Content Design London

Readability guidelines

Published 18 July 2018, by Sarah Winters in Content Process Reading Research Usability.

A couple of conversations on Twitter and LinkedIn led me to wonder if a universal style guide would be a good idea.

Not brand or tone of voice just the mechanics of the language that are usually in style guides. So how to write a date or numerals vs numbers.

But the term ‘style guide’ seems to mean different things to different people. So for now, and thanks to the suggestion from Karl Turner on LinkedIn, we’ve gone with the title ‘readability guidelines’.

Current guidelines

When I was at GDS, I had the GOV.UK style guide academically researched and we had regular lab research, so we (at Content Design London) usually default to that guide as a starting point. Many will use the Economist or Guardian guides or the many others that are out there.

But I see many content designers spending 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.

We found enough people who were open to the idea, so let’s try a short alpha.

What an alpha is

An alpha is like a pilot project. It is a way of seeing if you want to do something. If it is going to work. If it has value. If you do an alpha, decide it’s not worth it, screw it up and throw it away. That’s ok. That’s not failure. That’s the point. You have seen that it’s not worth spending any more time and money on 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 let’s give it a go. I’d like to learn:

  • is it worth it?
  • is it only worth it if each element has evidence attached?
  • what constitutes evidence (what do people actually trust)?
  • will people contribute? Over what sort of time, in patterns? Ad-hoc? How will that work with our busy lives?
  • is it sustainable?

What do you want to learn?

What an alpha isn’t.

The be all and end all. The shiny thing. Something that is one step away from being finished.

How this is going to work

This is an open, community project.

So the wiki is here:

Slack channel to talk about it all is here:

Use this code to join the slack channel:…

First-time user information for Wikidot:

Wikidot user guide:

There are only 2 pages on there at the moment:

  1., and

I’ve put the numbers page in just to give a single example to get it going. This is a community project so we need to decide how it looks, works, what it contains, the lot.


There are only 2 rules to this.

  1. Let’s keep it to British English right now. I would love to see if this would work on a global scale but start small. 🙂
  2. Respect. We are likely to disagree with each other. That is ok. To be condescending, rude or aggressive is not. The content community is usually a really lovely, supportive place. If you don’t entirely agree but want to be involved from a professional, open-minded place of curiosity – you are welcome! We need realism in this. Alphas are not about people standing around patting each other on the back. But if you think each organisation has to create a style guide from scratch every time because it is ‘creative’ etc, this isn’t for you. After you have said ‘this won’t work’ once you’ll be repeating yourself. That’s not useful for anyone.

We are learning from each other. Let’s keep it like that.

Meetup in October

We’ll try it for 12 weeks. This will give us enough time to see if it’s sustainable.

Then we’d like to invite contributors to a meetup in Waterloo, London for a chat about what happened and if we want to take it further. If we don’t, we’ll have made some new connections and have learned something new. Either way, we win.

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.

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