Money & Policy

The Maddening Tiny Print on Products

Type is often so small on labels and packages, it can be dangerous to your health

Have you ever confused conditioner for shampoo — or, when traveling, used that tiny bottle of body lotion for conditioner because the print was too small to read? Or have you ever taken the wrong medicine because you couldn’t read the prescription bottle, as recently happened to a friend of mine?
There’s no doubt about it: Aging is not kind to our eyes. Nor, I believe, are product manufacturers.
In their eagerness to create new and fancy products, they often overlook the optical needs of older consumers. Sometimes that oversight is just a small daily annoyance. But as in case of my friend, it can also have potentially dangerous consequences.

Which leads me to ask two basic questions: Why aren’t manufacturers more actively courting us with more legible products? And until they do, what can we, legibility-challenged consumers, do about the fine print of everyday life?

Alas, the first question seems easier to answer than the second.
Ask a graphic designer why the print on so many products is so small, and the answer is: the young designers themselves. As Gregg Davis, president of the Columbus, Ohio innovation consulting firm Design Central, told me: “Young designers want to reinvent the world, but they have none of the encumbrances of eyesight challenges. So it’s very difficult for them to imagine why fine print should be an issue.”
Designers also say government regulations and lawyers have helped turn boxes, bottles, and instruction manuals into a fine-print tour de force by demanding so much information that the print must be small to accommodate it. Otherwise, the packaging and manuals would be too big and costly.
As a result, in some manuals – think of your iPhone or iPad – the font is so small it measures one-sixteenth of an inch, or “a smidge taller than the thickness of a single dime,” according to a recent SmartMoney story: Attack of the Fine Print.
One other explanation: the increasingly global marketplace. Says Marianne Grisdale, creative manager of the Chicago based TEAMS Design USA:  “A lot of companies are trying to go global and that means trying to fit text in several languages into one document or one bottle to meet each country’s regulations.”
So what should you do to combat product print problems? Speak up, for one thing.
“Consumers should write to companies, tell them why they are no longer buying a product,” says Sharon Joines, assistant professor of industrial design at North Carolina State University. Until consumers do this, companies will not take the readability problem seriously. “It takes only one or two companies to consistently do the job better for people to migrate to those products and see a shift in the marketplace,” adds Joines.
A handful of companies are slowly moving in the right direction.
Target, for example, is often praised for its redesigned prescription bottles. Their flat surfaces and big print make them easier to read and different colors on the labels help family members differentiate their own medicines.
Design and legibility experts say technology offers hope. 
“Technology is way ahead of the print world,” says Dorrie Rush, Marketing Director, Accessible Technology for Lighthouse International, a nonprofit fighting vision loss. “On almost every major mobile device on the market today, you can adjust the print, the font size, the boldness and the contrast. In some cases,  you can turn on speech if you can’t read it.”

That’s some consolation, but not a lot, considering Target introduced its new pill bottle in 2005 and there hasn’t been a stampede to follow.

Clearly, we need to speak with louder and firmer voices. Let’s remind companies that the eyes have it!

Have your own stories about maddening fine print? Email them to me at [email protected] and I may write a follow-up blog about them.

Caroline Mayer
By Caroline Mayer
Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer@consumermayer

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