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The population is rapidly aging and becoming a larger share of
the marketplace. Thirteen percent of the population is currently
over 65 years old. In 30 years that group will double to 66 million
people. People change as they age. Sensory, cognitive and motor
abilities decline. The built environment is not typically created
with the needs of the aging population in mind. How does the choice
of typeface in signage systems, for example, impact the older
viewer who is experiencing vision problems typical to that age
group? Are certain typefaces more suitable to the aging eye?
Human vision declines with advancing age. Although there are
neural losses, the major decline is due to changes in the eye's
optics. The pupil shrinks, allowing less light to enter the eye.
The pupil's response to dim light also decreases with age and
becomes virtually nil by age 80. The elderly have especially
significant vision problems in low light environments. These
pictures show how much aging changes the relative transmission of
light through the optic media for viewers of ages 20, 60 and
Human vision at age 20 (left), age 60 (middle) and age 75
The difference between normal focus and blurred vision.
The most common age-related vision change happens to almost
everyone, beginning between the ages of 40 and 50. The lens starts
to lose elasticity, resulting in a decreased ability to focus
vision, especially during reading. Loss of visual acuity can result
in blurred vision, which may worsen with age, as the eye weakens.
These pictures show the difference between normal focus and blurred
vision. The amount of loss of focus differs from person to person,
and can range from slight to severe.
The representations provided are as close to realistic as is
possible, given the limitations of available tools. Human
perception is, however, much more complex than can be represented
for our purposes. The examples showing loss of light, for instance,
are probably darker than what might actually be perceived, as the
brain makes adjustments as the eye ages. As well, corrective lenses
are commonly used to assist with loss of focus.
Central field loss and peripheral field loss are other problems
that can affect the eye, especially with individuals suffering from
diabetes or neurological conditions. People with central field loss
do not see what is directly in front of them, but do see an image
around the periphery. With peripheral field loss the opposite
occurs. The effect is much like looking through a tube or tunnel,
where only a central image is visible. It is also possible for
individuals to experience a combination of these vision
Representations of central field loss (left) and peripheral
field loss (right).
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) sets down body-width
to height and stroke-width to height ratios for the use of
appropriate typefaces in signage systems. These standards insure
that more uniform typefaces are used, and that overly thick or thin
stroke-widths, and overly condensed or expanded styles are not
used. While these standards are an excellent starting point, it may
be necessary to consider additional factors in regards to typeface
selection for the aging eye.
The following examples show typefaces that meet the ADA
requirements for use in signage systems. Each is shown as it would
be seen by a viewer with no vision problem compared with an example
of how it would be seen by a viewer experiencing a loss of light
Thin stroke areas make this typeface a less than optimal choice
for use with signage. Characters tend to break apart under low
The larger x-height and less thin stroke areas slightly improve
readability. The somewhat condensed proportion results in closed
counterforms under low vision conditions, such as in the “e” and
Simulated vision problems using Bodoni Book (left) and Times
The more consistent stroke width and wider proportion help
readability. Small counterforms in the “e” and “a” tend to close
under low vision conditions. The pronounced ascenders and
descenders remain visible.
The wider proportion helps the counterforms in the “e” and “a”
to close less. The more consistent stroke weight and larger
x-height improve readability in low vision conditions.
Simulated vision problems using Garamond Semibold (left) and
Century Schoolbook (right).
As in the previous example, the larger x-height, wider
proportion, and consistent stroke weight all improve readability in
low vision conditions. The less pronounced ascenders and descenders
tend to fall away, though the slab serifs make each character
slightly more distinct.
The simple, circular forms (such as in the single story “a”
single stroke “u”) seem to hold up well under low vision
conditions, as do the long ascenders and descenders. The short
crossbar of the “t” does fall away, however.
Simulated vision problems using Glypha Roman (left) and Futura
The larger x-height and wide proportions help readability under
low vision conditions. The shorter ascenders and descenders do not
hold up as well.
The slightly smaller x-height results in counterforms that close
a bit more than the previous example. The wider “r” and “t” hold up
Simulated vision problems using Helvetica Bold (left) and
Univers 65 (right).
As this face was originally created for use in an airport, it is
fitting that it functions well under low vision conditions. The
fairly wide proportion, open counterforms and slightly longer
ascenders and descenders all seem to improve readability.
The slightly condensed proportion results in closed counterforms
under low vision conditions, though the more pronounced “t” and
longer ascenders and descenders are positive attributes.
Simulated vision problems using Frutiger Bold (left) and Syntax
An analysis of the previous examples shows that the following
visual properties could be considered beneficial for typefaces that
might be viewed by older viewers:
American Printing House for the Blind's typeface APHont.
The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has developed a
typeface known as APHont, which was specifically designed to be
used by readers with vision problems. It incorporates: consistent
stroke widths; an under-slung “j” and “q”; open counterforms; and
larger punctuation marks. While APHont may not be an aesthetically
pleasing typeface, it does point to the opportunity for further
development of typefaces that accommodate the aging eye.
Even though many typefaces meet the requirements of the ADA,
they may not all function well with the aging eye. In general, sans
serif faces appear to be the most readable, due to their larger
x-heights and consistent stroke widths. Typographic designers must
undertake a more comprehensive study of this subject and develop
typefaces that work well with the common vision problems of the
aging population. It seems clear that there is an opportunity for
progress in this area of research.
Notice the forms shared by these similar characters.
Most well-designed typefaces have a unified appearance, as many
of the characters in a typical typeface share similar forms with
other characters. While this practice often produces a harmonious
product, it may result in some visually similar character forms
that do not perform well with the vision problems typical to the
aging eye. If new typefaces are created for older viewers, they
should probably include more visually distinct characters in
certain cases, while still maintaining a desired unity of form.
Signage designers might wish to simulate conditions similar to
those shown here to test typeface choices prior to specification
and final sign fabrication. Blurred and darkened effects can be
easily created in an image editing program such as Adobe Photoshop,
so digital models can be examined. As well, materials such as
smoked or frosted Plexiglas can be placed in front of
three-dimensional prototypes or installed signs to simulate the
effects of the aging eye.
We know that for signage to function well that it must display
useful information, be placed at an accessible point in the space
and at a proper viewing height, and be adequately illuminated. Text
must be the proper size for readability from desired distances, and
must contrast clearly against the background. The demands of the
aging eye, however, require typefaces that function well under low
vision conditions. Both type designers and signage designers need
to be aware of the issues surrounding common vision problems of the
aging population, so that the needs of this group might be better
addressed in the future.
American Printing House for the Blind. APHont: a Font for
Peter Barker and June Fraser. Sign Design Guide: A Guide to
Inclusive Signage. JMU and the Sign Design Society, London and
Harpenden, UK, 2000.
Rob Carter, Ben Day and Philip Meggs. Typographic Design:
Form and Communication, Third Edition. John Wiley & Sons,
New York, 2003.
Royal National Institute of the Blind (UK). Tiresias: International Information
on Visual Disability
Society of Environmental Graphic Design (US).
SEGD Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) White Paper
(link goes directly to PDF).
Matteo Bologna, emcee of Command X: Season 4, a design reality show featuring seven up-and-coming designers competing for the title of America’s next top designer, introduces the contestants.
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