According to a constellation of experts in vision, typography, printing, and consumer psychology, there are plenty of reasons -- some fairly obvious, and others surprising -- why we might avoid fine print. Here are a few:
It causes eye strain (duh).
From the ophthalmological perspective, it's no surprise that reading small print places steep demands on the eyes, kicking their focusing mechanisms into overdrive and testing their endurance. James Sheedy, director of the Vision Performance Institute of Pacific University,studied the effects of small print and other eye stressors on subjects until they found it "barely tolerable." The results? Picayune print caused participants more discomfort than heavy doses of both glare and flickering light. Indeed, any font smaller than 6 points in size is tough for most people to decipher, says Chris Chase, professor of optometry at Western University of Health Sciences. "Fine print on a contract is probably the worst-case scenario for people," he says. "Man, you're screwed."
Dude, where's my white space?
Puny point size and scrunched-up spacing are just the start when it comes to so-called "mouse type." Other fine-print sins include pale, tone-on-tone printing, placing type against a busy patterned background, or running text coast-to-coast across the page, without breaking it into columns. The latter forces readers' eyes to work extra hard to stay focused, defying basic graphic-design rules of readability, says Alex W. White, author of The Elements of Graphic Design, who says that 50 characters per ine is the outside limit. "It's the visual equivalent of radio static, a drone that goes on and on," he says.
Maybe it's the wrong font choice.
Of course, there are small-print fonts specifically designed to be maximally legible for space-constrained documents, like stock tables or phone books, which are often printed on cheaper, more porous paper stock. Designers scoop out the "armpits" of letters like the lower-case n, w, v and m to keep ink from clogging there, says Bill Davis, marketing manager for Monotype Imaging, a company that licenses a whole line of mouse type-friendly fonts. Legibility problems, he says, often boil down to bad font selection.
They cheaped out.
According to the folks who actually put ink to paper -- the shrinking legion of printers -- a lot of what drives unreadable bricks of text is simple: dollars and cents. Guy Stanzione, who for decades oversaw production of thousands of fund and annuity prospectuses for Merrill, a national legal and financial printing firm, says he sees more fund companies striving to save bucks on paper and mail-related costs. Their strategy? Printing smaller, digest-sized documents (5-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches), often shoehorning more of the required disclosures -- about a fund's portfolio allocations, market performance and risk factors -- into less and less real estate. "We have clients who feel that white space is an unnecessary evil," he says.
Screen fonts have their own requirements.
Problems can arise when a company chooses a screen font as much for corporate branding as for legibility, says Steve Matteson, a veteran type designer who has developed fonts for devices ranging from the Android phone to the xBox 360. Several big-name smart phones on the market today use the Helvetica font, which Matteson says is poorly suited for legibility at a glance in smaller sizes. The capital "I" and lower-case "l" have the same shape, he says, and numbers like 3, 6, 8 and 9 can be tough to distinguish from each other.
They hired a professional fine-print fast-talker.
It's not just the print delivery of disclaimers that are tough to take in. We've all heard it in TV and radio ads: the rapid reading of required legalese in ads for, say, car sales or allergy drugs. Voiceover artists who specialize in motormouthing the disclaimers say they're often instructed to keep their tone steady -- and happily upbeat -- during their recital of scary side effects like "may cause paralysis or death."
They'll tell you it's all okay -- so just sign already.
Experts say that sales folk trying to get us to sign on the bottom line often exploit common social and psychological behaviors to distract from a contract's less-than-favorable terms. According to Jessica Choplin, a DePaul University professor who explores contract psychology and consumer fraud, research shows that people like to confirm things they've heard, so talking about an agreement's benefits incentivizes the signer to skim only until they've found confirmation of what's been said. And, Choplin discovered, consumers also frequently display an "optimism bias," meaning they're predisposed to trust a salesperson's positive spiel -- even when the explanation sounds nonsensical and contradicts terms printed in 16-point bold red type at the front of the contract. All a salesperson has to do, she says, is be friendly and reassuring: "Oh don't worry about that term; that's just the way the contract was drafted." Famous last words.