Applying Accessible Styles to Text

Using text styles such as bolding, italics, underlining, and others may be desired for various reasons and the key is to use them purposefully. We will explore the best ways that you can use these features for your audience.

Empathizing with Users

As noted previously, dyslexia affects between 5% and 10% of the population and the majority of older adults experience increased vision issues(Patel & West, 2007; Siegel, 2006).

Defining the Problem

Selecting an appropriate font is not the only consideration when designing accessible content. When building text-based content, there are common style features that are commonly used for a variety of reasons.

The Adobe Blog (2017) lists five issues that can impact a user’s experience when accessing text as follows:

  • Familiarity, or the user’s expectations of what a style indicates
  • Visual cues, or indicators that can easily be recognized
  • Accessibility, or the opportunity to provide multiple methods of signaling importance
  • Aesthetics, or the visual appeal of the design, and
  • Readability, or how easily a user can read a comprehend the text.

Design choices may result in positive or negative effects in any of these areas. Using text styles such as bolding, italics, underlining, and others may be desired for various reasons and the key is to use them purposefully. We will explore the best ways that you can use these features for your audience.


According to the British Dyslexia Association Dyslexia Style Guide, bolding text is actually a really great way to provide a readable visual cue. It is recommended for use with headings and key text, but with restraint (BDA, 2018; Bear, 2018). Educationally, I always recommend that designers follow suit with textbook conventions by reserving bold text for key terms and headings. People are familiar with bold text indicating critical information, and misusing this formatting style can create confusion about which content is actually important.


Italics are actually really difficult to read for people with dyslexia and its use is not recommended (BDA, 2018). While italics decrease readability, there may instances when their use is necessary. For example, italics are commonly used in biological binomial nomenclature and to identify terms in another language. In order to maintain style consistency with this usage, I recommend using italics for these types of instances since they are familiar. However, italics should otherwise be avoided and especially not used for large amounts of text. There may be instances when historical or official documents use highly italicized fonts. While there is historical merit for including these examples, a non-italicized version should also be provided to ensure that all readers can access the content.


When drawing attention to text, one of the most frequently used styles has been underlining. This style is extremely effective in drawing a reader’s eye to information, however, it can impact readability and distractibility (Obendorf & Weinreich, 2003). While underlining indicates emphasis in printed text, readers expect hyperlinks when they see underlined text online. Based on these considerations, I recommend limiting the use of underlining for necessary links since the online user experience is based on this familiarity.

Recommendations for Design

As designers, it is critical that we balance the needs of all users with our design choices. When making choices to emphasize text using styling features, you can follow these guidelines:

  • Bolding is preferred and should be reserved only for key information,
  • Italics should be used minimally and only for information stylistically denoted through the use of this style, and
  • Underlining may reduce readability if used excessively and should be balanced against the reader expectation for a hyperlink.



Babich, N. (2017). How to use underline text to improve UX. Retrieved from

Bear, J. H. (2018). A guide to using bold fonts effectively in page layout. Retrieved from

British Dyslexia Association. (2018). Dyslexia style guide 2018: Creating dyslexia friendly Content. Retrieved from

Evett, L., & Brown, D. (2005). Text formats and web design for visually impaired and dyslexic readers—Clear text for all. Interacting with Computers, 17(4), 453–472.

Internet Society. (2017). 2017 Internet Society global internet report: Paths to our digital future. Retrieved from

Obendorf, H., & Weinreich, H. (2003). Comparing link marker visualization techniques: Changes in reading behavior. In Proceedings of the 12th international conference on World Wide Web (pp. 736–745).

Patel, I., & West, S. K. (2007). Presbyopia: Prevalence, impact, and interventions. Community Eye Health, 20(63), 40–41. Retrieved 10 February 2018, from

Siegel, L. S. (2006). Perspectives on dyslexia. Paediatrics & Child Health, 11(9), 581–587. Retrieved 10 February 2018, from

The Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. (n.d.). Making documents accessible. Retrieved from

About the author Rita Fennelly-Atkinson

My previous work with students with disabilities has ignited a passion for ensuring that all learners have access to meaningful instructional experiences in any learning environment. My current educational pursuits and work as a technology design coach combines my passion for accessibility, instructional design, and design thinking. As an educator, I have a wide array of instructional experience for K-12 and adult learners in a multitude of settings. Currently, I am a Sam Houston State University student in the Instructional Systems Design and Technology doctoral program.

All posts by Rita Fennelly-Atkinson →

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