Design has always been used as a device to aid in visual messages that the creator wants to convey, but they can also be used to evoke empathy with and even support people with learning difficulties. This subject is quite close to my heart as my brother Alex has autism. With his learning difficulties, Alex would never have got to where he has today without having had the opportunities that accessibility has opened up for him. So, being a graphic designer at The Wonderland, I have decided to explore the ways in which designers have helped people with disabilities such as dyslexia, dementia and various other learning difficulties, through creating awareness and making visual communication easier to absorb.
One of the most common disabilities in the UK is dyslexia, it is a disorder that causes people difficulty to read, without affecting general intelligence. It is estimated that more than 6.3 million people in the UK suffer from dyslexia and 1 in 10 children do not reach the national Level 4 (KS2) in reading by the time they leave primary school because of it. With so many people suffering with this, it is often a designer’s role to consider this ‘set back’ and help them visually, as well as creating awareness about the disorder.
Using type to generate empathy
So, what is it like to have dyslexia? Graphic designer, Daniel Britton, designed a typeface to raise awareness of the condition and gave people an insight into how a person with dyslexia might feel when struggling to read. Using a bold sans serif font, Britton subtracts 40% of the letter so that it looks more like a shape than a letter. As you try to read the poster below you may feel frustrated and confused, the kind of emotions dyslexic people have when trying to read.
This idea was not necessarily about showing what dyslexic people see that makes reading difficult for them, but about creating empathy for how they might feel while they are struggling to read. This is a powerful thing for a typeface to achieve because it’s building that awareness. Another notable example is by developer, Victor Widell, who animated a webpage to illustrate how people with dyslexia see certain webpages. If you look for yourself you will be able to see how the words scramble on the page and how it could cause confusion for those with the disability. You can view the webpage here: http://geon.github.io/programming/2016/03/03/dsxyliea
Could a new specific typeface help?
It’s not a new concept that sufferers of dyslexia find text on certain colours and backgrounds less difficult to read, but what if we could go one step further and create a font specifically for them? Graphic designer, Christian Boer, is lighting the way on this matter, and decided to tackle the reading issue by creating a typeface specifically designed to make it easier for dyslexic people to read. What makes this font so unique is the lengthened ascenders and descenders, which make similarly shaped letters like Bs, Ds, and Ps become more distinguishable.
Boer has also designed some of the letters to be slanted to add more differentiation, for example, a ‘J’ is more slanted than an ‘L’ so a dyslexic person is less likely to confuse the two. Below is a video that explains in detail exactly what I am referring to: https://www.dyslexiefont.com/en/dyslexie-font/
Identity and legibility
It’s important that people with disabilities can access all the help that’s available to them, and that’s where design can really help to make brands approachable and their content easier to understand.
The UK learning disability charity Mencap, together with Rare Corporate Design and leading boutique type foundry, Fontsmith, have created their own font designed specifically to aid in legibility, whilst maintaining brand values, and avoiding anything from looking too ‘child-like’.
Below shows the planning that went into developing the type. The circled parts of the letters show every detail of the font that was considered, when making it more visually friendly to the target audience:
Signage to aid dementia and learning difficulties
As far as visual communications goes, my brother prefers images and video to text heavy literature. My mum described how images helped her communicate better with my brother as he was growing up:
“As a parent of a child with learning difficulties and autism I found visual cards showing photos or illustrations of foods, drinks, the toilet, places, toys etc. very useful. Alex could point to what he wanted as he was non verbal until he was six years old, and he used basic makaton (simplified sign language). I know a lot of my friends with non verbal children and also teachers in special schools use pictures to aid communication” – Sue Edmonds
A range of illustrated signs have been adapted for people with autism and learning difficulties to help them navigate through public areas like hospitals. The signs have previously been used in care homes and were originally developed for people with dementia. Find, the Leeds based company that specialises in products and signage to aid people with Alzheimers and dementia, collaborated with Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to create the new signs, which combine words and imagery to help identify key areas such as the kitchen and the waiting room.
Making websites more accessible
My brother’s favourite website and search engine to use is YouTube and Google, mainly because they are easy to use and as I mentioned earlier, he likes videos. When designing a website we often worry how legible and user friendly it is, however, sometimes our clients don’t want us to focus on making it easy to navigate for the visually and hearing impaired, or even the colour-blind. So as a designer, by asking these questions early on in the design process we can create a website that will be more accessible and it can expand the website views to a more diverse audience (budget allowing of course). In the article ‘Designing for disability adds diversity to your web audience, K.Andrews – a UX Designer from q30 design inc, uses the following analogy to address the issue of designers thinking that making designs accessible to this extent compromises the design:
One way to make sure your website is accessible is to check that it complies with the Wide Web Consortium or ‘WC3’, a set of web standards for coders to make sure that the site can function properly and is easy to navigate. Obviously to ensure that a site passes these guidelines, as mentioned earlier, the client needs to be on board with this consideration early on in the design and budget process. You can use this validation tool to check your website here: http://validator.w3.org.
Another common problem that we face online today is that advertisers are getting better at disguising adverts or ‘sponsored content’ as editorial content or ‘advertorials’. The little label that says ‘ad’ or ‘sponsored content’ doesn’t stand out to the average Internet user let alone any one with visual disadvantages. If you limit the amount of third-party advertising allowed on a website it will make it more accessible to a more diverse audience but that business could miss out on the profit from the advertisers, and this can be crucial for a charity or non-profit organisations. The irony is that some of the organisations are often dealing with these types of disabilities, yet they don’t cater for them on their website. I looked at eBay’s homepage as an example of this:
Using eBay as an example, some of the problems that I have analysed with this webpage above are:
1) The style of the hero banner is very different to the other elements on this page, which would be acceptable if the others weren’t related to the eBay brand.
2) This banner is not the same style (colour, font size and case, button shape etc.) as the hero banner (1). Successful brands have consistent designs for their banners and all other content that relates to the brand, and so should eBay.
3) The purple and green elements of this banner match the eBay brand but this is not an advert for eBay. This makes it confusing to tell which is an external advertiser and which banners correlate to the navigation of the website.
4) The placement of this banner is odd, it looks like an external ad and not part of the navigation of the website – which it is.
The good news is that not all webpages look like this, and in terms of media channels, more videos on websites are including subtitles in the hope that it will still grab the users attention when scrolling through sites like Facebook and Twitter. Regardless of the intention, this is making online content more accessible to the hearing impaired.
Onwards and upwards
From looking at these examples of design for disability, we can see that progress is slowly being made to break down the barriers of some communication mediums. It’s important going forward, to consider people with disabilities when creating a new piece of design. We all need to take responsibility to help create design that is functional as well as pleasing to the eye, from the brief to completion. Whether you are creating design to evoke empathy or designing to communicate to people more effectively, you will be creating a more accessible world. Which is what we want, isn’t it? So as a designer I can flag this to a client, however, businesses need to embrace making a change so that implementation is the part of a brief.
Written by Vicky