D is for discomfort
Last updated on March 3, 2021 by Martin Silvertant
In my article entitled E is for erring, I talked about a masthead design I did for our weekly digest mail which made a lot of people feel uneasy due to the typography. I offered a few examples of the negative responses people had, I offered a speculative cause for the phenomenon, and I described what I did to rectify the problem. The image below is the masthead in question (a.k.a. “the problem”), which has since been changed.
Since I published that article, I have received a lot more negative responses. In this post, I would like to share some of those, given the homogeneity (i.e. sameness) in responses from autistic people.
It has really surprised me to find out how common it apparently is among autistic people to feel discomfort and nausea when looking at wavy shapes, or shapes that are otherwise suggestive of movement.
Although I do have sensory issues as well (especially with particular lighting), I don’t experience anything like the reports I have been getting on the display typeface I used above. The typeface in question is Digestive by Jérémy Landes (Studio Triple), which is a novel and masterful design, but apparently not equally digestible to everyone.
Jérémy states that Digestive deliberately plays with this idea of discomfort and disgust, but emphasized that he did not want to discriminate any particular group, but instead bring discomfort uniformly to everyone. Although he knew that playing with legibility would bother some people, he showed intrigue at the idea that his typeface seems to evoke an intense response from autistic people in particular.
So here are the responses I collected from autistic people, divided into three categories (uneasy/discomfort, dislike/disturbance, and nausea/sickness):
Unease & discomfort
Eeeek that font genuinely makes me feel uncomfortable.
There is something slithering about the movement in it. (Neil)
It also made me feel uncomfortable in my stomach and almost hurt
my eye to brain connection, if that makes any sense.
Like I had to strain to focus to read it. (Wendy)
I just read the article and I have to admit that the double e
had a similar effect on me (unease). Strange! (Said)
I am very glad you changed it. It actually does make my stomach feel uneasy.
And it just unsettling in general for some reason. It would really be interesting to find out why we react that way and if it spills over to NT’s as well. (Alyson)
I did not like the original one. I can’t explain why but it disturbed me enough that I would not read the newsletter. The simple one that you changed to feel better. It was a good creative attempt though, it just made me not feel good. (Kimberly)
THANK YOU!!! Thank you very much for listening to feedback and critique in a constructive manner. Personally, the previous “e” design made me uncomfortable because to me they looked a lot like eyes. (Hugo)
I have to admit I keep staring at the typeface. I like it and the ‘ee’s make me uncomfortable. I’m not sure what that says about me?! (Ziggy)
I just clicked on the link and scrolled down curious.. when I got to the masthead I had to squint my eyes and scroll until it was no longer on the screen! I managed to look at it for maybe a few seconds before I started to feel uncomfortable… mostly in and behind my eyes.
It was a definite physical sensation and aversion rather than anything else. (Hollie)
Dislike & disturbance
While it is not “fingernails on the chalkboard” bad, it is disturbing visually. More like squeaking chalk which is annoying to me but does not make me involuntarily cringe like the fingernails does. (David)
It makes me feel nauseated and uneasy. I don’t know why.
I just really dislike it and it makes me uncomfortable. (Cain)
Nausea & sickness
I just felt really nauseous from looking at the ‘e’ 😅 (Agnieszka)
Your first choice of typeface made me feel instantly nauseous as well.
Something to do with swirly movement. (Francesca)
Made me feel sick just looking at it.
Also makes me think of tapeworms, especially their segments…
If you took the outlines of tapeworms I’d imagine it looks like that font. (Tania)
Funnily enough, fluorescent lights aren’t generally problematic for me, but the wibbly wobbly timey wimey font made me feel really nauseous – and, yes, the e was the worst. A horrible sensation, really. (Caroline)
Thank you for changing it. The other one was hard to read
and would make people sick if they read it while moving. (Jane)
It reminds me of Jaegermeister. It’s kind of great but also kind of sickening. It definitely makes me motion-sick, like trying to read in a moving car. I like the individual letters in the font, but it seems like the act of stringing the letters together is too much. (Aaron)
Ms. Anonymous shows that there may be more autistic people out there who felt too insecure to speak up and share their discomfort:
Well, crap, this explains! I actually discovered this thing I do when I don’t like something: hide. So, I saw the post where you asked for comments and I thought the font was hideous and it made me feel sick.
So, instead of saying this, I thought it’s some art I don’t get, and so it must be my fault I don’t get its brilliance. I said nothing. 🧐 And it bothered me for this whole time!
I subscribed to the newsletter a good while ago and thought, well, looks like there are no new articles, they’re on a dry spell. And then, this explanation shows me I just wasn’t appreciating myself enough to speak my truth and ask for things! Autistic, a bit? 😆
So, thanks for the explanation and all, I’m a much happier person now, and will also pay attention to standing up and saying stuff – more 🤩 (Anonymous)
The discomfort may be more common among—but not exclusive to—autistic people, based on a report by Aman:
Just a single datapoint, but as an NT my immediate impression of the logo is that it was unsettling, particularly the e’s. I don’t tend to ever feel nauseated from the sight of things, but I reacted to it the same way I react to things that make most people nauseous.
For what it’s worth, I’ve taken some of those online assessments about neurotypicality and I certainly am more neurodiverse than the average person but am still probably an NT. (Aman)
I tried to acquire more responses from neurotypical people. I realized it’s not straightforward to verify that someone is not autistic; just because someone thinks they are not autistic doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t. But if we accept that these people are indeed neurotypical, then indeed autistic people are not alone in their discomfort:
I’m not autistic, but I am an engineer, so maybe I have some traits in common. I find the wavy lines disturbing in a way I can’t define and uncomfortable to view. I wouldn’t read a page with that font at the top. (Jeff)
I’m not autistic, but I do find it a little uncomfortable once I reach those much-maligned ‘E’s. They just seem to stop me in my tracks; passing over them to reach the ‘K’ feels more like dragging my eyes out of them. It doesn’t make me feel nauseous or anything, just slightly dizzy and lost. (Callum)
As a neurotypical it makes no sense at all to me. (Cheri)
It will have to be scientifically tested whether there is statistical significance to the discomfort and nausea reported by autistic people compared to non-autistic people.
In my previous article on this, I don’t think I established the actual cause of this phenomenon, so if you have ideas about how to research this or what research to explore, I would love to know!
Carolyn alluded to one possible explanation:
Oddly, it doesn’t bother me as much looking at a large version of the ‘e’ in isolation.
I think it may have to do with the way the eyes scan and jump whilst reading that triggers the queasiness when it is used as a font. (Carolyn)
Thomas also figured there is something about the effort it takes to decipher that causes discomfort:
The ‘e’ you show here does something visually “uncomfortable”. There is some strange motion in the waviness of the letter. It is hard to see first off as an ‘e’ and by context, I figured it out. Maybe it is disturbing because of the effort it takes to decipher the shapes into recognizable words. It’s not just obscure but pushes some other button of uncomfortable. (Thomas)
Francesca offered another possible avenue for research on this:
Women are more susceptible to motion sickness (I have read). I wonder if there is a noticeable gender bias in the negative feedback you received. (Francesca)
Based on the responses received, it does seem there are more women reporting this sensory issue.
What is your experience of the typeface Digestive?
Do you think it relates to autism, or is it independent of it?