To any sighted person, braille looks like a language masked in encrypted code. It’s incredible, but totally indecipherable. As a result, braille is a companion to our visual language–an add-on for some situations, not a standard that the 285 million visually impaired people around the world can reliably expect to find next to any and all visual text.
Japanese designer Kosuke Takahashi wondered if braille might be something that sighted people could learn to read with their eyes rather than their hands. “It all started from simple question, ‘How can I read braille?’ ‘Does it become a character if I connect the dots?'” Takahashi recounts. “Even though it is the same letter, it felt incongruous that sighted people could not read it.”
Of course, while we sometimes combine braille and print graphics–just by placing the dots over or under text–we largely don’t stack the two because we have no simple way to do so. Braille was designed with letters and numbers that have no 1:1 correlation with the shapes of our glyphs. Take the number two and the number three in braille. The number two is two dots, stacked vertically. The number three is two dots, sitting side-by-side. Neither looks like a “2” or “3” in any way.
Takahashi’s question led to several design experiments which culminated in Braille Neue. It’s a typeface that’s totally legible to anyone with sight, but its skeleton is based upon the bumps of braille. As a result, it can be seen with your eyes or your hands. It’s a font for anyone.
To design the typeface, Takahashi began with the braille grid itself. He tried drawing Japanese characters by connecting the dots, but since he couldn’t move the braille dots, lest he destroy the legibility of braille, he had to be more creative with his letterforms themselves. “The lines were all messed up and had terrible shapes,” he says. The arrangement simply seemed incompatible with the complicated letter shapes. So he retreated, falling back to the more simplified Latin alphabet to prove the concept. That was a lot easier to manage–even if he admits that his “I” and “V” text shapes are both still too hard to read, so he’ll be adjusting them in the future. After building some fluency with his technique, he returned to Japanese.
The results speak for themselves, and Takahashi imagines that Braille Neue could usher in a more inclusive era for wayfinding and other graphics in public spaces. “The biggest benefit is that one sign can work for everyone anywhere,” says Takahashi. “Additionally, this typeface does not require braille to take up additional sign space.” He hopes to implement Braille Neue somewhere at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
Of course, Takahashi admits he’s not the first to combine visual letters and braille. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the use of braille itself is actually on the downturn. The problem is that while society actually supports the implementation of braille on products and in public spaces pretty well, we’re not subsidizing educational programs to teach it. In other words, a typeface like Braille Neue only solves part of the accessibility problem. But perhaps if all of us noticed braille staring us right in the face, every day, we’d sooner recognize its societal value.