Dyslexia affects a significant amount of the worldwide population and it’s time we started taking it into account when we are writing our books, building our websites, writing our articles, and so on. Precise placement of legible text requires knowing the specifics, like what font you are going to use and how big. Whilst small text or similar characters can look fantastic on an article or in a novel in terms of presentation, in terms of legibility, these design choices can be significant drawbacks. Whether you are a webmaster looking for user-friendly design tips to use for your website redesign or a writer for an academic textbook, you need to consider accessibility for those with disadvantaged reading and writing skills.
This is especially vital for businesses that send important documentation to customers. If a person struggles to read what they have been sent, it can have dire consequences if it leads them to misinterpret a bill or legal summons. Often the contents of these kinds of letters can be hard enough to understand and not using an accessible typeface will only make things hard for people with dyslexia. Not only should the main text of a letter be easy to read, but the logo and letterhead should be too so that the customer knows exactly who has sent the letter. Why not print your letterheads with Kaizen Print if you are worried about readability? They can make sure that your business letters are not only professional but that the typeface is easy to read as well.
When I was writing my book “Misho of the Mountain”, I knew right from the start that I wanted to provide a version of my book that would allow more children to enjoy “Misho of the Mountain.” This includes children with dyslexia and parents with dyslexia who would be reading Misho aloud. This article is an exploration of that journey and how it might help you understand and accommodate dyslexics in your design.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence. It’s neurobiological in origin with an apparent genetic component. So it’s built-in and can be inherited.
Conservative estimates say that between 5 and 10 percent of the population have it, so it’s not rare. Some estimates for countries with high rates of literacy say it may be as high as 17%. No correlation has been found between the incidence of dyslexia and nationality, income, ethnicity, race, or IQ, and experts are even beginning to question whether it is more common among boys than girls.
What is it like to have dyslexia?
The common perception of dyslexia is that of swapping letters in a word. It is actually much more complex than that. One of the common elements of dyslexia is the confusion of letters with extra “legs,” like, p, q, d, b, etc. People with dyslexia do report character reversals and swapping but also letters jumping around on the page. (Check out the Huffington Post article linked at the end that may disagree with some of this.) A friend with dyslexia and a master’s degree in education used to describe how difficult it was to get through her college years because the letters in her textbooks jittered and jumped on the page. I never truly understood until I found this video that simulates some of the manifestations of dyslexia:
Click the Play arrow to see the jittery effect. If this embedded video doesn’t work in your browser, try it on GitHub.
Ouch! That would slow anyone down.
The role of the brain in dyslexia
The existence of dyslexia is not really a big surprise when you consider all the different areas of the brain that participate in decoding and interpreting written characters. There are a lot of moving parts, so to speak, that have to work in synchrony. Consider the fact that the eye sends a reversed image to the brain, which then has to swap it back around. Biology and inheritance is extremely variable, so you’ve got a recipe for some folks being wired a little differently when it comes to interpreting letters and words.
As you would expect, having this condition can affect grades, socialization, anxiety, adapting to a new language for immigrants, and more. In areas where schools don’t have appropriate programs to help deal with dyslexia, kids with dyslexia may be homeschooled. This can have a profound effect on the lives of children and adults.
Searching for the Perfect Font for Dyslexia
Reading should be fun, not something to cause anxiety or stress. So I decided to look for a font to use for a version of “Misho of the Mountain” that makes it easier for kids with dyslexia.
There are a number of fonts that make claims that they are easier to read. They use a combination of strategies to help readers differentiate letters: differently shaped letter bodies, reducing symmetry, longer descenders or embellishments to differentiate descenders and ascenders (I like to think of them as tails and flagpoles), thicker sections to “anchor” the letters at the baseline.
Research to support special fonts for dyslexia is inconsistent. No one font has been proven to be consistently and profoundly easier to read than simple Sans-serif fonts. Nonetheless, there was enough for me to define a few necessary criteria for Misho’s font:
- Does the job: some plausible research needs to exist to support claims of easier comprehension for dyslexics
- Looks good: the font must meet our standards for whimsical and pleasing style to match Misho’s general aesthetic
- Won’t break the bank: As an indie publisher, I am willing to pay for a professional font within reason
The font with highest marks and the most recommendations on various sites was Dyslexie . Developed in the Netherlands by Christian Boer, this font has a seemingly great pedigree and a professional Web site plus pricing plans for publishers (it’s free for personal use). Unfortunately, their business model was too expensive. The font required an ongoing subscription or a royalty contract to keep using it over time. The price was based on how many books we sell, and we would have to submit our financial records to a third party accounting firm to prove our numbers. (Yes, I read the fine print in the contracts!) When it comes to accounting, I must say I’m not a natural at it. I think a full-service bookkeeping and payroll company could really be beneficial to people like me who don’t find numbers and money the easiest, to begin with.
That’s too much complexity for a self-publisher. Their support staff were very friendly and helpful, but the bottom line was that the price was too high. And although they have more research than most to back them, it was still too slim to justify the price point for my use. (See the link at the end for an evaluation of the research.)
Our next choice was Sylexiad, which was created by Dr. Robert Hillier, a Senior Lecturer at Norwich University College of Arts in Great Britain. The font had been developed as part of his research. We were pretty excited that the font seemed to be available. But to our dismay, all the Buy Now links led to File Not Found pages.
I corresponded with Dr. Hillier, from whom I discovered that the company with the rights to the font went out of business. No further information was forthcoming about when Dr. Hillier might be able to recover the rights so that he could sell his font on his own.
I found a few other open source and paid fonts, but either the trail died out on them or the aesthetic was not right.
Misho and industry standards
“Misho of the Mountain” is a hybrid: an Illustrated Early Chapter book–not a Picture Book. It bridges the gap between Chapter and Picture books (more on this choice in another post), combining higher word count with more detailed graphical elements. The physical parameters and the target audience require smaller fonts to meet industry standards.
Yet increased font size, line height, and character spacing all contribute to the reading speed and comfort of people with dyslexia, whether or not a font was designed to counteract dyslexia. With this information in mind, I decided to scrap the idea of a dyslexia-specific font and use a dyslexia-friendly font, especially the main manuscript text. If I took into account the font sizing and formatting I would have a book that was more dyslexic-friendly than by just having the font.
I am also considering free downloads of an audio file for those who have purchased the printed or e-book as a way to accommodate readers with different abilities.
As production progresses, I will definitely keep in mind the features that will make “Misho of the Mountain” an enjoyable experience for all readers.
Fonts That Have Been Proposed for Dyslexia
Typography & Dyslexia
International Dyslexia Association
What It’s Like to Have Dyslexia
This Website Attempts to Simulate Dyslexia
Typefaces for Dyslexics
4 Common Dyslexia Myths Debunked Using Neuroscience