This Typeface Hides a Secret in Plain Sight. And that's the Point

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.” 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…

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