Braille vs. Boston Line Type: How Design Can Truly Be Inclusive

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In the 19th century, two pioneering methods emerged in designing reading systems for the visually impaired: Boston Line Type and Braille. Louis Braille created his namesake system in 1824. Samuel Gridley Howe developed Boston Line Type in 1835 following a life-changing accident that left him blind. The intent behind both systems was a shared one: to develop a method for educating people who are blind and improving their integration into society. But a crucial difference lay in the fact that a (previously) sighted individual developed Boston Line Type. In contrast, a blind person, ultimately the end user, crafted Braille. Braille eventually became the standard system for educating the visually impaired in the United States. However, this transition was far from straightforward and is a striking example of the importance of involving affected communities in accessibility design.

The Genesis of Braille and Boston Line Type

Louis Braille, a blind man, developed the Braille system with a deep understanding of the needs of blind people. Utilising a set of raised dots to represent letters, Braille provides a tactile method for reading and writing. It was born out of a genuine need and was grounded in the practical experience of the visually impaired.

On the other hand, Samuel Gridley Howe’s Boston Line Type system emerged from his visit to the Institute of the Blind in Paris, where he encountered the raised letter systems of Valentin Haüy. Howe’s approach, however well-intentioned, was rooted in the Roman alphabet, which both sighted and blind individuals could read. This noble idea, however, failed to consider the lived experience of the blind community. Boston Line Type proved to be too complex and challenging to use effectively, ultimately leading to a delay in the adoption of the more user-friendly Braille system in the US by over a century.

Sample of Braille (left); Sample of Boston Line Type (right), courtesy of Ricky Irvine.

Howe’s resistance to a fundamentally different system for visually impaired people stemmed from the belief that this would isolate the blind community. While he intended to ensure inclusion, the reality was the opposite. This episode underscores a critical point: good intentions are not enough when designing for inclusivity. Without a continuous conversation between design and the users’ needs, even the best intentions can lead to fundamentally misguided approaches.

Inclusive Design Doesn’t Work in Isolation

Leaving people out of the conversation will always lead to isolation and exclusion. In contrast, inclusion leads to a world where more voices are heard, more people can contribute, and new perspectives enrich our collective experience.

This concept of inclusion versus exclusion in design extends beyond accessibility for the visually impaired and is still an issue today. In the world of branding, for instance, the digital execution of a brand must be an inclusive experience. However, creative agencies are often tasked with creating a brand independently from its digital expression, which a digital agency executes. So, while the creative agency may be well-informed about accessibility and how the brand they created needs to exist in a digital environment, the website can suffer if they are not guiding the production.

In a recent example, the Natural History Museum underwent a rebrand that was visually appealing and rich in design. However, the digital execution, seemingly developed in isolation, needed more elements that made the rebrand engaging. This situation highlights the need for a holistic approach combining creative and digital design. With more communication between the disciplines and the intended audiences, the result could have provided the richness of the rebrand and been accessible and appropriate for the broadest possible audience. Instead, it became a tickbox exercise rather than an opportunity. Both design and digital agencies must establish direct communication with the right communities, as even small efforts can lead to significant industry-wide progress over time.

How do we provide an equally rich experience and brand expression while still working within the boundaries of accessibility?

Learning From Experience

At UnitedUs, our experience working with D&A, a social enterprise led by and for disabled people, has significantly shaped views on practical design and inclusivity. The D&A project, undertaken while our team was still developing its accessibility knowledge, provided valuable insights.

Visiting the end users in person taught us that it can be just as discriminatory to say, “Here is your AA (ADA)-compliant colour combination,” and leave it there rather than providing a choice. So we created a system that allowed users to pick colour combinations from a predefined set of accessible combinations. Those choices could be needs- or aesthetic preference-driven–choice being the key aspect. The consultations showed us that good accessibility based on AA (ADA) standards barely scratched the surface of how people can genuinely engage with the website on their terms. It underscored the importance of understanding accessibility from the end user’s perspective and the limitations of rigid compliance with standards.

Additionally, the choice of typography in the project demonstrated how design can impact accessibility. Protest placards inspired the visual identity, so we used all-caps typography; however, we discovered that it could pose legibility challenges for some. Accessibility encompasses a broader perspective that considers compliance with standards and factors like legibility, letter form, and the overall reading experience. Therefore, as an agency, our approach is: How do we provide an equally rich experience and brand expression while still working within the boundaries of accessibility?

Lessons From the Past Inform an Inclusive Future

The example of Braille vs. Boston Line Type emphasises that good intentions alone are not enough; we must continually engage with the communities that need inclusive and accessible design.

We can’t collectively make the same mistake as Samuel Howe and stick doggedly to our conceptions of what is right. We must prepare to abandon our notions of inclusive and accessible design when demonstrably better alternatives emerge. We also can’t be afraid of advancing our understanding of this topic; we must take a proactive approach and ask questions we might get wrong rather than unquestioningly sticking within the accessibility guidelines, which date quickly. Guidelines are just the beginning step; we should always look to add, enrich, and develop what we do, understand, and how we work.

A hero of mine, William Blake, showed us that adherence to dogma, however sanctified, without challenging and questioning, only leads to stagnation. Progress happens when we engage in conversations challenging the status quo, moving us toward a more inclusive and accessible future.

This is a guest post written by Carl Rylatt, Design Director at UK-based strategic branding agency UnitedUs, is a seasoned and creative graphic designer. His extensive expertise spans print production, advertising concepts, branding, and identity. With a keen focus on the finer aspects of design, Carl is particularly passionate about branding, typography, custom type, and the intricacies of print preparation and production.

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