For National Braille Month, we’re investigating how design thinking created a better font.
We all probably know braille as a printed form of raised dots that the blind use to read. As a child, and honestly up until my research for this article, I always questioned why the letter ‘A’ in braille was a single dot rather than several dots that shape the form of an ‘A’. That would be logical wouldn’t it? I am a visual person. But as a graphic designer, I should know better, because it’s not always the first, most obvious solution that is best.
In fact, the first lettering system designed to teach the blind to read did resemble traditional characters of the alphabet.
Creating the First Font for the Blind
In 1771, French professor of calligraphy, Vincent Hauy made it his life goal to educate persons of blindness after witnessing a group of blind people being humiliated on display at a festival. Years later, through a chance encounter with a blind beggar, Hauy discovered that the boy was able to ‘read’ the value of a coin just by feeling the raised surface. Using this discovery, he developed special characters with distinguishable ornaments, and ‘printed’ them onto thick cardboard by layering wet paper over copper wire. This process was used to build a small library of books that he used to teach students at his school, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, founded in 1784.
With great success, Hauy fulfilled his dream of teaching the blind to read and write and earned the name “Father and Apostle of the Blind”, but his system wasn’t the perfect solution. The large size of each character limited how much could fit on a page, and students commented on how slow it was to comprehend each letter, even with two hands. The cost for materials were also high and the process made each book heavy and cumbersome for students to carry.
So Hauy made some adjustments. By adding lines or dots to characters, they were able to abbreviate words, and he explored different printing processes. But he neglected to address his student’s concerns with the size of the font, which limited readability and density of content. Despite the feedback from his students, Hauy was convinced it was necessary for the touch.
When the Users Start Designing
In 1821, a man named Charles Barbier presented his system of raised dots at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth. Called “night writing” it was originally developed for military use as a means for troops to relay messages on the field without needing a light to see. It was received well by students who remarked on the ease of identifying the dots versus curves and straight lines of traditional letters.
There was still room for improvement, though. Barbier’s code was phonetic, which wasn’t much use to individuals wanting to learn to read and write the alphabet. But the students thought dots were the way to go, so they started a competition among them to improve the system. The best solution, according to his peers, was created by a 15-year-old student by the name Louis Braille in 1824.
Keeping with the two-column code of Barbier, but Braille shortened it to just three rows. This proved to be the perfect size that could be read by a single touch of the index finger. The teachers, however, saw little value in his invention, believing that the dots isolated the visually impaired from the non-partially sighted, who would have to learn the whole system.
Braille didn’t give up, publishing his first complete system in 1829, and revising it in 1837. And even though he stayed on at the institute as a well-respected teacher, his method was never respected in his lifetime. It wasn’t until 1854, two years after his death that the Braille system was adopted by the Institute, and as we know now, became the worldwide method.
It seems Barbier wasn’t that far off from having an extremely useful system. Had he taken insights from the students and practiced a cycle of user testing, iterations, more user testing etc., he may have come to a similar solution that Braille did.
Focus on Empathy for the User with Design Thinking
When creating something for the use of others, as is the case in design, you must think beyond your personal experience and opinions. That makes sense, right? Vincent Hauy’s sympathy for the blind was integral to leading modern education for the blind, but what he needed in his research and design was empathy. He needed the ability to immerse himself in the user’s perspective and place a higher value on their experience. Without prioritizing their experience, blind students were hindered by the limited content of the books and slow comprehension of the large letters.
Implementing empathy through design thinking is critical when creating solutions that actually benefit the end user from the invention of braille back in the late 1800s to digital design today. The steps of design thinking can vary from agency to agency or project to project, but the general flow can look something like this:
Research > Ideate > Prototype > Test > Iterate
Do your very best to incorporate your users every step of the way by talking to them directly, investigating issues they face, and asking for feedback on your idea. In any project you design for a user, it will never be about what the designer wants, or even what the client wants. It’s about what the user wants and needs for a meaningful and effective experience.