E is for erring
In my previous post, I talked about our mailing list which is up and running now, and I showed you the masthead I designed for our weekly digest mail which you will receive if you subscribe, called Embrace ASD’s Autism Weekly.
What I didn’t expect was people’s negative reactions to the display typeface I used. Let’s talk about that, because it seems to relate to autism!
If you haven’t seen the masthead in question, here it is:
The typeface I use for Embrace ASD has always been Work Sans, but for the masthead design I was exploring different typefaces to complement it. I tried blackletter typefaces (think for example the logotype of The New York Times) but it all looked too old-fashioned, and I felt it had nothing to do with autism.
But the typeface you see in the masthead above I felt was different. It’s called Digestive, which I think is a true masterpiece. There are hints of blackletter calligraphy, but also a pretty strong art nouveau flavor. All of this was quite exciting to me, as not only is it an unusual typeface, but it’s quite refreshing for a masthead design. And somehow I felt it complements our Embrace ASD symbol as well.
But beyond mere aesthetics and personal excitement, I felt Digestive was a truly good fit because there is so much movement in the letters. Especially letters like ‘o’ and ‘e’ seemingly undulate. In other words, the typeface brought about a distinctly sensory experience. I mean, all design you observe gives a sensory experience, but I felt this typeface—unlike most other typefaces—really brought focus to the experience of typography. And since a big part of autism is the unique and often intense sensory experience, what typeface could possibly be a better fit?
In the image above, you can also see an experiment I did where I added different inlines to emphasize the sensory experience even more (the dotted lines being a reference to “showbiz” lighting if you understand what I mean). In the end I felt this was overdoing it, and went for plain Digestive instead.
I asked, “What typeface could possibly be a better fit to autism?”
Based on some of the reactions I got on Facebook, I suppose just about any other typeface would be a better fit. You see, the very reason why I thought the typeface was such a good representation of autism was why autistic people were quite shocked by it. Some people were bothered by the lack of readability:
Sorry but find the font for Autism Weekly hard to read.
“It’s just a title’, I thought. Does it have to be that easy to read? You read it once and then you know what it says. But other comments indicated the lack of readability was not the crucial issue:
The font for autism weekly makes me deeply uncomfortable.
And someone else added:
Especially the “e”.
I’m a bit puzzled by the reactions, but also quite excited. Because when there is such a visceral reaction to typography, there is usually something interesting going on.
I told Natalie this was probably a case of novel typography being perceived as shocking on account of being novel and unfamiliar. The same happened in the 18th century with Baskerville, which had an unusually high weight contrast (for the time), which was only possible now due to certain advancements in the making of lead type. Although John Baskerville was admired by some—in particular abroad—the crispness of his typefaces unsettled many, and some even claimed the stark contrasts in his printing damaged the eyes. I don’t know if some of these statements were made out of jealousy, but I suspect at least some of the responses were genuine.
Natalie felt its novelty wasn’t the problem. Although she quite liked the typography, the ‘e’ was problematic to her as well. “It makes me feel sick”, she said. So it seems that at least for some autistic people, this kind of typography elicits a vertigo-like effect, bringing discomfort, dizziness, and possibly even nausea.
This seems to be one of the sensory differences in autism (often referred to as sensory processing disorder). I don’t experience any adverse effects from looking at typography, we don’t all respond to sensory information the same way. I always have an intense response to being in a store with fluorescent lighting, where the colors and details of the products become too much for me. After 10–15 minutes I always tell Natalie I have to leave the store soon because I am getting overstimulated. It can bring me quite some discomfort, so I think I have some understanding of what a person is going through when a typeface brings them discomfort. Read more about my experience of sensory overload in the post below.
In this case, it’s the undulating outlines and high contrast of the letterforms that are putting some autistic people over the edge, but sometimes it takes a lot less than that to bring autistic people physical discomfort.
For example, research from 2003 by Robert S P Jones et al. showed that for some autistic people, bright colors are painful to look at:First-hand accounts of sensory perceptual experiences in autism: A qualitative analysis
When I see a red balloon, I think that is a balloon,
the red color is hurting my eyes a little. (Brian)
Research from 2012 by Christine M. Falter-Wagner et al. shows that autistic people have superior temporal processing, meaning we tend to see more “frames per seconds” as it were.Enhanced Visual Temporal Resolution in Autism Spectrum Disorders This could very well explain our visual hypersensitivity, which particularly makes a lot of sense when it comes to fluorescent lighting, as I see the light flickering whereas others do not. I can imagine this higher temporal processing is relevant when it comes to observing undulating shapes, or shapes otherwise suggestive of movement.
And yet it can’t be the whole explanation, because what then causes me to respond to flickering light but not to undulating letterforms, and what causes others to respond to the letterforms but not to flickering light?
Either way, I may have selected a typeface that indeed says something about the autistic experience, making it quite appropriate. I am quite pleased to have identified a typeface that has this effect. But conceptually appropriate as it may be, I don’t want to bring our readers discomfort, so the typeface had to go.
If you subscribed to our mailing list, you might have expected the first weekly digest in your mailbox on Friday. Due to the complaints I received, however, I paused the mail campaign. Earlier in the week, I was thinking to myself, “Should I start the campaign on Friday the 13th?” I’m not superstitious, but the idea of something going wrong on that day amused me. Well, as it turns out something did—more or less—go wrong.
So I designed a new masthead. I tried several different typefaces, but ultimately felt that the typeface below is most appropriate. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, considering it’s Work Sans again (the typeface we always use for our brand). I did use a bolder weight than I would normally use, just to give the masthead more power and presence, and to make it stand out a bit more.
In the end, I actually prefer this masthead over the previous one. I think both work in their own way, but Work Sans doesn’t give adverse effects, it looks polished, and it’s perfectly in line with the brand I have established for Embrace ASD.
Work Sans still works!
I have now updated the images, and will send out the weekly digest today. Starting next week, you can expect Autism Weekly in your inbox every Friday.
Read the follow-up post
to this article here:
Baskerville (typeface), Christine M. Falter-Wagner, Digestive (typeface), Graphic design, Lived experience, Mailing list, Perception, Qualitative research, Robert S P Jones, Sensory differences, Sensory overload, Sensory processing disorder, Temporal processing, Typefaces, Typography, Vertigo, Visual perception