We’ve been asked a few times lately for our thoughts on the Open Dyslexic font currently doing the rounds on-line. Kirstin was even buttonholed at London Book Fair by an aspiring author who said we should cease to use our own typeface ”“ Barrington Stoke Roman ”“ in favour of Open Dyslexic. ‘I don’t like what you do but you should publish me’ is the worst pitch we’ve ever heard and we don’t publish debut authors. But the encounter inspired us to explain a little more about our typeface, and to take a good look at Open Dyslexic.
The first step in reading text is a visual process ”“ the reader looks at the word or words on the page and analyses the features of the letters. We then use this data to search our memory banks for known words or to decode new ones.
But people with reading difficulties often struggle with visual discrimination. They may confuse letters, or muddle their order. The text may even seem to jump around on the page. We use a number of design measures to help tackle these issues, including our typeface itself.
Barrington Stoke Roman uses clear characters including simple forms of lower-case A and G. But it’s not a sans-serif font ”“ there are serifs on many letters. This helps reduce ambiguity, so for example our ‘d’, ‘b’, ‘p’ and ‘q’ forms are not the same shape in different orientations. The serifs also help words hang together visually ”“ this is helpful when using increased character spacing, as we do. Serifs can also cue the eye to track in the correct direction. And serifs give letters more distinctive shape ”“ more presence on the page, if you like. We believe that all this can help a reader with poor visual discrimination. For the same reason, our letters have varied heights.
Open Dyslexic’s creators are concerned with many of the same issues as we are. They say their ”˜letters have heavy weighted bottoms to indicate direction. You are able to quickly figure out which part of the letter is down which aids in recognizing the correct letter, and sometimes helps to keep your brain from rotating them around. Consistently weighted bottoms can also help reinforce the line of text. The unique shapes of each letter can help prevent confusion through flipping and swapping.’
We don’t, however, think that they have achieved all they claim. Their capital ”˜I’ has no serifs and could easily be a lower-case ”˜L’. Their ”˜p’, ”˜d’ and ”˜b’ are very similar save for orientation. Some letters seem to have very little shape at all ”“ the lower-case ”˜R’, for example, has almost no presence on the page. The heavy bottoms idea is interesting but the bottoms aren’t even and we find there to have been too little attention paid to ascenders and descenders ”“ these are so short that we find a page of text in Open Dyslexic actually quite difficult to read. See http://opendyslexic.org/about/ for an example.
Type design is a complicated business. While we created the specification for our typeface, it was designed by a professional type designer. Open Dyslexic was not, and we think it shows. Simply put, we don’t think it’s anywhere near the quality required for professional print purposes.
Of course, it’s fantastic that there’s attention being given to increasing accessibility for individuals with dyslexia. But while we all travel in hope, there are dangers in uncritical embracing of every new ”˜wonder’ solution. Here’s a British Dyslexia Association representative on Open Dyslexic: ‘I especially like the spacing between letters, as it is even and regular, which is recommended within the BDA Style Guide.’ Look again at the box of Open Dyslexic above. Can you see how uneven the spacing actually is? To give just two examples, ”˜P’ and ”˜Q’ in upper and lower cases are almost kissing and ”˜O’ in lower case is stranded ”“ it almost appears to be a word on its own. Has the BDA has projected onto Open Dyslexic that which it wishes to see?
In closing, then, here’s a call for recognition that enthusiastic amateurs are a brilliant resource (and can actually often garner more media attention for their efforts since they’re generally not required to pay for it), but we need to recognise the place of professionals too. We sincerely hope that in a world in which anyone with a tablet can design a font, there will still be a place for trained type designers. And typefaces, fonts, whatever you call them, are only one weapon in the arsenal when it comes to readability. Trained typesetters can adjust line and letter spacing to reduce crowding between letters and words, reducing in turn the tendency for a dyslexic person’s brain to muddle up the order. They will avoid right-hand justification because they understand that it can create an impenetrable ”˜block’ of text with uneven spacing, and they can balance the need for chunks of words with point size, kerning, and all the other variables most laymen know nothing about.
And despite all that, no matter how much we travel in hope, there are no ”˜magic’ solutions to the challenges of dyslexia ”“ just care, hard work and support that recognises the particular needs of the individual.
– – –
Resources and further reading
If you’re on Linked In, you can follow an interesting thread picking up on many of the above points (Mairi is one of the contributors).
If you want to try Open Dyslexic, you can find it here.
Barrington Stoke Roman is available under license to publishers for versions of Barrington Stoke content. If you are looking for a readily available font with many similar properties for home use, we like Ayuthaya, which comes free with Mac OS X, or Stone Serif.