Why Graphic Design Should Engage More Than Just the Sense of Sight

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Samuel Gridley Howe’s Boston Line

If McLean’s maps translate smell for the eye, a rare historical project in the show eliminates the need for sight entirely. In 1935 Samuel Gridley Howe, a 19th century physician, abolitionist, and advocate of education for the blind, created an embossed typeface specifically for the visually impaired. Unlike Braille, its close contemporary, Howe’s Boston Line system was based on the Roman alphabets. Each character was designed to be distinct enough from the others that it could be identified quickly by touch. The bowl of the “p,” for example, is curved, while the bowl of the “d” is diamond-shaped. There are no ascenders or descenders, and no lowercase and uppercase characters.

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ELIA Frames

Howe’s system never took off the way that Braille did, likely because the tactile reading of Roman letterforms is slow and clunky. But recently a new system called ELIA Frames has picked up the mantle, with symbols that are that are based on the Roman alphabet but also designed to be read quickly and to be scaleable at different font sizes. The idea behind ELIA, which has been tested on nearly 200,000 participants, is that it builds on the knowledge that many visually impaired people already have, particularly if they were sighted at one point. Though both Boston Line and ELIA are designed to be read by touch, they also have a strong visual quality to them, and would be easier for people of all abilities to learn.

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