Before I lost my sight, the usable low vision I had allowed me to fall in love with typography, design and the Apple aesthetic which I'd describe as clean and simple. I’ve kept this design philosophy throughout my life and have continued to edit and design my documents so they match this aesthetic.
These skills may take some time to master, but are worth the investment especially if you work in an organization that values design. Your documents will not only look better, but you will communicate that you are a student or businessperson who knows how to use your assistive technology well.
This guide is for VoiceOver users on Mac running the powerful Pages word processor, particularly those of us with no usable vision. Your mileage may vary with the iOS version of Pages on an iPad. I’ll assume you know how to use VO keys, interact and move about. This guide is geared towards users who may not know what their text looks like to a sighted reader and how to achieve some decent visual results for a little extra effort.
Typefaces and Fonts
The terms typeface and font are used interchangeably, but mean different things. A typeface is the visual styling of characters. An R in one typeface can appear different than an R in another. One may have a thicker vertical stroke on the left of the R, another may appear more like a painted character and be more decorative. A font (or fount) is a fountain of characters belonging to a single typeface. This includes upper and lower case letters, numerals, punctuation and special symbols such as ©, ®, ≈ and so on. Your Mac has tons of fonts stored in font files that you can use in apps like Pages, Keynote, Numbers and TextEdit.
Typefaces come in three basic styles. Serif typefaces appear to have a curly tip at the end of the strokes on characters and can appear very ornate, fancy or old-fashioned.. Typefaces like Baskerville, Times, Palatino, Century Schoolbook and Garamond have these decorative elements and are generally what one would see in a newspaper such as the New York Times or a well typeset novel from a major publisher.
Sans-serif typefaces have no decorative elements at the end of their strokes and are much easier for people with limited sight to read. The result is a look that is clean, modern and simple. Typefaces like Helvetica, Geneva, Century Gothic and Arial are sans-serif typefaces. Pages uses Helvetica as its default font.
Script typefaces appear hand-written as the strokes of the characters are connected to each other. Script typefaces produce an organic, fancy or rustic look. These fonts will usually have the word "script" in their names. Some script fonts can appear small on screen or on paper and are often difficult for even those with no sight loss to read.
Font StylesCharacters within a font can be styled differently, but appear to be from the same family.
- Bold adds extra weight or thickness to the strokes in each character. This is the difference between writing your name with a pen (regular) versus a tube of lipstick (ultra bold). Some fonts allow for variations between thicknesses.
- Italics slants letters in such a way that vertical strokes now appear as if they’re going from the lower left to upper right. This effect is subtle. Instead of an I looking like a minute hand at 12 o'clock, it appears more like a minute hand at 3 past the hour.
- Underlining places a horizontal line under the letters so words, spaces and punctuations have a single line beneath the letters. This effect is rarely used in modern publishing as it has an old school “typewriter” look which is dated. Underlining is also used for links on the web and can appear as such in a digital document, causing confusion.
- Strike Through is like underline, but instead of a horizontal line underneath the letters, the line goes through the centre of each letter. This is a good way to mark material for deletion or indicate the copy is to be omitted.
- Baseline refers to where each letter sits on a line. Imagine your words sitting on an invisible ruler—this is the baseline. Superscript moves the imaginary ruler above the baseline and is useful for typing formulas such as E = MC2, where the 2 indicates C should be squared. Subscript moves the invisible ruler below the baseline and is used often in chemical formulas such as H2O. The 2 is subscript indicating 2 hydrogen atoms in water.
Font heights are delineated in points. there are 72 points to one inch. A 12 point font will take up 1/6 of 1 inch, however 6 lines of 12 point font will be more than an inch in height because of the white space between lines. For readability, a sans-serif font between 11 and 15 points is very legible for body text and for someone with normal sight. 16 points and higher are reserved for headings and titles, but each font appears differently so these values vary. If you were printing a large print document, you might start at 14 points for the body and go up to 22 points for titles and headings.
This is sometimes called leading (rhymes with bedding). This refers to the white space between the bottom of one line of text and the top of the next line of letters. For spacing, values between 1.2 and 1.5 are easy on the eye for someone reading a document. 2 lines of spacing is used if you are submitting work to an editor or a class and need someone to write comments in with a pen. Leading can also be indicated as a percentage of the font size. For example, a 10 point font with 120% spacing will have 12 points between lines of text. I've found that 1.2 to 1.3 works for spacing body text with 1.5 lines being a little too much, but still visually appealing. The default in Pages is 1 line which can appear crowded depending on which font is being used.
- Left aligned: Imagine lining up the left side of each line of text with an invisible ruler. The right side of the text will appear ragged as each line will end in a different spot.
- Centre aligned: Words will appear at the centre of the document. This is typically done for titles. For multiple lines, the ends of the text won't line up as everything is equally spaced from the centre.
- Right aligned: Same as the left example above, but the text is now lined up with the right side of the document. The ragged look appears on the left side of the document.
- Fully justified: Both sides of the document are lined up with the imaginary ruler so there are no ragged edges on either side. This looks very neat, especially when hyphenation is used so words break with a hyphen at the end of a line and continue on the next. This gives your document the appearance of a nicely typeset book or newspaper if using columns.
How to Format
Formatting in Pages is easy. Start with formatting by style. Styles are presets that set font, spacing, colour and alignment all at once.
- in the body of your document, highlight the text you wish to format.
- VO-J to the Formatter.
- Activate the Styles table and select the appropriate style such as title, heading, quote, caption, etc.
- VO-J back to the body and VO-right to enter the body area so you don’t have to interact.
If you want to repeat a style, you can copy and paste just the formatting.
- Highlight the text you want to copy the style of.
- Press command-option-c.
- Move to the new text and highlight it.
- Press command-option-v
This works great for headings, lists or any other style you want to repeat without having to make repeated trips to the formatter.
An even more efficient way of formatting is by updating styles. For example, a proposal with a title, several headings, body text and several lists may be 20 or 30 pages long. It’s not practical to highlight each paragraph and repeat the style over and over. Instead, update the style.
- Move the insertion point to the style you want to update. We’ll use Heading as the example.
- VO-j back to the formatter.
- Interact with the text formatter and adjust the font the way you want it to appear. Change the font, make it bold, make the size bigger, adjust the spacing, etc.
- Stop interacting with the Text Formatter. VO-left inside the Formatter until you find the Update button. Activate it.
- Return to the body of your document.
You've just changed every heading in your document without having to highlight each one and pasting the style.
You can inspect the formatting in your document by moving the insertion point to the text you want to inspect and pressing VO-T.
For Best Results…Here are some tips I learned from desktop publishing.
- Format last! I can’t stress this enough. Write. Correct. Edit. Then, and only then, start manipulating fonts and the design of your document. Adding or removing copy afterward can mess up the nice formatting job you’ve done by moving text into awkward places.
- Correctly mark up your document with Heading, title, Subtitle, Body and so on. this not only gives you a place to start with visual formatting, this makes your document accessible with VoiceOver and other screen-readers when exporting to PDF or ePub formats.
- Avoid underlining text. Instead, use bold for things like key terms or headings and italics for explanatory text, etc.
- Stick to two fonts max per document. Typically, a serif font is used for headings and titles, such as Garamond; sans-serif text is used for body text, but this is not a hard and fast rule. Going beyond 2 fonts can make things appear a bit amateur and readers can be visually distracted unless the use of a font is motivated by the copy being presented.
- Single space after periods, always. Adding a double space can make the document appear as if there are rivers of white space in the text. Visually, this looks like a snaking pattern of white among the black text.
- Avoid widows and orphans. This refers to a line of text that appears all by itself at the bottom of a page while the rest of the paragraph appears on the next page. The reverse can happen where the last line of a paragraph appears at the top of a page, but the rest of the paragraph is on the previous page. Instead of using the return key to make these adjustments, use the More tab in the Text formatter and use the Keep with Next and Paragraph Starts on a New Page check boxes. This is very accessible and easy to do with VoiceOver.
It's always a good idea to get some visual feedback on your document's layout and design. In a future guide, I'll detail how to customize styles, set up keyboard shortcuts for styles and add some polish to your pages documents so they look as professional as possible.