The Development of Atkinson Hyperlegible

Atkinson Hyperlegible is a new type­face pro­duced for the American Braille Institute by Applied Design Works.

This is a sim­i­lar slide-deck to the one they pre­sented at the Type Directors Club.

Applied Design Works

Applied Design is a big New York / LA de­sign shop - not a type de­sign firm. They do all kinds of de­sign work for big or­gan­i­sa­tions like the World Trade Center, Hudson Square and NYU Langone. A lot of place-mak­ing, but also more gen­eral iden­tity work.

They also take credit here for the bins in Central Park. However, those ap­pear to have been de­signed by a dif­fer­ent firm where Craig Dobie and Brad Scott worked at the time.

The Braille Institute of America

Founded in 1919 by Robert Atkinson, who had lost his sight in a shoot­ing ac­ci­dent. At the time they re­tained Applied, the or­gan­i­sa­tion was ap­proach­ing it’s 100 year an­niver­sary.

At the be­gin­ning, the goal of the or­gan­i­sa­tion was to bring Braille to more peo­ple. Producing lit­er­a­ture in Braille was a huge task at the time. Atkinson’s first pro­ject was the King James Bible, which took up a whole room. The or­gan­i­sa­tion ex­panded and moved to LA in 1933. Sometime in the 1970s they moved into a hand­some bru­tal­ist build­ing de­signed by William Pereira.

Since then the mis­sion has ex­panded. It started be­ing purely about Braille lit­er­acy, but as low vi­sion started to ef­fect the pop­u­la­tion, they started to ad­vo­cate for those peo­ple as well. Low vi­sion is pro­jected to in­crease in the United States due to preva­lence of di­a­betes and an age­ing pop­u­la­tion.

The Brief

The brief was to shift per­cep­tions around the Braille Institute to re­flect this ex­panded mis­sion. No bound­aries in sight” was the key phrase in the brand­ing, which is great, but then you need the as­sets.

The logo was the first vi­sual prod­uct. It com­bines a ro­man b with a Braille i.

Then, a colour palette with con­trast ra­tios as kind of first class cit­i­zens (Though I won­der if this is­n’t a gen­eral re­quire­ment at this point, es­pe­cially for non­prof­its). Printed mat­ter has larger than usual type, pieces of in­for­ma­tion go into con­sis­tent places.

But the big thing is the type­face. Do you use a serif or a sans serif? The book would say you use a serif be­cause they’re more read­able, but they can be dis­rup­tive too. People with se­vere visi­ion loss read one or two let­ters at a time (so the idea of mak­ing it eas­ier to scan lines does­n’t re­ally ap­ply).

Your four gen­eral forms of sans-serif: Grotesque (Franklin), Neo-Grotesque (Helvetica), Geometric (Futura), Humanist (Frutiger). The choice was be­tween Neo-Grotesque (for the mid­cen­tury look) and hu­man­ist (for the read­abil­ity). Eventually they de­cided to draw a new type­face com­bin­ing the two.

Atkinson Hyperlegible

Low vi­sion af­fects mil­lions

4.2M Americans 40 and over have an un­cor­rectable vi­sion im­pair­ment. That fig­ure is pro­jected to go to 8.9M by 2050. Diabetes is the lead­ing cause of vi­sion loss in work­ing age Americans. Fewer than 10% of legally blind peo­ple in the US are braille users. The like­li­hood and ne­ces­sity of learn­ing braille as an adult is pretty low. But what is nec­es­sary is vi­sual aids, read­able ty­pog­ra­phy, which also hap­pen to help every­one else. That’s the prin­ci­ple of uni­ver­sal de­sign.

The goal is to im­prove qual­ity of life

Letterform Differentiation → Increased let­ter recog­ni­tion → Faster read­ing → Better com­pre­hen­sion → An abil­ity to un­der­stand more → Better qual­ity of life.

Letter am­bi­gu­ity is preva­lent

The tra­di­tion of let­ter­form har­mony re­duces leg­i­bil­ity. Typefaces have vi­sual har­mony be­cause let­ter­forms re­sem­ble each other. Helvetica has the clas­sic low­er­case L / up­per­case I / 1 / ! prob­lem. C, G, O, 0, and Q are also pretty sim­i­lar. So are B and 8. Also b, d, o, p, and q. So Atkinson trades some con­sis­tency be­tween let­ter­forms for bet­ter let­ter dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. It ap­plies all kinds of moves across the characer set to do this: Exaggerated 8 (to dif­fer­en­ti­ate from B), low­er­case l with a serif, low­er­case i with a serif, ! is more ta­pered and has a big­ger dot. Open coun­ters. Exaggerated cross­bar in the up­per­case Q, straight leg on the R, slashed zero.

There is­n’t just blurry vi­sion, but other kinds of vi­sion loss that af­fect the field of vi­sion

Macular de­gen­er­a­tion, re­tini­tis pig­men­tosa. These of­ten co­in­cide with blurry vi­sion. Cataracts, di­a­betic reinopa­thy, to­tal blind­ness. These can also af­fect char­ac­ter re­og­ni­tion. The team had glasses that sim­u­lated some of these dis­or­ders and used them to eval­u­ate let­ter­forms. (Interesting par­al­lel to Pereira, who wore a blind­fold for two weeks when his firm de­signed the buidling).

Form fol­lows con­text

The type­face had to be read­able but also ap­peal­ing. Atkinson is for three dif­fer­ent au­di­ences: People with vi­sion loss, those who as­sist them, and op­ti­mol­o­gists. It does­n’t make sense for the Braille Institute to use three dif­fer­ent type­faces, there has to be one that works in all con­texts. If your only goal was max­i­mum char­ac­ter dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion you’d draw some kind of ran­som-note type­face, but that would make life harder for two of the groups.

There are many sit­u­a­tions where a type­face with in­creased leg­i­bil­ity would ben­e­fit every­one.

Unexpected Twists

Little moves to in­ject a litte char­ac­ter. Circular shapes every­where are a nod to the logo (recall the braille i). This is brand­ing, but it still works for every­one. Some other de­tails: Angled spurs tie the let­ters to­gether be­cause they’re all the same an­gle. They also help to open up cer­tain coun­ters. Angled ter­mi­nals. The type­face has every­thing in Adobe Latin 2, and some open-type fea­tures like tab­u­lar num­bers.


Applied made a tem­po­rary ver­sion of the type­face with a lim­ited char­ac­ter set (for English and Spanish) that could be used im­me­di­ately. That led to more feed­back that could flow into the re­fined, full ver­sion. Some of the changes in­clude big­ger punc­tu­a­tion, more open spac­ing.

External in­put

The pro­ject won a bunch of awards and was writ­ten about. Flipped the slash in the zero to dif­fer­en­ti­ate with the swedish O in re­sponse to an on­line com­ment.


Was dyslexia a con­sid­er­a­tion in the de­sign process?

When we launched there was a dyslexic-spe­cific type­face launched. Interesting to look at the dif­fer­ences be­tween that and Atkinson. Dyslexia and low vi­sion aren’t nec­es­satily re­lated. They both cause read­ing dif­fi­culty, but in dif­fer­ent ways. Character dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is im­por­tant for both, but we were more look­ing at low vi­sion here.

Was there any sci­en­tific data or stud­ies used in the de­sign?

The de­sign comes from the tra­di­tion of type de­sign. It’s not re­ally rocket sci­ence, all these lit­tle moves come from ex­ist­ing type­faces. The colour con­trast ra­tios in the colour palette were the only strictly math­e­mat­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion that flowed into the de­sign - the rest is vi­sual.

What’s the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Atkinson and Clearview, and sim­i­lar ex­ist­ing type­faces? How did they in­flu­ence this pro­ject?

The start­ing point were the four kinds of sans-serif. There are ex­ist­ing high-leg­i­bil­ity type­faces, but they did­n’t in­clude the Braille Institute brand­ing. We needed some­thing spe­cific.

How did you test?

We’re still de­vel­op­ing more method­ol­ogy, but dur­ing de­vel­op­ment we tested with stu­dents and clin­i­cians at the Braille Institute. They have stan­dard tests for read­ing speed and re­ten­tion, and we tested our type­face with those.

Are there plans to use the type­face else­where?

The type­face is free and un­der a per­mis­sive li­cense, so you’re wel­come to use it. Some of our other clients are in­ter­ested.