Designing for illiteracy

Sebastian Greger

As I am currently working on an inclusive project with a focus on reaching disadvantaged populations, last week’s Creative Mornings Berlin meetup featuring a talk by Lena Alfter on typography for dyslexic people could not have come at a better time.

Lena Alfter, a young designer from Germany, joined July’s Creative Mornings BER event to share the results of her MA thesis, which explored how design can support the alphabetization process for adults learning to read. Her talk “Typografie für besseres Lesenlernen” started with the always astonishing numbers on just how many people have limitations reading.

Even being a virtual event, the chat messages allowed imagining the collective gasp that would have gone through the audience would this have been the usual “grab a croissant and mingle”-style Creative Mornings meetup at a physical space.

More common than most may think

With everybody under 16 in Germany legally obliged to attend school, it can be hard to grasp that 6 million people (12% of the adult population) are functional analphabets and over 16 million (almost 1/3 of adults) have at least some kind of deficit dealing with written text.

Screenshot with Lena Alfter presenting statistics on literacy
Screenshot from Zoom, with a slide illustrating the distribution of literacy levels.

So, designing inclusively is not about “edge cases”, as it is often reduced to by ableist thinking. And the impact on social participation, not least on the functioning of a democracy, is massive.

Lena illustrated well how analphabets’ manifold coping strategies contribute to hiding this fact in daily life; some even manage to get a high school degree without ever acquiring full literacy.

A sign with Japanese script only, and a brochure with English translations.
The speaker’s example of Asian script for Westeners reminded me of my “coping mechanism” on a backcountry hike in Japan in 2007 …where I navigated by treating text like pictures and comparing them to printed material.

Designing for adults

In her project, Alfter researched how to best design materials for adult learners. The three key needs she identified are insights of the kind that show the value of a design researcher:

While the need for repetition in adult learning may be rather well-known, the success of the non-scholar approach when dealing with people who have bad memories of school is a real eye-opener (for example learning to read by standing in front of a ticket machine, rather than in a classroom).

The key observation, however, is a need for anonymity, as illiterate adults may feel such strong shame that they only dare to step forward if granted anonymity (anecdotically, the speaker even had to quit observing one literacy class as participants felt insecure with a researcher in the room). This is where design begins: not by choosing the correct typeface — more on that below — but by building anonymity into a concept from the roots and communicating accordingly.

Typography for illiterate users

The talk then presented how the two key variables of designing text have to be considered when working with text for low-literacy readers:

  • Legibility (Leserlichkeit), the metric for the ease to decode symbols, and
  • Readability (Lesbarkeit), the ease to understand a written text.

Legibility

Among the tidbits from this abbreviated presentation, there was the interesting fact that experienced readers don’t “read” letters but blocks of characters.

We were further reminded that, while commonly considered to improve the fast reading of texts, serifs actually harm legibility for the less skilled reader. And — gasp — ligatures, those amalgamations of letters beloved by typographers, are equally harmful in this context, as they reduce the recognizability of letters.

When choosing a typeface, other pitfalls to consider are the similar appearance of capital I and lower-case l, problems arising when letters q and p or d and b are merely mirrored. Almost obviously, also overly decorative typefaces are hard to read for somebody already struggling to read single letters.

Lena Alfter pointed out that there are font families optimized for low literacy, such as the commercial Semikolon Plus or — imagine another collective gasp by the virtual audience here — Comic Sans. This typeface, beloved by many “amateur PC users”, is the subject of constant mocking by the design community, yet — and that’s what it was designed for — is actually a very inclusive typeface.

Readability

Moving on from the choice of typeface, there is a lot more to consider for designers, such as:

  • splitting text into paragraphs frequently,
  • using dashes in long words,
  • wide tracking (the width between the letters) and line spacing, and
  • last but not least: using simple language (the WCAG criterion 3.1.5, only applicable to level AAA, has some valuable thoughts on that, by the way).

UI design for analphabets

The speaker showed a screenshot of a comprehensive catalog of criteria she created — for the part of her research where she evaluated existing learning materials for analphapets (with surprisingly mixed results) — and highlighted, among others, the importance of choosing well-designed iconography along with UI text, to aid those for whom reading every menu option is hard work.

Screenshot of a table of evaluation criteria
Too small to grasp from the video stream, I’d be very curious to read through the catalog of evaluation criteria Lena Alfter created for designing for analphabets.

Apparently, the research has not yet been published (I very much sympathize with the speaker’s excuse that her own website is not where she wants it to be), but for now I’d highly recommend watching the talk (if you speak German), or at least her very thoughtfully designed app for adults learning to read, from minute 20:00 of that video.

From theory to practice

This was yet another enjoyable Creative Mornings event, with lots to think about even for designers already tuned into the accessibility and inclusion mindset.

While some of the criteria benefit everybody (as is often the case with inclusive design), the interesting challenge for products not solely optimized for legasthenics will be how to provide a good reading experience for limited readers while sticking to what by a majority is considered “good design” (try suggesting a change of your corporation’s typography to Comic Sans and you’ll see what I mean).

That’s a challenge I have on my desk right now, and I’m looking forward to it even more after that morning’s inspiration …and I have a feeling Vasilis’ Exclusive Design concept might come handy once again as well.