Can Fonts Really Help Those With Dyslexia?
Eye on Design, 2018
As a child, a cat always became a bat. My name was not Maddy but Mubby. Stranger still, a dog would often take the shape of a bog.

My German mother would sit me at the kitchen table and tell me to read aloud from a German book; although I was fluent in the language and loved stories, the exercise was painfully boring and difficult. I was frustrated; she was frustrated. One day at school, I was caught reading a book upside down. Finally, at age eight, an empathetic teacher suggested that I might be dyslexic, which a test soon confirmed.

Then began the long, laborious task of memorizing words. While other children seemed to remember the spelling of a word shortly after they’d been taught it, I required far more time-consuming strategies.

A specialist teacher gave me a deck of cards that I went through every day with my parents, and I’d add a new card to it every week. This went on for years. To learn how to spell “said” for example, we wrote the sentence “Silly Alice Is Dead” onto one card and I sketched a gruesome picture of a gravestone beneath it. To remember “beauty” and “beautiful” (the sounding out of “e-a-u” never made sense to me), I wrote “Big Eyes And Unusual Teeth + Y or I F U L” onto another card, and then drew a picture of a monster. When I spell a word on the computer today, those sentences sometimes ring out in my head—as do the pictures I drew to recall how its letters fit together. I don’t rely on them like I once did, but every so often their singsong rhythms come back to me like muscle memory.

Today, those struggling with dyslexia will discover proposed solutions not just from specialist educators, but from designers who are approaching the learning disability through type. In both the design press and in major news outlets, I regularly come across articles lauding a new “dyslexic-friendly” font, which is always enthusiastically endorsed by designers. Other projects attempt to design better reading experiences for dyslexics through the use of clever plug-ins or colored backgrounds.

These projects are easy to celebrate as they reinforce a popular narrative in the design world: that design has the power to be transformative and to make the world a better, more accessible place. And indeed, for a dyslexic, the promise is an enticing one: could I have saved all of that time and energy coming up with strategies and word games as a kid simply by switching typefaces?

The core idea behind dyslexic friendly fonts is that each letter is designed so that it’s easier for a dyslexic individual to distinguish them, thus reducing errors and reading effort. The designers behind these projects suggest that the bottom heaviness of their new typefaces prevent them from turning upside down for dyslexic readers. Letters with sticks and tails—like b, d, p and q—vary in length so that readers don’t confuse them. Many of the fonts’ websites, though not all of them, emphasize that these designs are “not a cure for dyslexia” but instead a “reading aid.”

While these projects often garner many positive reviews and testimonials, there’s little peer-reviewed scientific evidence backing the designs. This is concerning because, just like any other medical or technological advancement, fonts that claim to help a learning disability like dyslexia need to be tested and verified by the scientific community. When a design becomes widely popularized before it’s been properly studied—when we pat ourselves on the back before all the evidence is in—it can do more to hurt than to actually aid dyslexic individuals.

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To see how valuable these fonts truly are as a reading aid, I reached out to Christian Boer, whose Dyslexie font has been lauded by the BBC, The Guardian, Scientific America, CBS News, USA Today, and Dezeen. It’s been highlighted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Istanbul Design Biennale, and Boer has done Ted Talks about the font and received numerous awards.

Boer’s personal story is an all too familiar one: when he first began having difficulty learning to read and write, his parents couldn’t understand why, especially since his two older siblings had found it so simple. “I saw that everyone at school was faster than me,” Boer says. “I thought, ‘I’m too tired today’, or ‘I’m not in the mood,’ or ‘I can’t focus.’ After two years of this, during which the gap between me and the others grew bigger and bigger, I ran out of excuses.” Boer was tested by a specialist and diagnosed.

Without a strong support system during his education, Boer developed his own techniques and strategies for coping. As a bachelor student at the University of the Arts Utrecht, he created Dyslexie—the font he wished he’d had as a child. Boer had always had issues recognizing uppercase, for example, so Dylexie used bolded capitals. While traditional fonts mirror the d and the b, and the q and the p, Boer’s typeface distorts each letter to distinguish them. It slants the extenders and descenders, enlarging the openings to make each letter uniquely stand out. The valleys of v, w, and y are given different heights and levels so that their proportions are obviously different. The c is open in a way that makes distinct from the rounded shape of an o.

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“After I designed it, I was overwhelmed by how many people reached out to me and wanted to use it too,” says Boer, though he’s quick to emphasize that the font is not a cure for dyslexia.

Since Dyslexie has been turned into a business, Boer receives testimonials via email and social media that exuberantly thank him for his invention. There’s also a section on the website entitled ‘Research’ with a couple of PDFs of masters’ theses, a bachelor thesis, and a handful of surveys. From this research, the website claims: “About 84.3% of the dyslexics would recommend using Dyslexie font to others.”

Parents recount stories of how their child nearly dropped out of school but was then re-energized by the font, and even continued on to higher education. There are countless other sincere, genuine reviews: “By the time I got to ‘w’ I was silently crying,” reads one. Another: “Once I saw [the font], I was completely free. It was like a breath of fresh air that had been let loose.”

I don’t personally find Dyslexie useful or different, but I also know what works for some won’t necessarily work for others. I do find the testimonials touching. As someone who initially found it impossible to read, but now finds reading and writing not only pleasurable, but has built a life and career from them, the stories are exciting and invigorating.

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Dyslexie is similar to other dyslexic-friendly fonts like the open-source OpenDyslexic and Lexie Readable, which also claim to address the problems of mirroring, turning, swapping, and crowding. With these fonts, key differences in characters are emphasized to mitigate confusion. They are predicated on the belief that dyslexia is characterized by letter reversals.

However, decades of scientific research on dyslexia suggests otherwise. When I contacted Dr. Guinevere Eden, a professor in the Department of Paediatrics at Georgetown University and director of their Center for the Study of Learning (CSL), she told me that reading difficulties actually stem from deficiencies in phonological coding, rather than visual or syntactic sources.

In the late 19th Century, when doctors first used the term “word blindness” to describe dyslexia, it falsely linked the learning difficulty with the idea of visual distortion—a misconception that remains to this day. But medical research since has proven that dyslexia is not actually a visual impairment. Take the example of a dyslexic child who is shown how to spell “c-a-t” over and over again for hours, only for them to not recognize the word the next time they see it. It’s not because they literally can’t observe the shape of the letters. It’s because they’re having problems matching each letter to a sound.

The way our visual system works is that if we see an image in any direction, we still recognize it as the same object. Eden gives me the example of a chair: you know it’s a chair whether you’re standing behind it, in front of it, or to its side. That’s why when children learn to read, sometimes they’ll reverse letters that look the same. To override this function, they have to use the oral language structures of the brain when looking at words—what we commonly refer to as “sounding out” a word in order to remember it. Typically, once a child has sounded out the word a few times, she moves on to a stage where she begins to recognize the word as an object rather than a series of letters.

A dyslexic child, however, experiences a neurological processing problem that makes it harder to decode a word into separate sounds. Therefore, it’s more difficult for them to move to that stage of reading and writing automatically, where a word is recognized by sight. Individual sounds of language become “sticky,” and they’re not able to be broken apart with ease.

What does all this mean for dyslexic-friendly fonts? Writing for an online resource supporting parents of children with learning difficulties, Eden puts it this way: It’s unlikely these types of fonts “will help people with dyslexia a great deal,” she writes. “That’s because the fundamental problem of dyslexia is mapping the shapes of the letters to the right sound units.” The fact that letters are muddled and mirrored is an effect of dyslexia; it’s not what’s causing the reading difficulty.

Eden tells me that it’s imperative that these new fonts are tested in controlled, randomized studies, and that several of these studies are then published in peer-reviewed journals, before we can say for certain whether switching fonts can actually help dyslexics learn to read.

“The motivation behind these fonts is well intentioned. But what current research has shown is that there’s no relationship between preference and reading rate,” she says. “You might like the font better, but that does not mean you are reading faster. It’s just an impression. In the end, you have to go with the data.

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Most of the recently released projects around dyslexic friendly fonts have been tested, just not to the degree that Eden suggests. One peer-reviewed study from 2016, for example, explores the effects of OpenDyslexic on reading rate and accuracy. Designed by Abelardo Gonzalez, the font is open source and available as a choice on Wikipedia and Amazon’s Kindle.

The paper, which compared OpenDyslexic with Arial and Times New Roman, found no improvement in reading rate or accuracy for students with dyslexia, or in readers without dyslexia. A recent 2018 peer-reviewed reportfound that the Dyslexie font did not result in faster reading or accuracy whatsoever. Font preference was compared to reading performance, and the paper concluded that preference is not related to accuracy or reading speed.

“We have to remember that there is such a thing as the placebo effect,” says Eden. “Research does suggest that there is a preference for certain fonts, like Arial, where there is less distraction. When my students make slides, I often tell them to use simpler fonts. It’s more appealing, a better look—it’s a preference.”

Learning that you or your child has dyslexia can be frustrating. It feels like a setback. It’s a realization that you’re going to have to put in a lot of extra work and time, which you might not have. “The reality is that children with dyslexia need to be taught how to decode and memorize words, and that happens with hours of work with a professional instructor,” says Eden. “That’s a lot more effort than simply changing the font on a computer.”

One recent peer-reviewed study suggested that the letter spacing of fonts like Dyslexie might affect reading performance. It concludes that Dyslexie is not helpful because of its specially designed letter shapes, but because of its particular spacing settings. Peer-reviewed research has also shown a relationship for all readers between reading speed and the spacing of letters. For dyslexics that have difficulty with “crowding”—how the presence of some objects (for example, letters) interferes with the ability to see aspects of what is being viewed—reading text with greater spacing between letters might be of some help.

Does this mean that designers should go about tweaking letter spacing to create a dyslexic-friendly experience? I ask Eden. “There needs to be more research first,” she says. “Repetition and replication is important in research.”

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Reading the testimonials of multiple dyslexic-friendly fonts, one might wonder, what’s the harm in trying them? While more research still needs to be done, at the very least, good can certainly come from the placebo effect.

I remember once babysitting a young dyslexic girl when I was a student; she’d been given colorful transparent paper to help her read. (The use of colorful lenses is another disputed technique in research on dyslexia.) She turned to me as we were reading and said she found that with orange, the words felt “less scary.”

Maybe these fonts, which are so agile and playful to look at, communicate an atmosphere of ease and kindness to a struggling reader, making the activity feel less severe and frightening. The fonts might not be actively helping someone read quicker or with greater ease, but they could help lessen feelings of fear and stress associated with the activity. They are a “preference,” but a preference with emotional and psychological implications.

We need to see dyslexic friendly fonts for what they are: a font change that shifts the personality of the letters, but doesn’t necessarily affect reading performance. The personal benefits of possible placebo effects need to be weighed against bigger concerns, though. As Eden says: “The potential of these fonts as highlighted by the press is misleading, and it takes away from the graveness of the situation.”

The idea that dyslexia might be helped, even minutely, with a quick font-change, detracts from the severity and seriousness of a diagnoses, and the fact that parents and schools must dedicate extra time and effort for improvement.

This is not to discourage people to continue designing for disability and access.  Rather, it’s a call for more rigorous testing for these fonts, on par with the peer review studies that any other research around learning disabilities would go through. Testing pushes research into new corners, sets higher standards, and encourages interest and funding in the field.

Otherwise, what are we doing as an industry when we give out awards before having proof of concept? When we write articles because its a good story, without knowing if the story holds? The process is one that might actually harm those that a design claims to help—ultimately making the world a little less accessible in turn.



Mark