Design Technology and Dyslexia
In recent years, there has been a significant focus on accessibility in the design community, which is a massive step in the right direction. A lot of attention is going to optimising for the visually impaired and colourblindness, which is an excellent development. The more inclusive we can make the digital world, the better!
Globally, 1 in 12 males and 1 in 200 females are colourblind; current research states that colour blindness affects roughly 8% of males and 0,5% of females. The prevalence of people with distance visual impairment is 3.44%, of whom 0.49% are blind.
However, there has not been as much focus and attention for Dyslexia. Oddly enough, there are way more people experiencing a form of Dyslexia than there are people that are visually impaired or colourblind. Around 16% of the world population is experiencing a form of Dyslexia, and yet there is such a limited understanding of what it means to be Dyslectic.
Those who can read tend to take it for granted and are confused by many people’s struggles. When I grew up, people with Dyslexia were often considered less intelligent (you are not good at reading, so you must be stupid, right?). Luckily, since then, there has been a lot of research in this area, and It turns out some of the greatest minds in the world suffer or suffered from Dyslexia. People such as Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Leonardo da Vinci, John Lennon, Jamie Oliver, Pablo Picasso, Steven Spielberg, and even Albert Einstein are diagnosed with Dyslexia.
What actually is Dyslexia? Dyslexie comes from the Greek: δυς- dys- (Limited) and λέξις lexis (word). I take a little bit of offence to this word; not only is it a horrible word for a dyslectic to read and write, however, but my problem also is not that I have a smaller vocabulary than an average person. I can read the same complicated documents as any other person can. It only takes me a lot more energy to compile the symbols on the page.
I wonder what it’s like to be Dyslexic by Sam Barclay ‘I wonder what it’s like to be Dyslexic” is a beautifully designed book by Sam Barclay that illustrates some of the issues a person with Dyslexia might have.
The explanation of Dean Bragonier resonates with me: “We have an incredibly difficult time doing what’s called phonetic decoding. Phonetic decoding is essentially our ability to identify these squiggly lines, translate those lines into a sound in our mind and then string those sounds together to compose a word.” It’s kind of strange if you think about it: We use phonetic features in a purely visual medium. Take a word like Apple /ˈæ p (ə) l/ . Our brains translate every character into a sound, and we combine these sounds together to
Apple = æ p (ə) l = 🍎
So in this example, the second step, phonetic decoding, takes 5x times more energy for a dyslectic person. That’s why using graphical elements is a lot more efficient for a person with Dyslexia.
🍎 = 🍎
For me, the effect of being Dyslexic is a lot like reading a book that you hold about 1 meter (3 feet) away from your eyes. I can read the text, but I will get tired after reading for a while.
The solution? I’m no expert, but I do think people with Dyslexia are more geared towards processing visual information. This might be why so many people with Dyslexia end up in the creative field. I sometimes wonder how my life would have been if we all used symbols instead of letters, much like Chinese or Egyptian hieroglyph
Obviously, we can’t change anything about this, and even if we could; it would make things hard for other people: The Chinese dyslexics problem. Chinese readers must learn the meanings of around 5,000 different characters, each corresponding to a word. Instead of letter-to-sound conversion problems, Chinese dyslexics have difficulties extrapolating from a symbol’s shape to its sound and meaning.
There has been a trend where a lot of accessibility is focused on the copy (words). Writing clear and well-structured websites and applications, making the copy more simple to understand. There are sites and applications where the entire UI exists only of text. This is great for screen-readers. However, it does not help or support the dyslexia problem. The value of graphical elements is often underestimated.
A great interface leverages not only excellent copy but also graphical elements. When designing you should look to use graphical elements like colour, rhythm, iconography, typography, and motion to communicate and support the content, rather than just using it for pure decoration. The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. *
Think about the UI of an iPad; the interface is so intuitive that my 4-year-old son can easily navigate it without being able to read. Another great example is the way-finding design at airports, like the signage created for Amsterdam Airport Schiphol by the Dutch design agency Mijksenaar. This is a perfect harmony between text and graphics, making understanding simple for all users.
wayfinding system by Amsterdam Schiphol— Mijksenaar Wayfinding Amstedam Shiphol — Mijksenaar These designs are great for people who don’t speak or read the language, non-native speakers, low-literate people, but when used in the digital world also; perfect for the visually impaired and for people with Dyslexia.
I see it as designing layers of a story. Similar to a movie or animation where you have the global story structure, the plot, the dialog, etc. On one side and the visual language (think about colour scripts, composition, etc and then also the other side of this. Therefore: combining good content design (writing) and great visual design is how we can make the digital world more accessible and inclusive.
Despite being less obvious than some other accessibility challenges, I really hope designers and developers will become more aware of the Dyslexia problem. The more inclusive we can make the digital world, the better!