In 2014 I set up Braille Dots, a platform aimed at researching and initiating design projects to promote the use of braille and tactile designs. Braille facilitates the development of essential literacy skills and as such should be considered as normal and important as printed text. Moreover tactile graphics can be used to enrich and support written information in braille. As a designer and a mother to my blind daughter I am very critical about the somewhat clinical way in which braille and tactile graphics are often ‘produced’ rather than being actively incorporated into a design process.

We live in a world of words and sounds, smells, colours, lines, patterns and textures. By researching, experimenting and testing a wide range of graphic techniques and materials it’s possible to develop new and exciting multisensory 2D and 3D forms which are accessible, appealing and stimulating for all. In short, create designs which are educational, fun to use and which encourage tactile exploration, language skills and social interaction.

The following is an outline of my presentation on Inclusive Tactile Design which I gave at the conference. It’s based on the original formatting of the slides, showing examples of my own work and using bullets for each new point.

Ann speaking on stage with a slide projected in the background.
Ann speaking at the International Conference ‘Tactile Reading’ in Stockholm, 2017.

What is the value of design?

The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.

Victor Papenek (1927–1998) designer and educator

Victor Papenek was an advocate of socially, morally, ecologically responsible design, who challenged our throwaway society. He believed that design is an innovative and creative process with the potential to transform societies and enhance human well-being. He has been a great inspiration to me.

User testing: magazine design for readers with a visual disability.
Activity cards with braille and tactile materials.
Prototype: communication system for children with a visual disability (and ASD).
Child finger walking a spider down the pop-up stairs.
User testing: interactive illustration with pop-up stairs for a children’s tactile book.

Design to fulfill a real need

This is a ‘function complex’ showing the six evaluative criteria for design, based on the one in Victor Papenek’s book, ‘Design for the Real World’.

Design criteria explained in a diagram - based on Victor Papenek's work.
  • Design to make a difference, fulfill a real need whether communicating an idea, structuring (complex) information, telling a story, or creating a product, etc.
  • Find the right balance between intellect and intuition.
  • Everyone can contribute to a design.
A bespoke cart made by a carpenter with a visual disability; commissioned for a children’s tactile story book.

What is inclusive design?

Inclusive design takes into account diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender and age.

  • Recognize diversity and uniqueness
    Mass solutions don’t work well. Diversity supported design is best achieved through flexible adaptable systems such as webdesign or bespoke manufacturing where ONE size fits ONE.
  • Inclusive process and tools
    Work with multidisciplinary design teams and make them as diverse as possible, including those for whom the designs are intended. Work together and share ideas, don’t be weighed down by experience and conventions. Engage with the audience and test design solutions.
  • Broader beneficial impact
    Trigger a cycle of inclusion: others can potentially benefit from inclusive design solutions (text messaging, audio books, subtitles, etc).

Inclusive design means making something valuable, not just accessible, to as many people as we can. If you like, inclusive design is the means and accessibility is the end – it's just that you get a lot more than just accessibility along the way.

Heydon Pickering, Inclusive Design Patterns: Coding Accessibility Into Web Design
©ToyLikeMe from Rebecca Atkinson and Karen Newell who campaign for a positive representation of disabilities in toys.

Why use inclusive design?

  • Inclusive design enables everyone to participate equally, confidently and independently in everyday activities.
  • Celebrate diversity of people, break down barriers and exclusion. In doing so we often achieve superior solutions that benefit everyone. Elise Roy (disability rights laywer who also studied social design) is convinced that we all benefit from ‘design thinking’. Text messaging was originally designed for deaf people.
  • Now that screens are used extensively, tactile stimulation is more important than ever for ALL young children.
  • Appeals to larger ‘audience’: benefit socially and cognitively, encourage inclusion, interaction, awareness.
  • By creating inclusive designs for a larger audience and in more languages it should be possible to work with more partners, generate good budgets and fund more projects.
  • Segregated design solutions are not sustainable socially or economically.

The design process

There is a unique relationship between content and form. Concepts of functionalism and aesthetics, ethics are combined in an effort to find the right balance.

The potters clay forms the vessel. It is the space within that serves.

Lao-tse, Chinese philosopher and writer.
  • Ask the right questions
    Define the problem by asking the right questions. If you don’t do this you won’t have a clear idea of what needs to be designed or how you are going to do this: who-what-why-where-when-how?
  • Multidisciplinary collaborations can increase the quality of designs
    Use brainstorming sessions. The content and context should lead you in the right direction.
  • Think tactile — design tactile right from the start
    Many solutions are too visual. Adaptation of existing visual designs are a compromise. Look for different approches to designing tactile.
  • Research, experiment and make prototypes
    Continue testing during the different design phases. Modify and develop.
  • Inventiveness, durabilty, affordability
    Good design, good production methods and good materials aren’t cheap but don’t have to be expensive either — be inventive and creative with your solutions (work within realistic limitations/constraints).

User testing during the design process

Testing materials for a tactile book; using a strip above the braille to encourage correct use of the fingers.
Tactile illustrations being tested by school children with a visual disability.

Designing with braille and tactile graphics

Braille in particular is often ‘produced’ in a rather clinical, sterile way (as if some kind of penance) instead of being actively incorporated into the design process.

High quality integrated design

  • Apply high design standards and embrace everyone on equal terms
    Move away from the idea that braille is old fashioned or some kind of ‘strange code’. Encourage more involvement in designing with braille. Consider braille and tactile graphics to be as ‘normal’ and important as visual communication.
  • Develop new possibilities by using different graphic techniques
    Explore the possibilities of commercial braille printers and embossers, jobbing press, offset, digital printing, screen printing with braille inks and textile inks, thermography printing, resin combinations, varnishes, 2.5 D printing, plotters, 3D printing, laser, cutting dies, different kind of embossing dies, etc. Try combining techniques and materials to create designs which communicate in a visual and tactile way.
  • Integration of multisensory forms
    We have come long way since Johannes Gutenberg printed The Gutenberg Bible 1454/55; the first major book printed using mass-produced movable metal type in Europe.Collaborate: multidisciplinary teams can work together to translate our world of words, colours, patterns, lines, textures, objects, sound, photography, film, animation, highly sophisticated digital interfaces … into rich multisensory forms for all.

Designing with braille

Tactile sticker design for Netflix Accessibility, incorporating braille in the logo design.
Promotional card, ‘Braille is essential’: the letter ‘i’ in the printed message is replaced with braille.

Unique characteristics of braille and tactile graphics

  • Recognise the unique characteristics of braille
    Research tactile requirements necessary so that braille is legible: dot size and height, spacing of characters and words and line spacing. Use guidelines for foreign languages (for example U.E.B. is different from Grade 1 braille used in Dutch).
  • Requirements for tactile illustrations or graphics
    Use well documented research as a source of information. Embrace differences in approach. Do your own exploration, make sketches and models and above all don’t forget end user testing.
  • Research materials
    Research a wide range of materials using different graphic techniques, collate test samples and archive these. This will provide valuable information for yourself and others about the properties of materials and how they can be used. Papers, fabrics, plastics, metals, ceramics, etc.
  • Research graphic techniques
    Not only the materials but also the techniques used to produce braille and tactile graphics can have a huge effect on the quality and legibilty.
  • Adapt your designs and artwork to get the best results
    For example, a drawing made for swell paper won’t work in the same way for screenprinting or for embossing. By testing you can check the amount to which you might have to compensate for a particular technique. Screenprinted braille is often a bit small because the ink shrinks; this can be accounted for in your artwork. Other materials absorb the dots so that they are not high enough. Some materials and techniques produce very rough braille or graphics which aren’t very pleasant or easy to read.
  • Example: testing paper for printing braille
    I asked a group of braille readers to test a whole ranges of papers for both printing and embossing braille. One of the most striking comments was ‘its rough smooth’, a contradiction in terms but spot on. The paper was beautifully smooth but this didn’t have a flowing effect when reading the braille; valuable information for the designer.
  • Missed opportunities
    For several years I have been documenting the use of braille in combination with print (noneducational use) and have come across the most hilarious blunders. It’s as if braille has been added as an afterthought, used as decoration or simply incorrectly. I have examples of braille which has been enlarged (for giant-sized fingers), reduced (eeny meeny braille), stretched, condensed, flattened (inappropriate printing technique or binding method), uncomfortable to touch, without punctuation, even upside down!


Braille student comparing tactile drawings of spiders; this provides valuable feedback.
Paper testing session: a braille reader judging the quality of braille on different papers.
Using a microscope camera to inspect braille embossed on different papers.

Multisensory approach to design

  • Hightened senses
    Exploit increased abilities in the senses such as advanced tactile skills or strong auditory skills and memory. Identify aspects that could be overlooked and make use of these to create richer designs.
  • Be inventive
    What is the relationship between how somethings looks or feels to how it sounds or smells? Make clever use of a wide range of materials, shapes, techniques to offer multisensory clues needed to understand a concept, support a story or enhance an experience.

Actively engaging young pupils

Two young school children having fun testing a prototype for a children’s tactile book.
The book comes with a magic wand and beachball which can be blown up and then deflated.

Inclusive design for children’s stickers

  • Inclusive design
    Integrating braille and large type with brightly coloured embossed images. The stickers, as trivial as they might seem, are a good example of how it is possible to design something well for both sighted and visually impaired children.
  • Tactile stickers with braille
    They are educational and fun to use by all children in school or at home, encouraging tactile exploration, language skills and social interaction.
  • Development, prototypes, testing with children and evaluation
    Testing initial drawings and adapting these drawings to a specific printing techniques using extra deep engraving. Balance between lines and filled shapes. Distance and position of braille (slight enlargement to accomodate for dot reduction). Craftsmanship required to reach 0,8 mm or higher embossing.
Children’s tactile stickers.

Beyond the dots and lines …

Typography as a tool of communication is still evolving. Designers are always looking for new and interesting ways to convey information or express an idea or an emotion through typography.

How can we add more dimensions to designing with braille and tactile graphic elements?

  • Expressing emotion through use of a particular typeface
    Can we do this with braille? Can we add more layers of meaning or expression to the actual braille dots?
  • Creating visual rhythms in language using typography
    Is it possible to create meaningful tactile rhythms with braille?
  • Integrating typography with illustrations, photography and film to convey a particular message
    Can we do this with braille and tactile graphics? How can we use technology to integrate braille and tactile graphics with 3D forms and sound?
Typography sketches incorporating braille and print.