Thoughts

Usability + Accessible = Love (for Verdana)

Scrabble tiles spelling out the word, 'font'

I hadn’t worked with them for that long, but it was clear they were not happy. The faces said it all. We’d been going around and around with our savvy, and expensive external branding team on fonts for several weeks. This is a conversation worth having as fonts say a great deal about a message and a brand. Yet, I know the designers wanted us to go with something more unique, and perhaps edgier. Ultimately, we disappointed them with our choice; Verdana. I can almost hear every other designer reading this thinking, ‘Verdana?!? That boring, spaced-out, digital font born of Microsoft in the mid-1990s? How prosaic!’ Because that was exactly what was on the faces before me now.

I have learned over many years working with creative people of all stripes that fonts matter. A lot. And I admit that there was a time that I argued that fonts do not matter. As long as I could reasonably read the words on the page, I could care less whether it was serif or sans, whether the kerning was appropriate or the weight was readable, or whatever. Believe it or not, there are still many people who spare barely a thought for fonts, but I am a convert to the religion of fonts. I witnessed fonts that produce a visceral reaction even before the reader gets to the content. Fonts matter because they reinforce the power of words contained within them. 

However, there’s more to the story, at least when it comes to a company like Tamman trying to build a more inclusive web. When accessibility is factored into the calculus, then we must consider not merely reinforcing the power or the strength of the words contained within that font, but the structures surrounding that choice as well. For our team, usability, readability, and accessibility were overpowering factors in our font choice.

Our Calculus

There were many reasons why we chose Verdana as our brand font and all of them touch on some aspect of usability, readability, and/or accessibility – which are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it was precisely the universality and ease of use that pushed us toward Verdana. 

Usability

Verdana, whether you like it or not, is an ever-present font found in any document package including Google, Apple, and Microsoft. No one needs to download a special package or convert any of our documents. This is huge. Asking a potential reader to convert the document, possibly losing some of the formatting or the content itself, or downloading some font they’ve never used before would be unacceptable. 

All too often, accessibility practitioners get caught up in the minutiae to forget the absolute importance of a good user experience. The fact that Verdana is everywhere and so compatible makes it more accessible. There are other fonts that fit this bill, but this was a very important factor for us.

Readability

This is closely related to kerning of course, but Verdana is a supremely unembellished font that has unique letters and numbers that focus the reader on the text without slowing them down. In one study published by the University of Michigan, Verdana scores extremely well on both the reading speed and the length of fixation for dyslexic readers. Additionally, Verdana was the preferred font of the study participants beating out such fonts as Arial and Times.

Accessibility

Let’s talk spacing (or kerning). Verdana’s kerning has been highlighted by dyslexia experts for its readability. As we all know when something is good for some it’s usually good for all too regardless of a disability. Verdana’s super power is that it keeps its spacing without crowding out or combining letters making it harder to read. And it can do this magically at various sizes! 

On Brand

Are people still printing and reading on paper? Just kidding, but Tamman is a digital company building accessible websites and apps. Using a font that was specifically designed in the digital age is bluntly stated, on brand for us. 

Focusing on the end users, ALL users, in our work is the paramount priority for us. It is irresponsible for us, and I would argue any company, not to choose a widely regarded font for accessibility. Having said that, accessible is not synonymous with boring. The trick is finding the creativity within the structures and that is what makes it fun. 

At the end of our conversation where we decided on our font, our expensive external branding team was, if not convinced entirely, more on board and excited for that challenge to work with Verdana. 

So, what say you, dear reader. Like with so many things in the digital accessibility world, there is room for discussion and debate. I know from hours of research that many articles have been written about fonts and even the strong feelings Verdana provokes. I for one welcome an ongoing conversation.

Let’s let the great font debate rage on!

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July 2021 Did you know that July was Disability Pride Month? Did you know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is 31 years old? Don’t feel bad if you were unaware, most people are sadly unaware of both.

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