How Accessible Typography Makes Classrooms More Inclusive

Posted inType Tuesday

While User Experience Designers and User Interface Designers are discussed often in the design world, Learning Experience Designers (LXD) tend to fall under the radar. These designers use research, theory, and design techniques to influence classroom presentation and curriculums and create resources for teachers to present information to students in accessible ways.

Lauren Heil began her career as an Art Director and Graphic Designer before switching to the world of education. After working as a middle school teacher, she blended her career into that of an LXD. Heil has the unique opportunity of helping teachers to understand how their students best learn through design, typography, and color. In today’s installment of Type Tuesday, I sat down with Heil to ask a few questions about how educators can keep children’s best intentions in mind through a typographical lens.

Can you explain what a Learning Designer is? 

A learning designer designs and develops instructional materials and educational programs. 

Depending on the role, this might include creating lesson plans, curriculum, and assessments, and then also considering the different ways a learner could navigate that learning experience. So thinking through the particular skills or knowledge that needs to be gained and designing curriculum that’s going to be effective for the learner. 

My job as a Learning Experience Designer is to design and develop professional online learning experiences for K-12 educators so that they can build skills in educational technology to use in classrooms and with staff.

How does font choice impact children in a classroom setting? 

Font choice can make a huge difference in readability! When I train teachers on this, we talk about using sans serif fonts, x-height, line length, line spacing, etc. The same way a web or UI designer would make a font choice so that content is readable, teachers can be thinking about the same things for students.

For younger students learning to read and students with dyslexia, shape recognition is so important. A teacher might have the best intentions using a fun and funky font on a worksheet or graphic organizer, but it actually ends up increasing the chances that a student completely opts out of the work because their brain is using so much energy to simply read the prompts or instructions.

Can you explain how the ever-popular, kitschy script fonts can interfere with children’s learning experiences? 

Readability is all about quick shape recognition! Hop on to Teachers Pay Teachers (I think they just go by TPT now), a website where educators can create and sell class materials, and you’ll see this handwriting-style cursive font used almost everywhere.

Younger students need solid and easy to read text choices, and in a script style font, those letters don’t always look the same as they would in a script or sans serif font. Teachers are doing the right thing in trying to use font choice to convey joy in the materials they’re creating, so instead we try to find ways that they can do that through graphics or color palette while keeping text in its most readable state.

How can teachers improve students’ learning abilities through typography?

Maybe I’m speaking for myself here, but I don’t think I’m alone. I remember in school, I would take a look at a worksheet or graphic organizer and immediately think, “nope!” if it seemed like there was too much work (i.e. too much text) on the page. All of the rules of typography apply in the classroom.

I love training teachers on this because these are all decisions that they’re already making intuitively, and once they find out there are actual rules that someone can follow, it feels really energizing for most. We talk about hierarchy; making the most important information the most prominent. Line length and line spacing can impact readability. Font size is a big one that we touch on.

In today’s classroom, students are most likely using laptops provided by the district. Those screens are pretty small, so font size needs to be a consideration. Additionally, there are accommodations required for students with disabilities, and a common one is “visual chunking of information.” so how can we use the rule of proximity to actually do that for every student, increasing accessibility for all? To cultivate accessibility and inclusivity in the classroom, design rules must be used.

Are there any typefaces that are ideal in the classroom setting? Are there any that teachers should absolutely avoid? 

I’m so glad that you asked! The best fonts to use for body text in a classroom setting are the ones with a tall x-height; this makes the font appear larger than others that are the same pt size. I also tell teachers to look for a round “o.” Essentially a wide font, but not too wide.

Sans serif fonts typically wind up being the easiest to read on a digital document due to the low pixelation on the laptops students are using. I usually suggest staying away from fonts that are listed as script or condensed.

Can you touch on the typefaces made specifically for students with dyslexia? Are these helpful or unaccommodating? 

I wish that the fonts created to support students with dyslexia were more effective than they actually wind up being. How awesome would that be?! Unfortunately, though, there just isn’t enough evidence to suggest that they really impact reading speed or fluency.

Does that mean some students won’t find them effective? Not at all! Dyslexia fonts are typically weighted on the bottom in an attempt to help readers differentiate between common letter shapes or the lines of text. The problem is, dyslexia is a language-based processing difference, not a vision problem. So the visual treatment of the letters just doesn’t always have the impact that the font designers were hoping for. Instead, I tell educators to avoid using all caps, as the letter recognition is easier with lower case letters. Also, the same typography rules we’ve talked about so far also help dyslexic readers as well.