Readability Guidelines: A global content style guide project

From 2018 to 2020, Content Design London (CDL) led a global effort to create an open, universal, inclusive style guide for the content community.

At the time, our founder, Sarah Winters observed:

“I see many content designers spending their time talking – arguing – about points of style when often accessibility and usability show what we should do.

What if there was one place where we, as a community, shared knowledge and created a style guide that was accessible, usable and – if we wanted – evidenced? We could then spend time on the things that matter more to our organisations.”

The term “style guide” meant different things to different people. Thanks to a suggestion from Karl Turner on LinkedIn, the title “readability guidelines” was born.

The Readability Guidelines is a project from CDL, involving the content community from around the world.

Running a collaborative, global project

One of the challenges we faced was how to run a collaborative project on a global scale.

The Readability project had regular in-person meetings in London. But finding ways to collaborate worldwide was still pretty new to us in 2018.

“If you are not in London but would like to be part of the meetup, we’re going to look at ways you can join in online. It might not be slick but we’ll make it work. Details will follow.”

Sarah gave an open invitation to the content community to work together on the guidelines. Contributors joined a Slack channel. After 2 weeks, 153 people had joined. After 8 weeks, there were 259. By the end of the project, 410 people in 17 time zones joined the Slack workspace.

Collaborators were based around the world, including:

  • New Zealand,
  • Indonesia,
  • Canada,
  • USA,
  • Spain,
  • Ireland,
  • Scotland,
  • England.

To run this project to its full potential, we asked regular contributors to lead on sections of work and support community conversations.

Everyone began to develop ways of working together. Through the Slack community they:

  • shared style guides,
  • collected evidence from around the world,
  • uploaded links to research,
  • had lots of discussions about evidence, how we use it and why we need it.

Setting up the Alpha

In content design, we use agile ways of working. This kind of approach includes going through a process with the following stages: alpha, beta and live.

An alpha is like a pilot project. It is a way of seeing if:

  • you want to do something,
  • it’s going to work,
  • there’s value in doing it.

The best way to enter an alpha is with an open mind of “what am I going to learn?”, not “what am I going to achieve?”

So we chose to focus on learning the following things:

  • Is it worth the time and effort?
  • Is it only worth it if each element has evidence attached?
  • Will people contribute? How will it work?
  • How will that work with our busy lives?
  • Is it sustainable?

Alpha ran for 8 weeks. And we learned that the answer to most of those questions was “yes”. We could see the value in producing a resource like this, straight away. People were passionate about having a place where they could share their experience and bring the discipline forward.

Taking it to Beta

Our 10-week Beta period built on the Alpha and expanded the research topics.

Alpha had shown that time was a problem for contributors. To support contributors, Lizzie Bruce (a contractor working with CDL at the time), joined the project.

Through the 10 weeks, contributors focused on areas like:

  • fonts,
  • abbreviations,
  • acronyms,
  • ampersands,
  • links,
  • dyslexia,
  • hyphens.

Contributors shared research, knowledge and experience and topics began to come together.

Publishing the guidelines

Another challenge we faced was how to make sure people could benefit from the guidelines.

We may be digital professionals who spend a lot of time online, but we still like analogue too. The research was organised into both book and wiki formats to make it simple and accessible.

A wiki format meant that we could continue to update the guidelines as we gathered evidence and learned more.

The result

The Readability Guidelines project concluded in 2020. Copies of the book went around the world, and the wiki remains available for anyone who wants to use it. 30,000 people used the Guidelines in 2021.

In 2020 the project won an Impact Award, recognising the project's work on accessibility.

The Readability Guidelines are open for anyone who wants to make style decisions based on evidence and data.

Organisations around the world continue to use the guidelines in their work, including:

  • Action on Hearing Loss,
  • BBC,
  • Cake Consultancy Ltd,
  • Co-op,
  • Digital Transformation Agency: Australian Government,
  • Empathy,
  • Fundbox,
  • HeX Productions,
  • MPAD,
  • NHS Scotland Careers,
  • Ontario Digital Service,
  • Parkinsons UK,
  • Scope,
  • Sebacic Ltd,
  • StrayGoat Writing Services,
  • Weave Digital,
  • York St John University.

To add your organisation to the list:

A lot of thanks and gratitude

As Sarah wrote:

“We’d like to thank all of our contributors from that first alpha discussion to the moment we typed the last full stop. There’s too many to fit in but we really want to say:

THANK YOU.

Without you, there would not be a Readability Guidelines project.”

Special thanks

To the project’s lead, Lizzie Bruce, who managed the project that was the Readability Guidelines.

Also, to our contributors:

  • Karin Tang,
  • Grace Hughes,
  • Rachel Johnston,
  • Megan Lane,
  • Emily Scard,
  • Dan Deamer.

Thanks to Rich Higgins for building and maintaining the Wiki, and to Dave Brayford for designing the book.

And many thanks for the support of:

  • Jack Garfinkel,
  • Alan Maddrell,
  • Ginny Reddish,
  • Alistair Duggin,
  • Andy Ronksley.

Finally, thanks to the many people who contributed to the guidelines - too many to mention but all important.

“This book is dedicated to our amazing contributors on the Readability Guidelines project. Thank you so much for helping us make our industry and its digital products more accessible to all.” - Sarah Winters

Watch Sarah Winters and Lizzie Bruce discuss the project