Viktoriya Grabowska's pioneering digital typeface for visually impaired people

Viktoriya Grabowska's Maria Theresia digital typeface

Many of us know braille — the tactile writing system for blind and visually impaired people — but are unfamiliar with an earlier story of which has sparked the innovative project of Polish type designer Viktoriya Grabowska.

It began with Johann Wilhelm Klein in the early 1800s in Vienna and Austrian musician and composer Maria Theresia Paradis who was blind. Speaking at design conference Typo 2017 in Berlin, independent type designer Viktoriya Grabowska gives Maria credit for the idea of reproducing letter shapes. Maria invented her own system of music notation with the aim to transmit her compositions to a sighted orchestra. By using the specific tool she was able to reproduce letters by pressing needles onto paper to create a relief, or raised points, in the paper.

Wilhelm developed Maria's ideas into metal fonts and printed a Textbook for Instruction of the Blind in 1819 which was considered a guide by generations of teachers. He also invented a hand device for the blind to use when typing, so sighted people could interpret what they wrote.

A relief print made with variations of Johann Wilhelm Klein's metal fonts
A variation of Klein's metal fonts with needles (left) with a letter Q reproduced from it, and without needles (right)

New life for a forgotten typeface

Two hundred years later Viktoriya became fascinated and inspired by Wilhelm’s device, which was pointed out to her in a museum by Marek Jakubowski. Marek worked for many years as a teacher at a school for visually impaired children in the Polish village of Owinska and is an author of many techniques for tactile graphics and publications dedicated to the education of blind and its history. 

Marek and Viktoriya began to collaborate on designing a digital typeface aimed to help visually impaired people (primarily children, but also adults) learn the letter shapes used by sighted people. The typeface is inspired by the work of Wilhelm and Maria, and therefore named after Maria Theresia.

"I think the best situation is when we can join forces – when a type designer can bring their expertise and someone who works with visually impaired people, and also the testers. If we could bring these together I believe we could get a valuable product," she says.

"I would like to bring back [Maria’s] name to this project, and I would like to name the set of fonts I’m working on with her name."

Relief prints made with variations of Johann Wilhelm Klein metal fonts

Why this typeface is important

Viktoriya aims to create a typeface which can be used in educational process to support learning letter shapes by visually impaired people. In Poland the program for schools for blind children includes the teaching of lettershapes, but in reality teachers don't have the right tools. The goal of the project is to produce a system of digital fonts for education and to test it according to the needs of users.  A digital adaptation like this has never existed before, as far as Viktoriya is aware, and there's no deadline or budget for the project - it’s purely out of passion and conviction. She’s currently testing various parameters of the typeface, among them are different constructions of letter shapes and different sizes and quantity of dots.

Her project is not be confused as a substitute for braille however, or to be in any competition to it. Instead it's an educational tool to support learning letter shapes for blind people. 

The main goal is to bring an understanding of letter shapes familiar to sighted people into the curriculum for visually impaired children. Viktoriya says letter shapes are used not only as a part of reading and writing process. They are part of our culture and sometimes used in verbal communication, for example to refer to particular shape or describe an object. Knowledge of the letterforms will create an additional communication plane between blind and sighted.

Viktoriya speaking at Typo 2017 in Berlin

"I'm a type designer and I mostly design type for people with sight, so I’m all about polishing with nice curves and looking for nice shapes and this project is a bit different," says Viktoriya. "It requires reconsideration for a lot of my habits and usual perspective and this is what really excites me and motivates me."

How a digital typeface becomes tactile

Viktoriya's Maria Theresia typeface will be a set of digital fonts created digitally, which will be reproduced by a thermoforming technique onto thin plastic to create raised dots. 

The fonts can be installed and used in InDesign, Illustrator or other graphic editors to type text and export graphic files. The files are then used to produce the matrix, which is used in the thermoforming technique. This technique is when a sheet of thin plastic is put on top of the matrix and inside a specific machine set with a high temperature. The plastic sheet is melted and formed onto the matrix so the dots become raised, and then the sheet is cooled. This is how the white plastic sample seen below was produced. 

There are various typeface sizes in Viktoirya's tests: bigger size for learning the lettershapes and smaller size for reading
Viktoriya's Maria Theresia fonts next to braille used for description of tactile graphics, with tactile graphics by Studio Tyflograf

Viktoriya says most educational materials for blind and visually impaired people are currently produced in this way in Poland. Another techniques used is piaf (picture in a flash), which involves transforming a print or drawing made with black to tactile graphic, however the paper used in this technique is more expensive which makes it less affordable for Polish schools.

How to create a typeface for tactile reading

Although Viktoriya began her research by observing Wilhelm's typeface for size and quality of printing, she is quick to note historical sources won’t provide all the evidence and need critical analysis. 

She aims to create skeletons of letter shapes that are popular now amongst Polish users, but is faced with many varying factors. Reading by touch is completely different to reading by sight, and can be much slower. From tests and research carried out so far, Viktoriya found visually impaired people prefer reading by touch upper case letters over lower case, and more generous contours for each letter. The size of the dots that make up each new letter need to be just right. If the dots are too small, they might be difficult to notice for the reader, or if they’re too sharp, the typeface might become painful after a while to touch. A person’s age, health and sensitivity of fingers all need to be taken into consideration.

Even factors such as the letter Q not having the line enter the middle of the O is preferred and the letter B possessing a more pronounced join between the top and bottom shapes. Punctuation has to be big enough to comprehend – Viktoriya found a single dot is not enough to end a sentence.

Spacing and kerning are also essential factors. Each letter needs to be distinctly separated to be recognised, as collisions of letters are undesirable. Below is another example of Viktorya's Maria Theresia typeface in digital form.

The typeface is already being tested mostly in Specjalny Osrodek Szkolno - Wychowawczy dla Dzieci Niewidomych (School for visually impaired children in Owinska). 

"Writing might be banal to us but to the blind who don’t often do it, it’s not banal at all," she says.

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