Building Braille: The History & Future of Designing Text for the Blind

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Explore the fascinating history of braille, as well as a new future for the design of this vital tool.

Berlin-based gallery dealer Johann König makes a living selling art he can barely see—he has 2% vision.

When he was 11 years old, he was playing with toy store gunpowder when it suddenly exploded in his hands. “I saw a flash,” König told Art Agenda. “I couldn’t see anything and I was extremely hurt.”

After 14 hours of operations, he was transferred to the local eye hospital, where the chairman did another 12-hour operation, “and they were kind of surprised that they worked something out at all, I think,” says König, who represents 29 artists, many of whom are collected in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “When I do studio visits [with artists], they are so nice, you know?” he says. “Artists will show me a crappy, bad, photocopied image and I honestly see nothing on it and then they explain everything to me and I get it. It’s fine.”

Making aesthetic judgments that make or break thousands of euros doesn’t faze him. “It’s not about knowing whether the art is good or bad,” says König. “I’m able to build up an imagination of the piece and this forms a communication with the artist, which is very important, to also form trust.”

Anyone can become blind, at any age, any time. According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired—39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision, 90% of whom live in developing countries. Roughly 82% of the visually impaired are over the age of 50. The United States is home to 6.6 million blind citizens over the age of 16, according to the National Federation of the Blind. And viewed collectively, these statistics make up a ripe challenge—one that designers can truly impact.

THE BRAILLE REVOLUTION

Braille, the embossed language for the visually impaired, is seeing revolutionary changes in its design. It’s the advent of the long-awaited “braille revolution” that Fredric Schroeder, the first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, called for in 1994. Schroeder defined it as necessary “for true social equality.”

“Today, we have braille on medical packaging, wine labels, restaurant menus, personal cards,” Portuguese graphic designer Bruno Brites says. “It is also possible to have braille dots with color, which explores the visual side of braille and its aesthetic shape.”

Canadian, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Israeli and Russian currencies are printed with braille, as are British pillboxes and American buildings. With Apple products, the blind can take photos of words and hear them transcribed—a braille note-taker app for the iPad called iBrailler Notes was recently unveiled, too, offering a way to quickly type braille notes on a touchscreen. The visually impaired can also browse the web with the B2G braille keyboard and JAWS software, a tool that reads websites aloud. The blind can use word-to-audio narration Kurzweil, use the braille translator Duxbury DBT with more than 130 languages and the NDVA open-source reading software.

In 2014, the first commercially affordable 3D printed braille phone also hit the market by OwnPhone, while Index Braille released a portable braille embosser called Basic-D. And in 2015, Apple’s VoiceOver, which reads speech in Apple products, garnered the 2015 Helen Keller Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind.

3D printed braille phone by OwnFone

3D printed braille phone by OwnFone

“Braille has adapted wonderfully to modern technologies,” says Marie-Renée Hector, a blind ceramics sculptor who was partially sighted until 1995, when her retina detached. But, “With new technologies and computer speech development, some people say that it is the end of braille, that it has become useless or obsolete. These people don’t know what they’re talking about or have lost their sight late and don’t want to adapt to their new condition. Braille pages can now have different formats and large maps can be made of towns, countries, as well as art books, geometry, chemistry diagrams and graphs.”

While speech synthesizers are much faster, “refreshable braille displays”—electronic devices that feature morphing braille characters via raised pins on a keyboard-like structure—are ideal for deaf-blind users. “[It] represents a huge step for the blind in having a quick access to a computer and general information—these devices make visually impaired people much more independent, more literate and free in their own lives,” Brites says.

There is even a braille version of Playboy, which has been printed since 1970. Held in the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Internet Archive brought it online in 2011. Naturally, it’s read for the articles, as there is no pictorial version. (That’s left to pornfortheblind.org, a volunteer-run website that donates porn audio clips.)

One hub for print development is The National Braille Press, a braille magazine publisher, which launched the Center for Braille Innovation in Boston. Built as a base for new ideas and affordable tech tools, the Center recently held a tactile graphic and thermoform workshop that aids braille. By featuring design tools to create lines and braille textures on a thermoform machine, it seems almost anything can be printed on a ViewPlus Tiger embosser—at least someday.

THE HISTORY OF BRAILLE

The history of braille started 191 years ago, around the same time James Monroe was president and people were going to Beethoven concerts. “Braille” is the surname of Louis Braille, a French scholar who lost his eyesight in a childhood accident—one similar to that of König. While he was studying at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Braille created a reading and writing code in 1824, when he was just 15 years old. Inspired by the military cryptography system created by French army captain Charles Barbier (who developed “night writing” for Napoleon’s military to read in darkness), Braille created the raised dot-based system for the blind “to be treated as equals,” as he said, “and communication is the way this can be brought about.”

While it was first invented for the French alphabet, English braille soon followed. As National Braille Press explains, “The braille cell is a unit of six raised or embossed dots—two horizontally and three vertically. Each dot in the cell is referenced by its placement numbers of dot 1 through dot 6. Various combinations of the six dots represent letters, numbers and word contractions.”

Today, there are three braille codes:

  • Grade One (uncondensed) braille spells out the 26 letters of the alphabet.
  • Grade Two (condensed) braille—the standard for most users—is literary, condensing words into cells made of 250 photogram letters, numbers, abbreviations, contractions, punctuation and formatting marks.
  • Building on the Grade Two contractions, Grade Three braille is shorthand for fast readers. It adds 200 celled words to the vocabulary (for example, the word acknowledge in short form is ack).

Both Grade Two and Grade Three braille are condensed for practical reasons (paper) and length issues.

There are also embossed graphs and illustrations, as well as braille numbers (called Nemeth) and braille musical notation—as Louis Braille was a cellist and organ player in the Parisian Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs.

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Braille design can only be read if it’s measured correctly to fit under the reader’s fingertips. “If cells are too small, too large, too close together or uneven in spacing, the message can’t be read properly,” says Frances Mary D’Andrea, chair of the Braille Authority of North America. “There is a standard size for each cell and standard distances between cells and even within a cell.”

So, no “font” sizes can be changed. According to National Braille Press, a standard braille page is 11 inches by 11.5 inches, and a 12-point document will essentially double in length with braille.

Exclamation marks? All caps? Italics? When braille needs to indicate a change in the type, symbols are added before and after a word, phrase or paragraph, not unlike the Spanish language.

To help readers and transcribers, the design of braille follows the format guidelines of each country’s braille authority (in the U.S., for example, that is the Braille Authority of North America).

“There are levels of headings, formats for things like columns, poetry, footnotes, captions, and all sorts of text elements,” says D’Andrea. “And of course, many braille readers use electronic braille displays to read material online or stored electronically. The design of those devices is also important to readability.”

With such a comprehensive system in place, one wonders why braille literacy is so low. The National Federation of the Blind says only 10% of the visually impaired can read braille (a statistic they’re attempting to improve through educational resources and initiatives).

One reason for such low literacy is because many who are blind or severely visually impaired are above 65 years old, “and many don’t have the opportunity to learn braille for complicated reasons,” says D’Andrea. “In children, blindness and visual impairment are considered a ‘low-incidence’ disability in the U.S.—one of the lowest in all of special education. Many children with visual impairments also have additional disabilities, including cognitive disabilities that make braille reading slower or more difficult for them. Service delivery issues factor in.”

There are braille bookstores, both online (Amazon’s bestselling braille list includes several children’s book titles) and in major cities, which sell everything from Danielle Steel to Star Trek, as well as young adult novels, textbooks and children’s books. The problem is that braille books are heavy and expensive to produce, with mounting costs for expert transcription, proper paper, embossing—and then often assembling the book by hand, since modern binding equipment doesn’t handle braille well.

When National Braille Press printed the Harry Potter series, it clocked in at over 56 volumes, each tome at least 12 inches thick. They’re not cheap, either: Each Harry Potter book costs between $65 and $218, depending on its length—and that’s before the costs of shipping a 50-pound book.

harrypotterbraille

A braille edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in five volumes

Some organizations have been working on the problem, though—a nonprofit called Seedlings collects donations and sells braille books to children for a low cost average, such as $10 a book—and others are working on designs to spread braille literacy to even more potential readers who may not have the money or resources to get their hands on a braille book.

PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES OF BRAILLE

While every facet of design has its superheroes and heroines, so too does braille.

One of them is Philipp Meyer, who designed an experimental, tactile comic book for the blind called Life. Possibly the first braille comic ever, the story unfolds through shaped characters that call to mind a game of “Pong,” but with a non-text narrative. “I always wanted to see how graphically simplifed a story can be without losing its meaning,” Meyer writes on his website. “I wanted to use comic techniques, the user’s imagination, and let the medium do the work.”

comic-book-for-blind-history-of-braille-1comic-book-for-blind-history-of-braille

Philipp Meyer’s tactile comic, Life

It isn’t a superhero comic book. Every page has four frames depicting situations with braille numbers to explain the reading direction. The first frames introduce one character—a circle—that grows up and meets another, represented by a circle with a different texture. “They get closer and closer until they have a child, who leaves home at some point; then one human dies, and after a while the other human dies as well,” says Meyer. “It’s about life itself.”

Meanwhile, Brites designed a braille version of Message, a poetry book by Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. A design master’s project at the Duncan and Jordanstone College of Art and Design, it was produced in collaboration with ceramicists, bookbinders and two braille readers. “My blind collaborators participated in the design process, helping to certify the legibility of braille, discussing the best solutions to achieve the final layout of the haptic image and choosing the best materials,” says Brites. “As a graphic designer, it was definitely a test of my communication boundaries.”

messageinbraille_c

The sculptor Hector helped Brites with his book, which originated as a ceramics book, lo and behold. “I have always been a defender of braille, being blind myself and having learned braille from the age of 4,” Hector says. “When I met Bruno, we exchanged a lot [of ideas] about his book and I encouraged him to create a poetry book; we discussed its aspects, the pleasure of touching different materials, the coldness or softness of materials for fingers. … It was really great for me to meet him because he showed me how much he believed in the development of beautiful objects together with braille. I am always grateful to those who have no prejudices whatsoever.”

Braille and standard typography have also seen recent overlaps. German designer Simone Fahrenhorst created an alphabet that combines braille into “a new typography that can be seen as an intersection between braille and normal print,” as a way to prepare the elderly for reading braille type, says Fahrenhorst.

learningbrailletype_simonefahrenhorst_01learningbrailletype_simonefahrenhorst_02Simone Fahrenhorst created a hybrid braille alphabet as a solution to the loss of sight of elderly people. Image source.

braille-typography

Braille type by Simone Fahrenhorst.

Meanwhile, English designer Greg Bland created an alternative braille typeface based upon the “Kobigraph,” a typographic bridge between embossed braille and the alphabet. His typeface, the Kobi Serif, is an alternative to braille inspired by calligraphy inspired by Korean symbols. It can be read by everyone—it embodies the same cell structure as braille but the dots are connected with a calligraphic script “as a guide,” says Bland, “to get people understanding braille.”

braille-typeface-3

braille-typeface

Award-winning designer Rene Put took a similar approach with stamps created for the Dutch national post, combining text and braille to celebrate Louis Braille’s birthday. “Read Them” offered short phrases that combined braille and text into what Put calls “a typographical puzzle.”

stamps

“For the first time, the blind could read and experience a stamp,” says Put, who, for each phrase, added the missing letters by printing them on the back of the stamp (sort of like a cheat sheet).

BRAILLE AS ART

Some of the most fascinating recent creative developments in braille are the role it has been playing in the arts. A festival called the Blind Creations Conference in England kicked off in 2015 at Royal Holloway University in Egham, Surrey.

A hub for academics who cover blind topics, it stretched far beyond your typical PowerPoint presentations by including a haptic exhibition. Works by seven blind artists were on show, hoping to break down the “helpless blind” stereotype. Rather, it’s “not just giving people a piece of braille but playing with issues around celebrating blindness as a creative force,” says Hannah Thompson, a blind educator who co-founded the event with Vanessa Warne.

Bringing together academics, designers and artists, Thompson and Warne pulled together a program of tactile art, photographs taken by the blind, audio-directed theater, public art sculptures and raised print poetry. “It’s a different way to experience art and design,” Thompson says.

And not only that, but it breaks the rules of the art world, too. “Do not touch the art” has a whole new meaning. “Everyone was allowed to touch everything,” laughs Thompson, who specializes in French literature at Royal Holloway.

One highlight from the festival included a public sculpture carved from concrete by blind English artist David Johnson called “Too Big to Feel.” Johnson created 18 large concrete domes that are each 66 pounds in weight. They sit on a grassy slope in front of the conference, and spell out “Seeing Red” in Grade Two braille. The artist, who became blind in his mid-30s, made the pieces by pouring concrete into plastic bags on a table with a carved out hole. “He wanted to make the point that visual metaphors have become so much of our language,” says Thompson. “‘Seeing Red’ is not about seeing but understanding or believing, as blind artists connect with the world through touch.”

too-big-to-feel-history-of-braille

“Too Big to Feel”

The piece poses a paradox: If you’re blind, you can’t read the work as braille unless you awkwardly crawl across the grass piecing it together—but even then it’s simply too big, says Thompson. If you’re sighted, you can’t read it either because you never learned braille. That middle point is the crux, however. “Braille is creative—it’s an inventive way of expressing things,” she says. “An artform.”

Aaron McPeake’s work on display at the Blind Creations Conference. Photo by Vanessa Warne.Aaron McPeake’s work on display at the Blind Creations Conference. Photo by Vanessa Warne.

The conference also featured a cameo from a London-based theater company for the visually impaired, Extant, which is developing a handheld haptic white cube called the Animotus that leads attendees through a pitch-dark play with an indoor localization system similar to GPS.

Created in collaboration with Dr. Ad Spiers of Yale University and Dr. Janet van der Linden of Open University, the pilot play, “Flatland,” dressed guests up in neoprene, spacesuit-like uniforms wired to the Animotus. Through localization systems, WiFi and radio frequencies, instructions were sent in real time to the devices through a microcontroller in the system’s hardware.

The show is sort of an Orwellian dystopia, a world where talking is prohibited. Based on a satirical novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott written in 1884, guests are transported to the world described in the book, primarily hearing and feeling. Able to move around the dark theater with the plastic cubes in their hands, guests are led by vibrations. So far, the project has received £125,000 in government funding for the development of the cube, and a full public performance is set for 2018.

But most important: Experts say devices like this could make the visually impaired more independent by allowing them to navigate the unknown with trust, potentially replacing guide dogs and canes and ushering in a new era of autonomy.

DAWN OF THE REVOLUTION

Back in the day, when Schroeder, who is now 58, called for a braille revolution, he said:

We must do it by first believing that we are as capable as others, by banding together and demanding access to literacy comparable with our sighted peers. We must do it by coming together through organizations such as the Italian Blind Union, the European Blind Union, and the World Blind Union and convincing society that our claim to equality is not merely wishful thinking or hyperbole, but fact.

Once we have achieved a shift in the way we and society view blindness and adjust our expectations accordingly, then I believe the resources will follow. By reshaping society’s assumptions about blindness, we can begin replacing the belief that minimal functioning is all that can be expected from the blind. Once this has been achieved, braille becomes no longer simply the method by which the less-fortunate read, but instead takes its rightful place as the means to literacy for the blind.

The revolution continues.


This article was originally published in PRINT Magazine. Check out the latest issue or subscribe to learn more about the why of design, all year long.

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