Fonts are harming 7 out of 10 people. This one font can change this injustice
An Interview with Typeface Designer Thomas Jockin
What’s it like designing a variable font for low-proficiency readers? TypeThursday founder Thomas Jockin shares his experience collaborating with Bonnie Shaver-Troup, and what the typeface Lexend hopes to represent for vastly different institutions and designers.
Lizzi Chen: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Thomas! I’d like to first say, the work you did with RevReading is life-changing for many readers — that’s impressive!
Thomas Jockin: Thank you Lizzi for the kind words. The project has the potential to help many people — if we can ensure everyone knows about Lexend and can easily access the fonts.
Considerations and Intentions of Lexend
LC: Definitely — you worked with Bonnie Shaver-Troup who founded RevReading to create a typeface made specifically for low-vision readers. Was this font made public for everyone to be able to use?
TJ: That’s the game plan. The font is being produced as an open-source font and to be made available on Google Fonts to ensure everyone is able to use the Lexend family.
LC: So was this made for digital use specifically? Or did you consider other mediums?
TJ: Fonts can be used in both digital and non-digital mediums; in general, the design had all mediums in consideration. However, there are some aspects of the project in regard to variable font technology that is digital specific. So kinda yes, kinda no to your question.
LC: I see. I ask because you mentioned “print sensitivity” during your talk — that the way the letters came to be developed makes it harder for low-vision readers. Can you elaborate more on that and how it may have affected this project?
TJ: Sure. The term “print sensitivity” is a description used by Bonnie Shaver-Troup, the education therapist and cognitive psychology PhD candidate I am collaborating with on this project. She uses the term in a different sense than designers would understand the term “print.” She means the phenomenon of converting markings on a surface that comprise of letters into consciously aware linguistic meaning for a perceiving subject. Where those markings exist — on screens or on printed paper — is a secondary factor.
The primary factor has to deal with what cognitive psychology calls visual masking. Objects place too close to each other it may interfere with the process of perception of “print” in three recognized ways:
- Pattern Masking: Markings overlap/ touch each other directly. This causes confusion in perception that the markings are meant to be separate entities at the lower levels of perception.
- Metacontrast Masking: Marking do not touch, but are very close to one another. This may cause confusion of omission or swapping of markings meant to be separate and in a specific order. This occurs at the higher levels of perception.
- “Four Dot” Masking: This has no explanation within the literature, but it is a known phenomenon in research. If four dots are placed in a square format around another marking, visual masking will occur in the subject.
From this understanding, Bonnie developed the Shaver-Troup Formulations to assist in readers who are “print-sensitive” which is employed in the Lexend font family.
The US Department of Education reports 70% of students are low-proficient readers, which is defined as readers who lack fluency in reading.
Market Offerings for Print-Sensitive Readers
LC: Fascinating — that’s for clarifying. Can you then tell us about other available fonts marketed or “friendly” for print-sensitive people? Do they do a good job avoiding theses types of maskings you just described or is this where Lexend really shines?
TJ: The RevReading team would be better advised to answer that question on the market offerings for print-sensitive people. From my engagement on this project, I am left with the impression there are very few offerings. There are some offerings from Microsoft, such as Fluent Calibri and Stika and settings in Microsoft Word.
I need to emphasis print sensitivity impacts a very large population. The US Department of Education reports 70% of students are low-proficient readers, which is defined as readers who lack fluency in reading. Bonnie’s research correlates this lack of fluency with print sensitivity.
Lexend offers two grounds for improved assistance for print sensitive readers:
- Specific letterform designs to aid print sensitive readers.
- Multiple levels of intervention with increasing magnitude to reduce visual masking.
There is a conflation of reading ability to intelligence because the field of Education does not understand the impact of the material conditions of typography can have on reading proficiency and comprehension.
The Understanding of Typography Across Disciplines
LC: If there are few offerings, are type designers today not considering enough the customization of typography to optimize visual perception of lesser capacity?
TJ: There’s multiple levels to this. First, at the cognitive psychology level, the understanding that typography can directly impact reading proficiency and comprehension is not recognized. It is not in the orthodox paradigm of the field.
From there, the Education system is built around the assumption students are learning how to read until 3rd grade. From there, reading is assumed to be learned and now reading is a tool in the aid of learning. But what happens if the student does not acquire this skill of reading? They are left behind to fend for themselves or being classified as developmentally impaired because they have a hard time reading. There is a conflation of reading ability to intelligence because the field of Education does not understand this impact of the material conditions of typography have on reading proficiency and comprehension.
And lastly, there is the typography community. We’ve been taught how to set type “well” or design “fine” type. But what if our cultural practices we hold dear are not allowing 70% of the population to read the content we have the responsibility to impart?
You asked about a lack of consideration for customizing of typography. I can’t agree nor disagree with that question when the initial premise of the importance of typography for reading comprehension isn’t understood by all.
It’s a complete reversal of my traditional training is typeface design… Despite the initial shock of seeing the most extreme application of outline and spacing expansion, there is still a logic that unites the typography.
Lexend’s Unique Challenges
LC: I’m glad you brought this up — we’re talking about a lot of larger, moving parts which I’d like to get back to in a bit. Shall we dive a little deeper into the creation of Lexend? I was hoping to hear more from you about expansion of outlines and spacing — would you say this was a unique challenge in this project?
TJ: It certainly was. It’s a complete reversal of my traditional training is typeface design. But after seeking to understand the thinking behind the research and results Bonnie developed, I was able to interpret the conclusion within my framework of typeface design. Despite the initial shock of seeing the most extreme application of outline and spacing expansion, there is still a logic that unites the typography. Seeking to understand something outside my classical training was the unique challenge of this project.
LC: That sounds exciting. What was it like working with Bonnie to figure out optimal spacing in relation to type size for an audience I assume you don’t consider yourself a part of? Did that matter at all? Were there formulas, or testing of iterations with readers?
TJ: Bonnie has been developing the formulations for almost 10 years now, backed with empirical evidence of its effectiveness. The beauty of working with the RevReading team is their use of the scientific method to provide me with a clear understanding to best develop the Lexend font, even without being part of that group. It’s such a refreshing way to work compared to the ungrounded opinions of taste.
LC: Right, it’s called the Shaver-Troup Formulation, correct?
TJ: That’s correct.
What Lexend Demonstrates and its Future Plan
LC: I noticed you left out families for bold and italics, was that intentional?
TJ: The plan is to initially develop the roman fonts as a proof of concept. With the support of the community, there is hope to expand the scope to additions like italics, weight, and even more important, scripts. Some of the primarily research I have looked into for Arabic matches up with the conclusions on reading fluency from Latin script based research.
LC: Got it. Well it’s about time for a wrap up — two last questions: As someone conscious of the power of type design and ethics of design, are there are any words, hopes or dreams you’d like our readers to take away from? What do you think our leaders in education, law, practice of typography do to help us move forward in regards to what we spoke earlier, and second, when can we expect this font to be available on Google Fonts?
TJ: It’s been a pleasure to speak with you, Lizzi. It is planned to release Lexend over Google Fonts later this year.
On the question of ethics, we only have authority over ourselves. I can only impose “oughts” over myself. Under my capacity as a typeface designer, I hope my work on Lexend demonstrates what we designers can do if we hold our principles in more esteem than our taste. With the correct principle, we can unite what seems to be disparate disciplines that appear to be in complete divorce from one another towards human flourishing. My deepest hope is that the virtue of seeking to understand is held worthy as a core principle in the field of design.
LC: Once again, thank you for your time Thomas. And congratulations for what will soon be a part of Google Fonts — this is well deserved.
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