general convention suggests 10 or 12 words at most), use an alt attribute (example : alt="a man and his dog" or alt="a woman using a computer" or alt="logo of the Center for Disease Control").

For more information on the alt attribute, see:

HTML 4.01 Specification


Core Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0

If the image is more complex and can not be described in 10 to 12 words or less, we should be using the longdesc attribute (as in long description). The textual description provided here in this post for the image concerning infantilising fonts would qualify. Note that the longdesc attribute serves to supplement the alt attribute and not replace it. However, since some technology still does not support the longdesc attribute (though things have improved), it is not used much and a description link (which pretty much amounts to the same thing in terms of results) is sometimes used as an alternative.

For more information on the longdesc attribute see:

HTML Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0

But you know, I think that what you have done here is fine. The point is to convey meaningful information that helps to understand what you are talking about in a manner that everyone, regardless of disability or technology, can have access to.

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