They’re inevitable once you reach a “certain age,” which is somewhere around 40.
Since the vast majority of your donors are even older, you can be sure they have presbyopia. Which is to say, they wear bifocals.
As a member of the presbyopic community, I have a proclamation:
Life is too short to spend a lot of time trying to read something that may or may not be of any value or interest.
As I emphasize again and again in my book, The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, it doesn’t matter how great a piece looks if it’s hard to read.
Some of what I’m about to say will displease graphic artists. They’ll say design communicates emotions in intangible ways the written word can’t. They’ll point out that the way something looks and feels is its most fundamental level of communication. They’ll say design sets the stage for copy, and that good design can have a donor halfway to yes before she’s read a single word.
I completely agree. Good design does all that, and more.
But when design makes copy less readable while trying to accomplish its goals, it’s just bad design, no matter how great it looks.
Any artist who claims you sometimes have to sacrifice readability to get the right “look” is a ball and chain on your fundraising.
Here, I’m going to focus on one area of design—type. There’s a lot more to design than type, but it’s the area where bad design most often emerges.
The following type treatments should never be part of your fundraising materials:
Sans-serif fonts (like Arial) are much harder to read than serif fonts like Times and Minion. In fact, studies have shown that sans-serif fonts steeply degrade readers’ comprehension. They understand and remember less of what they read when it’s set in a sans-serif font.
Set your fundraising message in a serif font, and more people will read, comprehend, and retain it. And that means they’ll respond more. The tests are clear about this.
Type that’s not black
Any color other than black for text is meaningfully harder to read.
Gray type is especially popular with designers, who will tell you black type looks “harsh” or “dark.” Despite what they say, black is really the only color you should be using.
You can get away with colors for headlines. But even here, make sure they’re dark colors that contrast strongly against their backgrounds.
Type over a tint
Type over any color other than white is harder to read. The principle here is that maximum contrast between type and its background is the most readable. The further you stray from black type on a white background, the harder the copy is to read. If you must use a tinted background, keep it at 5 percent or less, and it’ll still be readable.
Reverse type (white or light type over a dark background) is one of the worst readability-killers of all. It’s even worse when it’s over an image.
Unfortunately, reverse type is much loved by designers because it allows for striking designs, but it can crush fundraising revenue. That’s a trade-off you might have a hard time defending.
If you put copy in reverse, assume it won’t get read.
Sometimes I wish 12-point type were the smallest possible font size. Because when you drop below 12, you start leaving readers behind.
Most newspapers and books are set at around 10-point, so in making 12-point a minimum, I’m asking you to do above-and-beyond design for readability. Remember the bifocals?
If you really hope donors will read something, don’t make it smaller. If you want to edge up about 12-point, better yet.
Designers will sometimes shrink the copy to make it fit in the space they have. That’s usually the wrong solution to the problem. The right solution: edit the copy to make it fit at 12-point.
I remember reading about an experiment where college students were asked to wear shoes with weights, pants that made it hard to walk, and glasses that blurred their vision. The idea was to see if these young people’s attitudes toward the elderly changed after they got a taste of what it’s like to be old.
The kids were transformed. They saw the elderly as “real people.” They were far more sympathetic. At least for a while.
I’d like to give some of those vision-blurring glasses to all fundraisers under the age of 40. I’m pretty sure that would bring about some much-needed change in design.
Jeff Brooks is author of The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, from which this article is adapted. His other book is How to Turn Your Words into Money.