A child reads a page of extra-wide spaced text. Normally
spaced text is shown on the left for comparison.
Credit: A. Facoetti
A recent Wall Street Journal article brought to light new findings combining typographic and medical research. Cognitive scientists in Italy and France discovered that dyslexic children given text with widely spaced characters could read 20% faster and twice as accurately. According to the article, these kinds of gains are usually made only after a year’s worth of reading instruction.
While the results of the study have obvious implications for the design of educational materials, it’s less clear whether text designed for the dyslexic could prove therapeutic for those without learning disabilities.
Many standard elements of industrial and environmental design were developed originally to accommodate the disabled, but were found to improve the user experience for everyone. (This concept is known as Universal Design.) For example, as appliance manufacturers began to test out refrigerators with added interior lights to better help elderly users see the food, users without disabilities found the new, brighter refrigerators easier to use. The Americans with Disabilities Act gave rise to a number of amenities that are used by non-disabled citizens every day. Who hasn’t used a ramp or elevator to drag a suitcase or push a stroller? A recent episode of the design podcast 99 Percent Invisible focused on recently-developed architectural features at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students. For instance, previous architects had built hallways and airlocks with traditional hinged doors, which are no impediment to the university’s deaf students physically, but which interrupt sign language conversations—naturally, a source of irritation for those attempting to walk-and-talk. While we can’t expect automatic sliding doors beyond the grocery store in the wider world anytime soon, if such a feature were to become standard in public buildings, it would surely improve the built environment for all users, not just those who rely on sign language to communicate.
The dyslexia research is less promising. According to the article, average readers tend to read more slowly when character spacing is doubled. This fact may have a positive effect on dyslexic readers, but I imagine that visitors to NYTimes.com or Facebook would find the slower pace frustrating.
The aesthetic concerns of double character spacing are another story entirely. Besides increasing the amount of space required to display text, a typographic style with increased character spacing could cause a number of problems in currently-standard book, magazine, and web templates—for instance by increasing the amount of negative space in the text area. The fact that the double-spaced characters are such a radical departure from what readers are used to seeing would cause trouble for designers attempting to imbue credibility in book or website layout.
Perhaps the only use for a “dyslexia typeface” outside of dyslexia-specific reading materials is when visually demonstrating emphasis. In the western world, this has long been accomplished using boldface. However, in the blackletter script of the middle ages, emphasis was commonly conveyed by double-spacing the characters of the emphasized word. By forcing the reader to slow down, the double-spaced word conveys emphasis. Because blackletter script was used in Germany through the twentieth century, this technique is occasionally seen in German texts today.
While the research described in the WSJ article may prove to be a boon to dyslexic readers, I doubt it will prove helpful (or feasible) for web or print designers with a non-dyslexic audience. This new research may remind us that character spacing can be adjusted when the designer wants to manipulate the reader into slowing down or paying more attention to certain passages--maybe there's a use for increased character spacing in contracts or in online banking. Otherwise, a "dyslexia typeface" may prove to be an example of Universal Design that isn't so universal.