8 Tips for Improving Readability and Legibility in Handouts

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How can you make your handouts easier for readers and students to understand? (In other words, improve both readability and legibility) Are there some simple tips I can use to make my handouts more effective? The answer is yes! In this article, we will look at 8 tips to improve readability to keep your readers interested throughout.

Choosing a Legible Font

Tip #1: Fonts with a tall x-height are easier to read.

The x-height is how tall the lowercase letter ‘x’ is in a typeface. Having a large x-height allows the typeface’s characters to have more white space. More white space improves the legibility at all sizes. Some fonts with a tall x-height include Helvetica, Baskerville, ITC Avant Garde, Futura and Bodini.

In this photo, you can see Helvetica’s tall x-height (left) compared to Adobe Garamond with a much smaller x-height (right). Notice also how both fonts are set to 50 pt. size, but appear to be perceptually different sizes.

Tip #2: Simple Letterforms are More Readable.

In essence, avoid using any “fancy” fonts no matter how stylish you think they are. Some fonts you should avoid include Comic Sans, Herculanum, Bauhaus and Chalkboard. Sometimes you will see fancy fonts (referring to Script, Blackletter and Decorative Typefaces) in headers, but for professional handouts, I recommend you avoid them at all costs.

The image shows Herculanum and Calibri at 20 points side by side. As I hope you agree, Herculanum is much harder to process because of the atypical structure of each character. This typeface also only has uppercase letters, which also makes it hard to read.

Creating Readable Text

Tip #3: Avoid Using All Caps

Since 95% of letters in Latin-based languages are written in undercase letters (Haley, n.d.), deciphering uppercase letters is much more difficult. Because of this, readability is drastically reduced.

This is an image that compares Calibri in all uppercase letters against all lowercase letters. While caps can be ok to use in a header, you should avoid capitals in paragraph text.

Tip #4: Choosing the Point Size

In general, your body text should be about 9-12 points; the taller the x-height, the smaller size you need to set your typeface. If you look back at the example for tip #1, you will see Helvetica and Garamond next to each other. Helvetica is much bigger than Garamond because of the x-height height. If these typefaces were used in a body text, I would probably set Helvetica to 9-11 points, while Garamond would be at 10-12 points. To a certain extent, the larger the body text, the more legible each character is; however, setting text too large can affect the readability (deciphering words and phrases).

Tip #5: Choosing the Alignment

In Latin-based languages, we read left to right. Because of this, left alignment is usually preferred over centered or right alignment, especially in handouts. You can also use justified text, which can create an organic text box for your paragraphs. If you decide to use justified text, you will want to watch out for large gaps between words. Large gaps can create rivers, which greatly affects readability of the text. Most justified text will need fine tuning to make sure that it looks presentable. Personally, I think it’s worth the work, but I would avoid using justified text until you feel comfortable with the basics of formatting handouts.

See the example below of a paragraph that is left aligned, justified left flush. This image was taken from the Fontology’s article entitled Justified Type (Strizver, n.d.).

Tip #6 Line Length

With line length, you don’t want to have your lines too long or too short. In general, your lines should have 7-10 words. Line lengths that are too short distract the reader and require a lot of unneeded eye movements. Long line lengths can fatigue the readers’ eyes and create rivers between each line. If you need to use long lines, make sure you add leading (space between lines).

For leading, you want more space between lines if your text…

  • has long lines (14+ words).
  • uses a typeface with large x-height.

You want less space between lines if your text…

  • has short lines (8 words or less).
  • uses a typeface that has a small x-height.
  • uses a light typeface.

Tip #7: Color Contrast

Most word processing applications use a default background of pure white (#FFFFFF) and text at pure black (#000000). This is the largest contrast you can have between black and white. Research has shown that while this strong contrast helps with readability, it can cause eye strain on the computer screen if the reader is looking at text for a long time (Anthony, 2011). It is generally recommended that you set black to about 80% and white to about 20%. This is still a large contrast but it’s not so stark. There are no hard set rules about the contrast between black and white on the screen, but while contrast is very important for clear legibility and readability, too much contrast can strain your eyes after a long time of reading.

Tip #8 Be Creative with Design

Not all handouts need text to be the entire width of the page; be creative with your line lengths, the spacing and value of headers, location of certain elements. You can even put some text on the side of the handouts to help create an intriguing visual hierarchy.

See my example of a redesign from a handout assignment in an art history class. Use it as an example of how to take text and reformat it to create a clear visual hierarchy.

Original Handout

Redesigned Handout

To sum up, using these simple tips in your design of handouts will help make your words easier to read but will make your audience more interested in what you want to say.

Works Cited:

Anthony (2011­–01–23). “6 Surprising Bad Practices That Hurt Dyslexic Users”. UX Movement. Retrieved 25 January 2015.

Strizver, Ilene (n.d.). “Justified Type”. Fontology on www.fonts.com. Retrieved 25 January 2015.

Haley, Allan (n.d.). “Fonts, Typography & Type: x-Height”. Fontology on www.fonts.com. Retrieved 25 January 2015.


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