Designer Christian Boer had problems reading as a child because of dyslexia. Now he’s created a downloadable font that can untangle the jumbled letters that many dyslexics see.
Christian Boer always struggled with reading. When confronted with a page of text, the letters would twist and jumble together into an incomprehensible mess.
It was not until his mother overheard a conversation her husband was having with another teacher about dyslexia that she realised why her son might be having so much trouble.
“In class I would think of excuses about why I was struggling – I was tired or it just wasn’t my day,” says Boer. “But when everyone else would be finished and I had only made my way through half a page, I began to doubt myself. You start to think, ‘am I stupid?’
“Then my mother heard this remedial teacher explaining to my dad about dyslexia and she asked her to test me.”
Boer was six when he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Despite the extra help he received at school, he still struggled with long pages of typed text. Years later, while studying art at Holland’s University of Twente, he decided to do something about his problem: he designed his own typeface.
Dyslexie is a font that aims to overcome some of the problems that people with dyslexia can have when reading. Due to the way their brains process visual information, they will often subconsciously switch, rotate and mirror letters, making it harder to recognise the characters.
It is thought that their brains start treating two-dimensional letters as three-dimensional objects that can be freely manipulated.
When this happens, the letter “b” can look like a “d”… or a “p” or a “q”. It is easy to see why this can quickly become confusing.
“Traditionally in typeface design, there are ‘rules’ that say it is best to make the letters as uniform as possible,” says Boer, now 36. “If you make the arch of an “h” the same as an “n”, it produces a typeface that is clean and quiet for ordinary readers. For me, these letters become three dimensional so you can turn them around and they begin to look alike. What I wanted to do was to slap these 3D letters flat.”
He set about finding ways that would make it easier to distinguish different letters from each other. One key change was to make the letters bottom heavy, so they are bolder at the base than at the top.
“It is like fixing a brick onto a bicycle wheel,” he explains. “If you turn the wheel, the brick will always fall to the bottom. With the letters, if you turn them upside down, they look unnatural as the heavy side should be on the bottom.”
Unlike many traditional typefaces, the Dyslexie font is strongly asymmetric. Instead of keeping the letters a uniform size, some have longer “sticks” that help to make them stand out more in words. Similarly, letters that look alike, such as “v”, “w” and “y”, vary in their height when they are typed.
The shapes of the letters are also asymmetric, with the top of a “b” being narrower than the top of a “d”, making them easier to distinguish.
“These shapes are based far more on handwriting than other fonts,” says Boer. Many dyslexic people find reading handwritten text easier than when it is typed.
“There is movement in it,” explains Boer. “The way we learn to write can often determine the shape of the letters and so it might be why our brains find them easier to distinguish.”
Many of the letters in Dyslexie also feature unusual serifs – the small lines added to the end of a stroke in a letter – that make them easier to distinguish. While serif fonts like Times New Roman are often hard for dyslexics to read, because the ticks at the tips on each stroke obscure the shape of the letter, Boer found adding certain serifs could help. On the letter “u”, for example, the vertical stick on the right-hand-side features a tapered flick to make it longer than the stick on the “n”.
“It makes the ‘u’ look unnatural when you put it upside down,” says Boer.
Capital letters are also bolder than other letters to help them stand out – a tweak that Boer added to help himself deal with his own difficulties.
“I often forget or miss the capital letters when I am writing, so by making them stand out more it helps me,” he explains. But after sending the font to other dyslexics he found he had to tone the tweak down. “Those with only mild dyslexia found the bold capitals difficult, so I have reduced it slightly so they don’t impair their reading but still can help those with more severe dyslexia.”
Initially, Boer produced the font as a project for his art degree at university. But he found there was a real demand for what he had produced, prompting him to turn it into a usable typeface that can be installed onto computers.
“I had initially thought I probably use it on my own computer to help me when I left college and started working,” he said. “I had no idea there were so many people out there suffering from dyslexia.”
In fact, between 10% and 20% of the population are thought to have some form of dyslexia. It is estimated that more than 700 million children and adults worldwide are at risk of lifelong literacy and social exclusion as a result of the condition.
Research conducted at the University of Twente has shown that dyslexic readers make fewer mistakes when reading text in Boer’s font, while eye tracking experiments conducted at France’s University of Lille also have shown that the gaze of dyslexics’ children flows more easily across a page of text using the font than other more traditional fonts.
Boer’s font is by no means the only typeface for people with dyslexia. Natascha Frensch, a graphic designer at the Royal College of Art, produced a font known as Read Regular in 2003 and the British Dyslexia Association also recommends using Arial, Comic Sans or Century Gothic. But Boer’s font exaggerates the asymmetary far more than these fonts to make them even easier to read. The demand for Dyslexie has been high. Since making the typeface available online in 2011, it has been downloaded more than 300,000 times, mainly by home users, but also by schools, universities and businesses.
“I just wish I had something like this when I was younger,” says Boer.