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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.