Courtesy Kosuke Takahashi.

Typeface designers seeking to be truly inclusive in their work are accepting the challenge of creating new tactile typefaces for the visually-impaired. Previously, these typefaces were limited to braille and a few other, more obscure reading systems such as Moon Type, Boston Line Type, and New York Point, all of which came into being during the early 19th century. While it may seem incredible that so few explorations into other typographic systems for the blind have been considered in the 200 years since, there is a lingering debate about whether fresh systems are truly needed—or if instead the blind should be encouraged to learn braille, the standard by default.

William Moon’s book Light for the Blind, London: Longmans & Co., 1877. [Image: Wiki Commons]
Braille uses a simple, logical grid of six raised dots to shape each letter, and has the advantage of being relatively compact on the page, which increases reading speeds. However, since standard braille is always the same size (each character measures 1/8 inch wide by 1/4 inch high) it can be difficult for people with motor impairments or limited tactile sensitivity to read. The characters are also not scalable, something we take for granted with letterforms (imagine being confined to using only 12 point type for the rest of your design career). Crucially, only about 1% of the blind are vision-impaired since birth; the majority (an estimated 8.4 million Americans) lose their sight later in life after they’ve learned to read and write. For these people, learning braille poses the challenge of becoming adept at an entirely new reading system that’s not based on the familiar shapes of Latin letterforms.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) estimates that fewer than 10% of blind people can read braille, and the number who choose to learn it has been declining as text-to-speech applications and audiobooks take up a bigger role in providing content for the blind. Both within the blind community and within the design industry, this fact has brought up an interesting question: should some elements of braille’s six dot grid merge with Latin letterforms to create a better typeface for these readers? This would make the alphabet usable by the sighted as well as the blind, and provide the ease of learning an alphabetic system that feels familiar from the get-go.

On the other hand, designing a “new braille” that merges elements of braille and Latin type can feel like a Frankenstein-y attempt to force a square peg into a round hole. Perhaps an entirely new system for the blind is in order. We wondered, who are the designers already tackling this problem? And which solution do they prefer?

Barcelona-based designer Núria López undertook a typographic exploration called Blind Words in 2016 as her senior project at the Art School of Jerez, creating a modular font that incorporates typographic strokes with braille’s raised dots. She questioned whether letterforms resulting from the intersection of two alphabets that were never meant to overlap could maintain their traditional, formal graphic qualities, all while functioning as components for socially responsible, inclusive design. “For such typography to work, it is important to integrate the standard measurements of the braille alphabet well into the visual typographic patterns,” López says. One of her goals? To help the sighted understand what the braille alphabet both looks and feels like.

The letterforms straddle the visual line between Art Deco and alien.

The letterforms that make up Blind Words are somewhat awkwardly shaped; forced to compress curves and straight lines within braille’s narrow tall grid (and this would hold true for any typeface attempting to impose those exact proportions upon Latin characters), they straddle the visual frontier between Art Deco and alien. They never settle easily into an alphabet that meets the usual performance and aesthetic criteria for a typeface in terms of consistency of form—the O feels very wide and square, the X feels oddly narrow by comparison—or legibility. Moreover, while Blind Words brings an understanding of braille to those who can see—by mapping out braille onto Latin letterforms—it doesn’t work in the opposite direction. The blind are only able to feel the fonts, but not view the strokes of the characters. Theoretically, the advantage of Blind Words is that the sighted can learn braille by associating its dots with the letterforms learned in first grade, but there are no user studies as yet to see if this hypothesis holds true.

Braille Neue, introduced in 2018 by Japanese designer Kosuke Takahashi, takes a similar tactic to Blind Words, overlaying letterform strokes onto a grid of raised braille dots. His hope is that the typeface will allow braille to be included in signage for public spaces, and dreams of it in use at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The designer’s mission statement reads in part, “This typeface communicates to both sighted and blind people in the same space, and is easy to implement into the existing infrastructure. We aim for an inclusive society where using braille becomes commonplace.”

There’s a weirdly wide serif on the T, a hooked serif on the I, and mismatched curves on the S.

Takahashi drew inspiration for the letterforms from Helvetica Neue, but not many designers would recognize that typeface in this one; it’s been bastardized, resulting in some odd Latinesque letterforms. There’s a weirdly wide serif on the T, a hooked serif on the I, and mismatched curves on the S, again the result of trying to adapt and overlay characters onto the braille grid. (It’s worth pointing out that Helvetica Neue has no serifs in the first place.) Braille Neue’s most significant achievement is that its outline version incorporates the correct braille dots for both the Latin alphabet and Japanese characters, essentially creating a bridge for readers of these languages that includes the blind for the first time.

ELIA Frames takes a different approach to a tactile language system closely tied to Latin letterforms, by not referencing or incorporating the braille alphabet at all. Frames, the brainchild of Andrew Chepaitis, founder of ELIA (Education, Literacy, and Independence for All) Life Technology, is the product of 17 years of research and development, including user testing on a group of 175,00 participants. It relies on a system of frames evocative of the shapes of the Latin characters they represent, plus a variety of graphic elements (including dots unrelated to the braille six dot grid) positioned in and around them. The raised letterforms come in three shapes: some are circular, others squared, and the rest resemble Monopoly houses, allowing for quick distinction among letterforms. Letter shapes are intuitive; for example, O is a circle and the Q is a circle with a small tick mark at 4 o’clock.

The system is evocative of the shapes of the Latin characters they represent, plus a variety of graphic elements positioned in and around them.

Frames can be scaled up or down just like any other typeface, providing versatility for different uses, and can be placed tightly together on a page to help increase reading speed and fluency. Chepaitis says that while braille can take up to 10 months to master, readers can learn Frames at a basic level in about three hours. From a design point of view, what’s notable about the typeface is the way the character set hangs together; the letterforms bear just enough visual reference to their Latin alphabet counterparts to look familiar, yet make up a system of unique symbols that respects typography’s need for continuity, consistency, and pleasing aesthetics. Rather than giving off the uneasy aura of being neither fish nor fowl, the tactile alphabet appears to live very much in its own coherent world.

In addition to pursuing the noble effort of creating inclusive designs for the visually impaired, these three type designers and their typefaces also demonstrate what a complicated, daunting task that is. It may be simpler for a blind person to listen to an audiobook or use a text to speech application, but typefaces that further the independent ability to read (and make it easy to learn to do so) are design goals worth undertaking.