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This typeface hides a secret in plain sight. And that’s the point

Not everyone who is vision impaired needs braille. Some just need a clearer typeface.

This typeface hides a secret in plain sight. And that’s the point
[Image: courtesy Braille Institute of America]

Tens of millions of people around the world are blind. But more than a hundred million may have serious vision impairment. And that second figure is only bound to grow, according to the World Health Organization, as a larger population lives longer, giving their eyes more years to degrade.

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Growing concern about vision impairment has made the century-old nonprofit Braille Institute rethink its approach and reach out to serve more people. That led to the creation of a new typeface called Atkinson Hyperlegible—the winner of our 2019 Innovation by Design Awards for Graphic Design. It’s a typeface that, at first glance, looks like any other. But it’s been carefully and quirkily designed for people who cannot usually read type very well.

[Image: courtesy Braille Institute of America]

The project was never meant to result in a typeface at all. The brief started as a visual rebranding, led by New York- and Los Angeles-based design firm Applied Design Works. “As part of a visual identity project, you’re always trying to decide the right typeface for tone and manner, and they were shifting to be a much more modern organization,” recalls Craig Dobie, founding creative director at the studio. In this case, since it served a community of people with low vision, the typeface had to be quite legible. And that was a problem.

“People don’t see well in lots of [different] ways,” ranging from patchy vision to macular degeneration, Dobie says. So they tried serif fonts, like Times New Roman, filled with those little hooks and curves that are intended to make them easier to read. They tried sans serif typefaces like Frutiger, only to find that they were too clean and modernist, meaning that not only did lowercase “B” and uppercase “I” blend together, but “even things like [lowercase] Bs, As, Os, and zeroes run the gamut of slightly difficult to differentiate to really difficult,” says Dobie. Typeface design tends to champion uniformity in standards. But in this case, uniformity was confusing, fudging letters together.

Sooner or later, the team realized a simple truth: If it was going to give Braille Institute a new visual identity, and for that identity to be well designed and well understood, it would need a new typeface that could be legible to its intended audience.

[Image: courtesy Braille Institute of America]

Applied Design Works tapped Elliott Scott to develop the new typeface. Along the way, drafts were sent to Braille Institute, which actually tested early samples with people dealing with various forms of vision impairment to validate and make tweaks.

“One of the things [Scott] and I talked about a lot from the creative standpoint is, we’re going to build a typeface that’s going to break a lot of rules that a lot of designers will care about,” says Dobie. “That could make us unpopular.”

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Indeed, what they eventually created is a strange, hybrid font that borrows bits and pieces from all sorts of font types and families. Most egregiously, the uppercase “I” is a clean sans serif bar. But the lowercase “I” has a curvy little foot on the bottom. “Those don’t match up!” says Dobie with a laugh. “We had a moment where it was like, ‘This is awkward.'”

The tie (the name for the middle bar) on the capital “E” and “F” are polar opposites side by side, with the E’s tie trimmed very short and the F’s tie protruding to create the equivalent of an “equal” sign. The spurs, or little boots at the bottom of letters like lowercase “A” and “B,” have a quirky angled chunk taken out that seems to help your eye position them in space. Letters and numbers like “R” and “9” are rendered with strong diagonal strokes rather than curvy twists, which means there’s no mistaking an “R” for a “B,” or a “9” for an “8.” And the counterspaces, or openings in letters like “C,” have been opened a bit more than might be proportional to the eye so they make more sense even when blurred.

Stare too long at its quirks, and Atkinson Hyperlegible almost feels like it has an identity crisis, as if a dozen fonts were smashed together to make one. But typed out on a page, it’s been treated with careful kerning that the average eye just kind of accepts, as if it was any other typeface. This less-formal gut test of “Does it look good?” was important to the team. Because if you think about it, the designers could have exaggerated these letterforms even more to maximize recognition. It would be readable to people with vision impairment, but their families—people with fine sight who are just trying to help a loved one—would constantly be reading materials that looked like a funhouse. “It would be crazy ugly and difficult for people who could see well,” says Dobie.

Atkinson Hyperlegible appears to be a happy medium. Once it was created, the Braille Institute recognized its benefit and opted to make it free and usable to anyone. And that could make it much bigger than just a piece of branding.

For now, Applied Design Works is teaming with the Braille Institute to refine testing, continue validation, and tweak the design as necessary to make it as legible as possible. Meanwhile, the organization has been in touch with both Microsoft and Apple about the possibility of getting Atkinson Hyperlegible included as part of Windows and macOS.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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