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Paying Attention to Fine Print


Do you fall into the category of not reading the fine print? Think about the number of times you clicked "I accept" when terms and conditions appear when downloading software to your computer without reading the information.

Reading fine print

Do you fall into the category of not reading the fine print? Think about the number of times you clicked “I accept” when terms and conditions appear when downloading software to your computer; probably very few of you will sit and read the information. Why?

There was a great article by Missy Sulivan posted to SmartMoney.com outlining seven reasons as to why people tend to avoid reading the fine print on various labels, contracts, etc. The text is so small and long that it’s not even worth the hassle. In fact, a recent study found that “61% of consumers reported that they didn’t read all the terms of contracts before agreeing to them.” New York-based attorney James Denlea said, “Laid edge to edge, they’re impossible to stay on top of. It would be a full-time job.”

Experts in vision, typography, printing, and consumer psychology shared some of the reasons as to why people avoid reading fine print:

1. Eye strain

Some people have enough trouble reading in general, but to have important information in 8 point Times New Roman font makes it even more difficult. Upon evaluating the results from a study conducted by the Vision Performance Institute of Pacific University, “Picayune print caused participants more discomfort than heavy doses of both glare and flickering light.” Chris Chase, professor of optometry at Western University of Health Sciences says, “Fine print on a contract is probably the worst-case scenario for people… Man, you’re screwed.”

2. No white space

How much white space do you see on this article page? Now think about the amount of white space on a contract or prescription drug label. What do you get? Almost no white space. Plus, some fine print items do not even have line breaks; the text goes on and on. This type of text “forces readers’ eyes to work extra hard to stay focused, defying basic graphic-design rules of readability,” said Alex W. White, author of The Elements of Graphic Design. “It’s the visual equivalent of radio static, a drone that goes on and on.”

3. Wrong font choice

Phone books and stock tables are designed using small font “to be maximally legible for space-constrained documents.” Bill Davis, marketing manager for Monotype Imagine which licenses mouse type-friendly fonts says, “Legibility problems often boil down to band font selection.”

4. Costs too much

With the increase in sending direct mail pieces through email, printing on paper is costing companies more money. Guy Stanzione, worked for the legal and financial printing firm Merrill, said that “he sees more fund companies striving to save bucks on paper and mail-related costs,” and do so by using smaller font on smaller paper. Stanzione says, “We have clients who feel that white space is an unnecessary evil.”

5. Screen fonts are different

There is a difference between how text appears when reading on a computer screen or mobile device versus reading on paper, which can lead to a number of problems. Steve Matteson, veteran type designer, said that problem arise when “a company chooses a screen font as much for corporate branding as for legibility.” There are certain fonts like Helvetica and Calibri that when viewing on a screen, it is hard to determine the difference between a capital “I” and lower-case “l.” This is especially true when reading PDFs on a computer.

6. Hire a professional fast-talker

Print disclaimers are not the only things people tune out; TV disclaimers are just as hard to pay attention to. When a commercial promoting a pharmaceutical drug is ending, there is a professional who speaks about the adverse events very quickly that sometimes it is hard to pick out. It has to make people question as to why this is done: Is it because they do not have enough time to say it slowly? or Are they trying to hide something?

7. Just sign the document

Have you ever signed a contract after a salesperson tells you that certain language is standard in any contract associated with buying a car or house? Next time, make sure you spend the time to read the information no matter how hard it might be to actually see the text. “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.”

Apple’s iBooks Author’s Fine Print

Days after this article was posted on SmartMoney.com, information about the free book-creation tool, iBooks Author developed by Apple was released. It appears that the iBooks Author’s fine print states that people are not allowed to sell any books they create outside Apple’s store. This essentially says that “Apple has indirect ownership of your iBooks” and would “ensure that Apple received its 30 percent of the cut for every e-book title made with iBooks Author.” Situations like this must make people wonder what they might have agreed to avoid reading the fine print.

We're interested in learning if you avoid reading the fine print on contracts outlining terms and conditions. If you do, why?

Read the full article on SmartMoney.com written by Missy Sulivan.

Other online resources

Attack of the Fine Print

New Airfare Rules Remove Fine Print

Fine Print


Sulivan, M. (January 17, 2012). 7 Reasons Why We Tune Out Tiny Type. SmartMoney.com.

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