Premature Thinning

I speak to Hannah Dilruwan about the backlash to her new typeface, Datablock — a typeface designed for a new government accessibility project — and the emergence of Datablock Thin, a response from Chad Burroughs of Hyperlight Design that has caused a ripple of outrage among the design community who call it sexist and ableist, and has left Dilruwan unimpressed.

Hannah Dilruwan, designer of Datablock, is not impressed with Chad Burrough’s efforts.

Hannah sighs as we discuss the latest development in Datablock. Beside her is a thick, ragged notebook that holds, among other things, many of the original sketches for Datablock. While a minor controversy in the design industry means little to the outside world, the consternation over Chad Burrough’s new Datablock Thin reaches farther than just a difference in design opinion — within the arguments surrounding the subject are hints of sexism and ableism that some, Dilruwan included, think are more important than the quality of either design.

“I think it’s probably fair to suggest there’s an element of sexism to it all. It’s a pretty common occurrence for female-led design to come under unwarranted fire from the male elements of the industry,” Hannah suggests as she sips a green tea. “But more important, at least to me, as designer of Datablock is the lack of consideration towards accessibility in Datablock Thin.”

For those who don’t know, Datablock is the new initiative from the government to make its written resources more accessible across the board. While there are adjustments to be made by everyone, the principal burden has fallen on sighted readers to learn this new tactile system.

I hand her a printout of Datablock Thin and ask for her live opinion. She nods as she looks over it, and says, “Really, it’s just too condensed. Anyone trying to read this with their fingers is going to have no chance. And look at these numbers. We chose a round style for numerals to make sure there was adequate differentiation between different types of characters. We do this with punctuation too, but that’s more of a position thing. These are just dot matrices. There’s no way to actually identify these, especially at smaller sizes, and definitely not by touch.”

A recent ad campaign incorporating Datablock.

“We worked for over a year on Datablock. Not just design, but working in the planning stages with foundations for the blind and disability specialists. It was a long process that included thousands of people in planning, implementation, and testing. [Datablock] Thin is an afternoon’s work with no consideration of who it was designed for. And that’s sad. Its complete lack of regard for the accessibility that Datablock was developed for is what makes it a truly bad design, not that fact that it may or may not come from a position of misogyny.”

That Dilruwan should point out how many people were involved in Datablock’s development is important. While it is true that the brief came through the government and that a lot of people were involved, the majority of ire at its development has fallen on Dilruwan herself. Fielding death and rape threats have become part of her daily email grind — one of the disadvantages of having an online presence is the necessity to have public contact details — and many clients have turned their back on her in the wake of Datablock’s release.

“Yeah, I’ve lost clients. Not everyone agrees with Datablock and its universal use, and I understand that. People do not like change. But I’ve also gained a lot of clients, so there’s a balance there.”

To her credit, Dilruwan is stoic about the reaction and how it may be misplaced. While she concedes that the government started and implemented the project, she also suggests that she, as designer, has a great deal of responsibility in the final release. And while she is careful to skirt around the idea that Burrough’s response may be sexist, others are less restrained. Julie Reynolds, editor at Bitch!, believes the driving force behind Datablock Thin is a sexist one.

“Not so long ago we got our first image of a blackhole, right? It was a momentous moment for astrophysics and science as a whole. More than that, a woman was at the forefront of the discovery. The wider reaction was, ‘well, it’s blurry, it’s not very good is it?” while many tried to put more responsibility for the discovery on her male colleague. The lesson? Men do not like women doing things. Datablock is no different.

“Hannah has developed an incredible response to a governmental project. Yet she fields all the backlash — most of which comes from able-bodied people, more specifically able-bodied men. There are two things that don’t surprise me about this new response: 1) It’s a thinner version, because when haven’t dudes been telling us to get thinner. 2) The man behind it is named Chad.”

An example of Burrough’s Datablock Thin. Note the use of roman type alongside the design, a feature not seen in Dilruwan’s original.

Delving into Burrough’s internet presence is an odd experience. The twenty-nine-year-old has a Twitter feed full of video games and bad movies, but his Instagram leads with “I follow Jesus.” At Datablock’s release, he was part of that vocal Twitter community that wanted it gone, deeming it a “disgrace” to have “blind shit pushed on us.” That he would then contribute a design, however divisive and naive, seems strange.

He refused to be interview for this piece, but in a previous article for Buzzfeed, he stated, “Datablock just doesn’t work. It’s clunky, takes up too much space, and lacks character. And the numbers — don’t get me started on the numbers. They’re just round versions of the other characters, it’s lazy. It’s a clumsy piece of design that’s a good fit for the rest of Anna’s [Hannah’s] portfolio.”

This is an interesting take when Dilruwan’s portfolio includes a wealth of high-profile typography projects, while his own, under the name Hyperlight Design is full of local clientele — and no other typography. Burrough’s project was initially posted on Behance, Hannah’s released through a government accessibility scheme. It says a lot that, while Hannah has been critical of Datablock Thin, she has reserved judgment on Burroughs himself. Whereas he, and many others, have only had criticism for the woman.

“Yeah, I saw that Buzzfeed piece,” Hannah admits as we finish up coffee. “It was a pretty rough thing to say, especially when you don’t know a person. But that’s been the trend in all of this. No one’s had much to say about the actual design, just me.”

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Hannah Dilruwan. She hasn’t tried to enter the spotlight — while Burroughs arguably has — rather, she would prefer to just move on from the project and onto the next. But the constant string of personal attacks that she has had to endure has made that impossible. And while she has created an excellent response to her brief, so much attention seems to be falling on Burroughs and his design.

More of Burrough’s Datablock Thin.

“In the long run,” Aimee Stadler, a blind journalist says. “Datablock Thin will be forgotten as little more than an attempt by an angry man to piggyback on important work by a woman. I, for one, am grateful that Hannah and the government have made this effort towards a greater accessibility. It doesn’t, however, surprise me at all that the disabled community has been rendered mostly silent on the matter due to the reaction of the able-bodied.”

Out on the street, I shake Hannah Dilruwan’s hand and tell her how much I appreciate her speaking to me. She smiles weakly in response. As we’re about to part ways I suddenly remember her notebook and ask is she can show me her original sketches for the project. To my surprise, a number of pages include a thin, narrow version of Datablock, not too disimilar to Burrough’s effort.

“Yeah, I considered it pretty early on,” she says. “But it didn’t work. The spacing of the bars and their size made it impossible to read at smaller sizes and made it difficult to differentiate between the elements in a tactile sense. It might have looked a little better when it was big — and I mean BIG. But it just wasn’t accessible and it didn’t fit the purpose.”

While she’s telling me this, I see sparks of enthusiasm in her manner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, talking about the reaction to Datablock is a weary experience for Hannah Dilruwan. But talking about design, especially typography, is what she loves to do. “It’s what really bugs me about [Datablock] Thin, I’ve already been there, it wasn’t fit for purpose, so it didn’t move ahead. By releasing Thin, Burroughs is undermining that initial intent of Datablock and has shown he really doesn’t care about who this typeface was really intended for.”

It’s the closest she’ll come to criticising Burroughs. She heaves a sigh and shuts the book, but not before I’m able to really examine the characters. More interesting than their similarity to Datablock Thin is that, even as a pen and ink sketch, Dilruwan’s rejected thinner characters are far more refined than Burrough’s. His release simply lines and dots. Her sketches an exploration of different width of characters, thickness of strokes, and varying configurations.