Design for Braille
Developing a book about braille, an introduction for those with (very) low vision, placed special demands on the design and production. I thought carefully about the structure, legibility, use of color, the braille examples, the overall design and the materials used. Furthermore, because I wanted to integrate braille printing with offset, and in a hand-bound form, additional steps were necessary during the production process.
The design had to cater for a specific target group: elderly people with visual impairments due to various eye conditions. Some will already use low vision aids such as magnifiers or audio applications, others will have problems with colour perception. In consultation with experts from the working group I chose a generous type size (as opposed to a large print edition) and decided to provide an audio version of the book.
Three members of the Braille Education Group are blind and to make sure that everyone was fully involved during the project I made different kinds of proofs. For example the design proofs were accessible through separate text versions, including descriptions of the design elements and photography. Using mockups I was able to make the form tangible and the braille examples were of course presented in braille.
Content and Form
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 is informative with text and photographs while Part 2 is more practical with examples in braille and simple instructions and exercises. The difference in content is emphasized by the use of two clear sections, bound separately into one cover.
The initial content was outlined by the group. A communications consultant then refined and developed the information further. For the second part of the book, the content and design were developed simultaneously and as such go hand in hand. Following all the preliminary proofs, a colour mockup was presented to several external institutions representing/working with people with visual disabilities. They came back with some constructive remarks and proposed interesting additions, which strengthened the quality of the content and design.
The underlying references to braille form the basis for the design. I used the principle of braille for the page grid and layout, that is to say two vertical and three horizontal rows, together forming six fixed positions: top, middle, bottom and left, right. These so-called ‘braille cells’ are applied in a rigid manner within a fixed grid. This is found in the basic layout using two columns for text, and in the use of three vertical areas for the positioning of typography and the photography.
Bearing in mind the target group, I paid a lot of attention to legibility (typeface, size, column width, word and character spacing, leading) and to structuring the information. After testing a series of different type specimens, I chose to work with Merriweather Sans in a large font size. This typeface, designed by Eben Sorkin, has a solid character with a fairly large x-height and lots of white within the letters. It is easy to read with the naked eye and doesn’t distort when using a reading aid.
As a second typeface I used Courier. This is a monospaced typeface, designed by Howard “Bud” Kettler, which I’ve also used for other NLBB projects, partly because of the interesting relationship with a braille typewriter. I’ve used the Courier in a functional way, that is above the braille and in exactly the same size. In this way the reader can follow the braille letter for letter and at the same time get an idea of how big braille is (this is in relation to the fingertips) and how wide it runs.
For the design I worked with two grids, one for printed text and one for braille, positioned in two corresponding layers. Initially I tested several braille fonts, including those from Apple, Sim and Marburg because of the different standards for dot measurement applied throughout the world. Even though the braille printing company I work with don’t make direct use of a braille font, they do use certain sizes for their programmes and machinery; the characters are automatically converted to braille during plate making. I finally chose to work with Marburg because it matched the printer’s specifications perfectly (this is also widely used for medicine packaging).
As part of the design I used a so-called ‘grid’ version of braille (a sighted version showing the position of the dots). I did this to explain how the first braille letters are constructed and I also used this later for the alphabet. I found the existing versions unclear and so, following consultation with a braille expert, I developed my own customized grid version for use in the book.
Apart from the photography, colour is used sparingly in the book. Taking into consideration a whole range of possible eye disorders, in which colours might not be observed (properly), I used colour in such a way that the information would not be dependent on colour.
Originally I used blue and red for the typography but during the proof phase, I discovered that red could be problematic (less legible). Red can be experienced as a kind of mustard colour or in other cases as a grey tone. Research has shown that blues are one of the few colours that, in most cases, are experienced as blue. If you take a look around you, it’s interesting to observe widespread use of the colour red. There are many examples of red text, white on red, black on red, red with green, etc, all questionable combinations.
For the opening pages of Part 1 and 2, I used a solid area of blue to mark the start of these sections. When open, the book lies so flat that if Part 2 had been white this would barely have been distinguishable from the back flap. On these opening pages and on the cover I used a strip of colour blocks, a series of repetitions of six blocks (reference to braille), which I’ve used in other designs for the NLBB. These colour blocks not only give a subtle accent but are also directly related to the positioning of printed text and braille (top, middle, bottom).
The use of photography in the book has several functions: aesthetic and informative. It shows the use of braille in different situations, sometimes in combination with a quote. As a series they work well: atmospheric with an interesting interplay between sharp and blurred, lots of details of fingers reading braille. The use of closeups, without ‘visual clutter’, accommodates various eye disorders and is a subtle way of making associations with different age groups and backgrounds, without being able to recognise those who were photographed.
I accompanied the photographer for all the photoshoots, offering support and advice. Afterwards, in consultation with a braille expert, I selected the best photos. It was important that they were technically accurate, showing the correct use of the fingers when reading braille. As part of the design all the photos have fixed positions on the page grid, just like braille itself.