Those of you who are not into agitative, unusual letter forms have probably never heard of Viktoriya Grabowska. She is an Ukrainian type designer, teacher and researcher based in Poland. Her latest research exploration revolves around an alternative writing system for blind people that derives from the early 19th Century. Other than the writing systems Braille (the international standard for several decades already) or Moon type (based on modified letter shapes), this typeface uses the same standardised letter forms for sighted people. Similar to these other systems, this typeface is tactile and readable by touch, as the letter forms are embossed into paper.
Viktoriya starts off with the history of the typeface. Wilhelm Klein, the founder and director of the Vienna Institute for Blind, introduced relief prints with a serif typeface in 1800. In 1810 Klein introduced another typeface with intermittent strokes, since they are supposed to be easier to read by touch rather than smooth continuous strokes. Letters are pressed with needles into paper. This procedure is actually based on the idea of the blind music composer named Maria Teresia von Paradis, who regained her sight and lost it again over the course of her life. Interestingly enough she was not happy with being able to see and felt right home when she lost her eye sight again. Even though Maria Teresia came up with the idea of the intermitted stroke letter shape by writing her music compositions (which makes it a dotted letter), Klein never credited her.
Since there is an internationally established writing system for blind people, it begs the question what the need of this typeface is. Viktoriya pointed out that this typeface is not only readable by blind people but also by sighted people which would create a shared platform for both parties to communicate. Although this typeface uses the advantages of being readable for sighted people, it is not meant to be a substitution for Braille. It’s merely used as an educational tool to teach the standardised letter forms to the blind.
The main reader audience consists of blind and sightless children. As of right now it is tested in different institutions for blind children in Poland. It can also be useful for adults, as letterforms are forgotten over time without using them.
Furthermore, she claims that the standardised letter forms are easy to explain by comparing them with things from daily life—the figure eight has a similar form to an hour glass for example.
Viktoriya explains her process in order to make Teresia’s idea as readable as possible. First she figured out that bringing everything into one continuous line saves time reading; for the fingers to distinguish between upper and lowercase and searching for descenders and ascenders would take too long. It seems logical to only use uppercase letters. Unlike “normal” typefaces, details like letter apertures don’t have to be similar and it’s more important to make the letters differentiable from each other. Bigger and more generous counters also help reading faster. In general, simple and more pronounced letter shapes are easier for the finger to perceive. The letters need rather wide spacing and almost no kerning to stay separate, simultaneously close enough for words to stay intact. Same goes for the leading where too much makes it difficult to find the next line, and too little makes it difficult for the finger to differentiate which line it is reading.
This brought Viktoriya to a whole new problem; diacritics. Since she is living and testing this typeface in Poland, accents are needed on top and under letters. These accents need to be simple but recognisable, for example the dot accent needs to look different from the Kreska. But there are only a few dots you can play with to make your accent. If the accents are getting too big, bigger leading is needed in order for the lines not to clash. One possible approach was to make the letters a little smaller, in order to have distinguishable accents and retain the proper leading that tested well with the blind participants. To verify the test results bigger testing groups need to be consulted.
Another question was the genereal size that the typeface should be used in. Just like in “normal” type Viktoriya created optical sizes. More dots for big use and less dots for small sizes. While the big size are mainly used for memorising the letter forms, the smaller sizes are for reading. And yet again the big size can’t be too big. And since the letters are getting embossed and the material might differ, Viktoriya made different dot sizes. Thicker paper needs smaller dots, because the impact will be bigger, while thin paper needs bigger dots.
All of these different fonts make it quite hard to keep a clear overview on what font to use in which situation. Since reading manuals is boring and no one really does it, an additional software could be a simple solution to make it a cake-walk to use the right font. An example of this is software that lets you choose your parameters and it will produce the right dot size. As awesome as this software sounds, unfortunately it doesn’t exist yet. Since Viktoriya is a type designer and not a programmer, any helpers out there that could solve this problem are welcome to get in touch!
The name of the typeface will be Maria Teresia, finally giving her the credit that she deserves.