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  • Katie Hughes

Color-blindness and Dyslexia: Two Cases for Intentional Design

Accessibility is the word on most designers’ lips these days. We’ve climbed the mountains of modernism, tackled the print versus digital debate, so what’s left for a designer to do in the contemporary age? How about making things better for everyone and doing some good with design?

Graphic design has a long history with the balance between clarity and obfuscation. As with modern art, graphic design evolves in waves and bleeds into abstraction. There is no universal rulebook for what makes good design because the intentions and purposes for design are as wide ranging as designers are. The activist poster and the airplane safety guide and the coffee bean bag label and the blog post are all designed with different uses in mind. How long you look at something, what its purpose is, and who it is aimed at all shape the kind of design stills and ideas used to create the object in the first place.

In general, I’m of the opinion that accessibility in every form is important when crafting something that is for the general public, something that is educational, or something that could be beneficial to everyone. On the other end of the spectrum, so much of the work that is created at my school is completely of the post-modernist collage inscrutable vein that the work enters the realm of abstract art and it becomes unclear the intention of the piece in the first place. This isn’t a bad thing! This is the experimental force that tests the boundaries of a field and sees what holds and what doesn’t. It does beg the question of that design is and what design should do.

One typical definition of design is that it is art in the purpose of something. There are goals and meanings and messages in design that might be more obvious and direct that they would be in a painting or a poem or a song. Now, there is a huge spectrum of what graphic design is employed to do on a commercial or practical level, and then there’s the vast universe of everything else that has been made for fun or experimentation or theory. You can’t pin definitions on a field when you only discuss one small portion of what that field is creating. That being said, I don’t see anything objectionable about dying on the hill that design created to theoretically serve everyone should be as accessible as possible.

When I was a physics major doing research after my freshman year, we all had to design posters presenting our findings. We were told by a speaker that our posters shouldn’t use the colors red and green to distinguish different parts of a pie or bar chart because ten percent of men are red-green colorblind. At the time this was a shocking revelation to me. Ten percent? I’d known a lot about color blindness because my brother has it, and because I’d always been interested in color perception in philosophy and neuroscience, I’d spent a lot of time studying colors and how we interpret light in our minds. But ten percent, one out of every ten men? That seemed high to me.

If colorblindness is as prevalent as I was told it was, why are so many things designed using red and green? Importantly, stoplights come to mind, but what about the pervasiveness of red and green as typical good and bad markers on websites? What about loading bars, or error messages, and beyond that what about objects in the real world? What about fruit ripeness, or autumn leaves? It was a wonder to me that more people weren’t talking about this if it affected such a large population.

That moment some seven years ago was the small pinprick beginning of my thoughts about accessible design, which wouldn’t fully take form until I was in grad school studying design. I think there’s a tendency to think of making design accessible as adding an extra layer of work and development into a product or a piece of work, but it seems like making work accessible upfront is not only the commonsense ethical thing to do, but also beneficial in terms of not having to create more work when people cannot interact well with your creation. had I made a poster in green and red, it would be difficult for people to read and defeat the purpose of making an infographic in the first place – it wouldn’t do its design job of explaining data, at least to a certain group of people. Inaccessible design is bad design.

I think now a lot about another small, in the moment trivial, piece of information I read two years ago. In a summer book club reading a typography book, I came across the fact that a group of advocates for dyslexic people discovered that fonts like Comic Sans, so typically bemoaned by the design community as ugly and relegated ideally only to children’s products, is actually one of the best fonts for dyslexic people to read. Why? Comic Sans, in all its irregularity and messiness actually contains all the right elements to be more legible rather than less legible – letters like b and d, p and q, actually have more differentiability in a font like Comic Sans than they do in something more “proper” and rigid like a traditional sans serif font. Now, this goes back to intention – generally, fonts aren’t good or bad. You might have your own personal favorite or detest another, but whether a font is designed well or not sometimes has more to do with what it is in the employ of.

Sure, there are rules for good font design, but so much of type design, typography, and design generally shifts from generation to generation, especially as we develop new technologies for reading and perceiving work. Fonts that used to be perfectly beautiful and legible had to be altered when they were adapted to the computer screen because the way light emits from a screen is necessarily different from how it reflects off paper. The light around the letterforms on a screen actually makes individual letters seem thinner than when they are in their inky glory on the page.

Some fonts are hundreds of years old and retain the beautiful appeal whether it be geometric or humanistic or whatever. There might be some universal principles of design and beauty that just simply exist. In the same way that there may be ideal moral truths, I’m unsure we’ll discover them on our own if the last few thousand years of debate has shown us anything, but I digress. What is of importance here is the idea that while Comic Sans and its ilk might be considered low design, they actually could lend some wisdom to type designers trying to be more accessible – increasing contrast of shapes, differentiating similar-looking letters, and finding ways to build in uniqueness and lack of uniformity into a font is something actually beneficial for a certain design problem. And what’s a bigger design problem than getting everyone to read more?

There’s a great study about fonts for dyslexia by the University of Michigan called their Good Fonts for Dyslexia Study and it goes into depth about the fonts they’ve worked on to strive to improve reading conditions for people with Dyslexia. While developed fonts are still in the works, and initial studies don’t show faster reading, they do show that these fonts can improve reading out loud, and more than anything call attention to one of the ways in which graphic design and type design can actually do social good.

When we’ve reached our limits of theorizing and postulating, maybe it’s time to go out into the real world and tool around a bit to see the ways in which we can make some real change. That’s what I’m thinking about this summer at least.

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