Project Team

Visual Guidelines for a Neurodiverse Audience

As Actually Education grow as an organisation we continue to learn things ourselves too! Recently, our Marketing Advisor, Hannah Barnao looked into visual guidelines for our own resources and materials and in this blog we wanted to share some of our findings with everyone including links to helpful articles and studies and our conclusions. Design elements that Hannah looked into included colours, patterns and imagery, and type.


The Ultimate Guide to Autism Friendly Colours” (Gareth Jones, 2021) recommends using colours that inspire calm and safety, with soft tones that reduce any feelings of chaos or over-stimulation. These includes pastel pinks and lilacs, muted tones of greens, blues and oranges, and neutral colours like cream, beige and grey. The article also suggests avoiding distracting bright colours, such as white or yellow. Red is another colour to avoid as it is considered a ‘high energy colour’ and can be associated with stress or pain.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that reducing colour contrast in design can help reduce reading difficulties for a dyslexic audience, in fact many schools provide dyslexic students with colour overlays to help reduce contrast between the text and background. Again, muted and pastel colours are recommended for a neurodivergent audience, while avoiding sensory-loaded colours, like yellow. When designing with accessibility in mind, it’s important to consider sensory triggers and colour meanings.

A 2012 study by Luz Rello and Ricardo Baezo-Yates researching preferences of colours for text and backgrounds for a dyslexic audience found that only 13.64% of dyslexic readers chose a simple black text on a white background. They found that people with dyslexia read faster when colour pairs had lower contrasts, and the fastest read colour combination was black text on a cream background.

A 2016 study (Marine Grandgeorge and Nobuo Masataka) into colour preference in autistic children supports the above research that yellow and brown are the least favourite colours. The explanation for this is that yellow has a high luminance value and the aversion to this colour might reflect hyper-sensitivity of children with ASD to luminance. It also noted that yellow is considered the most fatiguing colour.

Research in 2006 into reading abilities for children with autism (Amanda Ludlow, Arnold Wilkins and Pam Heaton) found that 79% of children with autism showed an improvement of at least 5% in reading speed when using a colour overlay – this would support the suggestion that lower contrasting colours between text and background would be preferable for a neurodiverse audience.

The Neurodiversity Design System is a great resource for understanding design for a neurodiverse audience, with a selection of personas designed for understanding individuals who may make up a neurodiverse audience. The section on colour suggests that simply using low contrasting colours isn’t good enough, as readers with low contrast sensitivity could have difficulty distinguishing between certain colours, instead it outlines that successful colour contrasting can improve reading accessibility. Too high contrast colours can create cognitive fatigue and be over stimulating, while too low contrast can be difficult to read.

Designing for Neurodivergent Audiences” (William Careri, 2022) offers a solution to adding contrast to a design without overstimulating a neurodiverse audience – using single-hue scales. This would reduce the number of hues in a design while still providing plenty of variation. An appropriate background colour is also crucial for successful contrast – two high contrasting colours should not be laid on top of each other, as this is too difficult for a neurodivergent audience to view. The preference is to use muted, pastel and neutral tones – for example a neutral tan or grey background with two or three pastel hues to add colour variation without becoming overwhelming.

The Living Autism suggests that soft and mild colours are the most neurodiversity-friendly colours for design, and that bright colours can easily become overwhelming. Studies also suggest that blue and green hues are more visible for colour palettes, particularly when they are not fully saturated, as this makes them less stimulating and distracting. Another recommended colour palette, especially for a dyslexic user is a combination of red and pale pink.

Patterns and imagery:

Visual supports such as icons, images and patterns bring structure and support the content of a design and help to illustrate the text. Autistic readers can be dependent on visual cues in order to understand context more fully. For dyslexic readers, images and icons can help text be more digestible, by breaking up the text and providing anchors. Pairing section headers with icons can help neurodiverse audience visually navigate long bodies of text, and can help slow readers jump to the relevant place more quickly. When using icons and images it’s important not to overwhelm to design, and to stick with simple icons in one or two shades. Photographs can be preferable to drawings, but putting text over graphics or images can make it harder to process and decipher. It’s also worth noting that any text-to-speech technologies cannot read images, so it’s important to include a description of an image or ensure a summary is included in the text body.

Designing for Neurodivergent Audiences” (William Careri, 2022) suggests that the use of geometric patterns can appeal to a neurodivergent audience’s need for predictability and repetition. Used in moderation to avoid overstimulation, patterns can add another element to a design project to support understand and navigating large amounts of information.

An article on ‘Neurodiversity and Inclusion’ (Sophie Clifton-Tucker, 2022) suggests that balancing blocks of text and images to bring structure to the copy, as well as icons with headings, helps make it easier for a neurodivergent audience to digest the information. The article also recommends avoiding putting text over a background as it can look too complicated for an ADHD audience.


The article “How to design visual learning resources for neurodiverse students” (Evan Brown) outlines the importance of selecting the best font for a neurodiverse audience. Serif fonts should be avoided as the extra strokes can obscure the shape of the letters – the simpler sans-serif fonts are easier to read. It’s also suggested that handwriting style fonts are preferable to a neurodivergent audience, although these can also sometimes look messy and be harder to read, so selecting a simple and well-spaced font is key. Dyslexic-friendly fonts also exist which help this audience.

‘Neurodiversity and Inclusion’ (Sophie Clifton-Tucker, 2022) emphasises the importance of choosing an appropriate font, stating that people with ADHD also prefer fonts that resemble handwriting, but some letter combinations in this style continues to cause confusion. Mono-spaced fonts, such as Courier New, can be easier to read due to less confusion between letters. Another useful tip provided for a dyslexic audience is to always left align the text, and to use short sentences and bulleted or numbered lists to make content clear and concise. Avoid using italics or underlined font, instead use bolder text for emphasising headings.

A great article on web design for neurodiversity (Kalina Tyrkiel, 2021) supports findings above with regards to font choices. It also adds some details for font size, suggesting that 12 and 14 points are the best size for not only neurodiverse users but also people with vision impairments, and that headings should be at least 20% bigger than the body text to provide variety and structure.

An introduction to inclusive design (Nomensa, 2011) looks at a variety of neurodiverse user needs, and suggests features and adjustments to make a design more accessible. For a dyslexic audience, it suggests avoiding capital letters for entire words and underlining words – while these might be a common tool for distinguishing headers from body text, it’s too visually complicated for a dyslexic audience. For an autistic audience it suggests avoiding the use of abbreviations, and to try to keep each new sentence or idea as a single separate concept, each next to a contextual image. For an ADHD audience it could be useful to use a different colour for each line, particularly in tables or lists.

Our Conclusions:

It is encouraging that most of the articles and studies support each other with similar suggestions and statements. A summary of the findings is concluded below:

  • Use calm colours and avoid over-stimulation, such as muted tones of blues, greens, oranges as well as neutral colours like cream, beige and grey are preferable
  • Avoid bright colours like white and yellow
  • Find the right contrasting level to support a neurodiverse audience, and consider using a single-hue scale
  • Images, icons and patterns are great visual support for type to break it up and provide context
  • Overlaying text on a graphic or textured background can be hard to read
  • Selecting a simple, clean and easy-to-read font is vital