Christian Boer is a Dutch graphic designer who has suffered from dyslexia for most of his life. This causes him difficulty in reading, as people with dyslexia often jumble up their words by inverting and flipping letters which look similar. A couple of years ago he decided to design a typeface specifically for dyslexic people called Dyslexie. We have a chat to him about the origins of his design, characteristics of Dyslexie, form over function and the social impact that his font has created.
NJPC: How did the project originate?
Christian: When I was at university, I received a reader on English philosophy from my teacher before the Christmas holidays. It was badly photocopied which caused the text to be blurry and I had to read it within my two week break. I had to concentrate so hard that I could only read a page or two before taking a break. I needed way more time than the two weeks allocated so after the vacation I explained to my teacher that I had great difficulty in reading the text. She asked me what it was like to read the text, so I made an animation about it for her.
After I made the video I decided that this was a good subject for my graduation project. So I began with the lay-out, colour of the letters, etc. Researching further into the subject I kept reading the same three lines that I have heard all my life. People with dyslexia mirror, switch and rotate the letters they read.
If you have dyslexia, you don't realise that you switch, rotate or mirror the letters you see. However when I read these three sentences, I made a little movie in my head. The movie altered the shapes of letters so that they didn't rotate, mirror or switch anymore. This inspired me to give the typeface a go. I began to make the type starting with the lowercase letters. When I read the text for the first time it was great and easy to read however I wondered if it might only be legibly to myself since I made it. So I went to school and asked colleagues if they knew people with dyslexia that I did not know personally. I ended up with email addresses and names of people from different backgrounds and ages with different levels of dyslexia. I send them the type via email to get some feedback.
They all replied that it was good and that they wanted the typeface on their computer so I knew that I was on the right track.
NJPC: Dyslexia is a fairly common disability with 16% of people in Australia suffering from it. Were there any attempts to make a font for dyslexic people in the past and if so, how did you use those designs as a form of inspiration.
Christian: One of my test subjects told me that people had tried to make a typeface for dyslexic people in the past. These ranged from attempts to make a "serious and clean type" which ended up making all the letter styles based off each other (the opposite of what you want for people who find it hard enough to distinguish between individual letters) to funny letters that you couldn't actually read.
The typeface Dyslexie is built around the idea that letters are objects that you can turn 360 degrees to cross reference with other letters so that they aren't identical. I was glad to see that the typefaces that were designed in the past were very different, so I was confident that nobody had made a typeface based on my idea.
NJPC: You came upon the idea as part of your thesis project. How did you go about your research to design the font?
Christian: That's slightly incorrect. Originally when I graduated, I thought that only I would use the typeface along with my original test subjects. Most graduation projects either end up as a pretty picture on a website or in your project closet. I was using the typeface on my computer to read emails when I started my graphic design company 'studiostudio'. In the mean time more and more people were asking about the typeface. A school started asking about the typeface while people with dyslexia knew that there was a typeface out there for people with their condition. Eventually, two years later, the University of Twente did some research on the font. In 2012 there was also a survey of primary school children along with 250 daily users of the typeface.
NJPC: What kind of user testing did you do?
Christian: I primarily looked at how the reading experience was. So how to reduce reading errors and how much concentration was needed for reading.
NJPC: Although traditional fonts are designed from an aesthetic point of view, you point out that you worked hard to create a font that was visually appealing as well as useful. Did you find the combination of form and function a difficult combination to get right?
Christian: This question is more about how I think about design. Design must be functional. So in regards to the typeface, I was looking at the function of readability above aesthetics, as well as the fact that it was to be used on a regular basis. This had an influence on the form.
NJPC: Can you talk us through some of the key characteristics of the Dyslexie font and how these help people with Dyslexia?
Christian: I could talk about every letter for probably 30 minutes alone but I won't bore you with that. The main thing was that I treated the letters how people with dyslexia would treat them unconsciously.
If one letter matched another letter when I rotated it 360 degrees, the form of that letter had to change so that they wouldn't "look a like" any more. This mismatch system goes further than that. For example, when looking at the letters S, Z and N, the "s" is not an exact mirrored replica of the "z" but some people who are dyslexic will still confuse them. Therefore I have enhanced the corners of the "z". Once these changes were made I needed to make sure the "z" wasn't too similar to the capital of "N" so I made the uppercase "N" wide enough so if you turned that letter on its side, the height of it would be too small to confuse it with another letter. After that I made the "z" upper stroke smaller than the bottom stroke so that when it is turned on its side it doesn't appear that it is standing on both legs. I made the end of the "z" and the uppercase "N" slanted but in different directions so that they wouldn't match. Other characteristics of the "N" include the underside being bolder as well as the outside strokes bent inwards which helps enhance some of the components.
I had to go through a similar process throughout the alphabet, cross referencing them with each other to make sure that all the letters were different enough from one another.
NJPC: The fonts' final characteristics are quite fun and light. Was this a conscious choice or a result of form following function?
Christian: In my opinion, there is no typographic rule that is more important than letting somebody that has difficulty reading, to read. That is the function of letters no matter how they look. Some people, including design teachers disagreed with me on the grounds of "the rules have been there for years, so it has to be that way". In the mean time I did get great feedback from test subjects with dyslexia which I found valuable. So I chose to throw the rule book overboard and make the one thing I wished for. A readable typeface for people with dyslexia. Perhaps you are seeing it as a raw idea that has been polished. A degree of polishing did occur in the end so that it can fit in normal daily use. But thanks for the compliment!
NJPC: Your website talks about a dyslexic user who got emotional when trying out Dyslexia for the first time and discovering how easily he could read the text. The clear social impact of your work must make all the hard work worthwhile?
Christian: I have dyslexia myself and have made an educational detour of several years to get where I am today. I experienced the frustration of studying long hours on languages, only to hear that I was bad at it. So if I can help somebody with some form of relief in their life through design than that of course is fantastic. I get a really good response from people with dyslexia. For example, three weeks ago I was asked to give a two minute presentation at a pitch contest organised by a Dutch bank. After the contest we were brought to the boardroom table to answer some questions. The first executive who spoke told me that three of his four sons were doing fine in high education except for the son who had dyslexia. He then came across the typeface Dyslexie and used it. It was just the thing that he needed. He graduated and is now in pilot school. The man was really emotional about it and wanted to thank me for that. I had to walk away because it was too emotional for him. I was blown away by it because I did not expect that to happen in such an environment. But it was beautiful.
NJPC: Are there any design projects that you have lined up in the future that you wish to share?
Christian: I have plenty of ideas but not not enough time to make them because all of the work that I do now around the typeface. However I hope that in future I can bring some of these design ideas into fruition.