For years the poor relation of graphic design, accessible print is now attracting a new generation of creatives applying the same imaginative thinking for the visually impaired as they do for the fully sighted. Impending legislation may force all designers to follow suit, saysYolanda Zappaterra
Last month, a bill that could impact massively on graphic design was given its second reading in Parliament. Broxtowe MP Nick Palmer’s Small Print Bill aims to make it a legal obligation for certain types of print – particularly advertising, marketing material and contracts – to use type at a minimum of 12pt. Unsurprisingly, the bill is receiving widespread support from a number of organisations, among them the RNIB, Age Concern, Help the Aged, the Plain English Campaign and the Trading Standards Institute.
The graphic design community and design bodies have remained noticeably quiet on the issue, but given the expected doubling of numbers of sight impaired from two million to four million in the next three decades, it’s one that designers and printers should be addressing and even taking a lead on. So are they?
RNIB publishing manager Katherin Ekstrom, who oversees all the charity’s print material, has found that designers do consult it for advice and access its See It Right guide, which was published, she explains, ‘in response to a demand for information about how to design information to make it accessible to people with sight problems’. But, she points out, they only do so when they’re ‘working for a client requiring accessible print’. And their starting point is often a decidedly negative ‘How do I make my document meet required guidelines?’, rather than ‘How do I find the best way of communicating with the user?’ Designers are so far outside the loop that they weren’t even consulted when the guide was updated and republished last year. Printers, too, rarely feature in any considerations about accessible print. ‘We haven’t really discussed issues with printers, more with paper companies like McNaughtons and Robert Horne,’ says Ekstrom. Part of the problem may lie in the fact that designers’ interest in accessible print has not advanced much beyond the basics, such as type (size, font, leading and colours) and stock (weights, colour, bright
ness and texture), and most designers still believe that accessible print means restrictions and compromise in design vision and brand communication. But, as the RNIB publication Voice and this week’s large-print version of The Guardian’s Society supplement show, this needn’t be the case. And one designer has categorically proved it. Sean Donahue, the founder of Los Angeles-based design practice Research Centered Design, has worked in the low-vision community for seven years, creating Touch, a hybrid print and tactile publication aimed at low- and no-vision reading audiences. ‘Its editorial voice is intended to reflect the rich contemporary culture of publishing by including access to both text and pictographic tactile communication,’ says Donahue.
Touch, as Donahue explains, ‘intermixes tactile expression and Braille type form to create relationships between Braille text and tactile imagery’. It uses scale to create hierarchy (rare in conventional Braille) and Braille patterns to complement and express the editorial voice of the text through form. In parts it replaces text altogether with texture or pattern, to help readers to understand something like a city, for example. ‘Readers absolutely enjoyed it. They relished the idea that it offered not an index but gaps that they had to fill with their imagination and experience. It was the difference between guidelines and communication that they noticed,’ Donahue adds. He had to co-ordinate much of the printing himself, and as conventions of both Braille and ink printing were broken, he had to be heavy-handed on how things were treated. ‘It was all printed by local printers, and not very knowledgeable ones at that,’ he notes.
Such inventive design solutions are achievable by approaching the project as you would any other design problem, but all too often designers don’t do this with accessible print projects, thinking that if they’re sticking to the guidelines, they’re doing their job. In this respect, designers might do well to look to the art world for a lead. At the Tate galleries, an inventive range of interpretive material for the sight impaired includes a series of raised images on swell paper that literally builds up a tactile image of an artwork. These were originally created for interpretation of Braille and floorplans, but as an interpretive art element they are very effective. Marcus Dickey Horley, curator of access projects at the Tate, explains, ‘As part of a package of tools, they work well. The linear interpretations very simply illustrate the artwork, the height contrast being particularly beneficial to the blind/partially sighted from birth.’ He’s excited by other accessibility interpretation elements being explored with artists and illustrators, such as one project being developed with a blind artist who creates relief and bas-relief images on long-lasting, laser-etched Perspex sheets.
This idea of working with the user is one designers should be exploring too, says Donahue. ‘Work directly with a community and see what their tolerances, desires and aspirations are, and start designing from there,’ he advises. ‘The designer’s goal is not to replicate guidelines verbatim, but rather to use them to aid communication, and to infuse them with the spirit of the audience. This can only be done if you develop a relationship with a community from this perspective.’ Ekstrom echoes this. ‘It is vital that design communicates the message, and the See it Right book gives a range of guidelines as to how you can achieve that,’ she says. ‘Within these guidelines there is plenty of scope for creativity and redefining how to present information, as well as the chance to solve problems differently.’