While looking online for some fresh approaches to reading, I ran across a dyslexic-friendly typeface. Though unfamiliar to me, Dyslexie was developed several years ago by a creative and bright young man in the Netherlands.
Graphic designer Christian Boer invented the unique font in 2008 as a final thesis project at the Utrecht Art Academy. He says he came up with it to help himself. Christian struggled with dyslexia and found his reading improved with his font. He changed the shape of the letters in his font so that each is more unique than typically found with standard fonts. This, he says, helps differentiate them so there is less tendency for the dyslexic reader to confuse similar letters (such as n/h or i/j) if they are visually flipped, rotated or mirrored. He also made capitals and punctuation bolder to avoid reading through from one sentence to another. Some letters are slanted a bit, some have heavier baselines, and others have longer “sticks.”
The Dyslexie font quickly went international through news articles, a Tedx talk by Christian in Dubai, a number of blogs, and numerous awards. It is now free for home use and available in most Western languages, although the manual has only been released in English and Dutch. It can be purchased at a reasonable cost for commercial or educational purposes.
The font has been used in a number of print and online books and is offered as a clickable option when reading some websites.
One-on-one with Christian
I was curious about how living with dyslexia affected Christian’s childhood and his family. After all, 25 years ago there was much less available information on the topic than there is now. I couldn’t locate anything on his website, dyslexiefont.com, or elsewhere about this so I asked him for an interview and Christian graciously agreed. We spoke on February 8, 2016.
What was your childhood experience with dyslexia?
When I was growing up my family lived in a small village in the center of the Netherlands. My father was the head of a school. He taught English, Dutch, religion, math, everything! I was struggling with my academics but my parents didn’t know quite what was wrong. My older brother and sister had no problems with school work.
When I was about six years old, a remedial teacher came to the school. She talked about dyslexia and my father heard her. He invited this woman to come to our home. When my mother listened to her discuss dyslexia she said, “You just described my youngest son.”
My parents knew something was wrong, and they realized the problem was getting worse, but until that moment they didn’t know what the problem actually was. You know, everyone else would finish their reading and I’d still be struggling with the first half of the text. Reading was so difficult for me! I would read a sentence and need to go back and start again. Over and over.
Now that my parents had a better idea of what was going on, I was tested and moved to a different school. The staff there didn’t really understand what dyslexia was or what to do about it. They just kept telling me to “try harder.” They gave me very low grades and my mother was furious with the teachers. She wanted to see higher achievement out of me.
By the time I reached middle school I had decided to try to hide my dyslexia. I didn’t want the teachers to know I had a problem. But of course they could tell. The instructors sometimes asked me if I had ever been tested for my reading and writing difficulties but I never told them I had!
I would sit in class while others were doing their work and I would draw in 3-D. I knew I wanted to go to art school. I was always drawing during my German, French, English and Dutch classes! My grades in secondary school were also low; it took extra years to get through.
When I was finally at the Utrecht Art Academy I began to understand more about the difficulty I was experiencing deciphering letters. I worked to create a solution that was based on the shape of the letters. That’s how the font was born.
Is the font something that a person needs to get used to, or needs to practice with, before they see improvement?
No, it shouldn’t take practice. Someone should see a difference right away if the font is going to help them read more easily. There are different reasons that people have reading problems, so it won’t help everyone. But many find it helpful.
Watch this news program with Christian explaining the logic behind his Dyslexie font. (The interview continues below.)
When did you realize that your font was going to catch on with others?
Well, in December 2010 a student at the University of Twente in the field of Dyslexia conducted a study on my font as part of her Master’s thesis. She found a significant reduction in reading errors when people when people with dyslexia were reading the Dutch text with my font as opposed to the Arial font. She published her research in December 2010, and the next summer I won first prize at the Smart Urban Stage, Amsterdam and this made all the difference. The international press took notice and for the first time a wide audience of people with dyslexia were seeing the font. Things started to go viral, and I was hearing from people around the world who wanted to use the font in schools or wanted it for their business or publications.
Also in 2011, a woman in Dubai who used the font with her son who had dyslexia arranged for me to give a Tedx talk in her country. It was my first presentation in English (rather than Dutch) and I was quite nervous. It was very difficult for me. It would have been easier to jump out of a plane with a parachute!
I have been fortunate to receive a number of awards and with each of these, news spread. In fact, I ended up giving 3 Tedx presentations in Dubai, New York, and Unist, South Korea
I notice that the font is blue on your website, and you offer the option for the user to select a light yellow background. How did that come about?
I’ve learned that a blue colored font with a light colored background is often preferred, as the contrast is not too much. It’s easier on the eyes. We also offer advice to publicists for layout; for example we suggest the column width not be too wide. Now I am focused on developing public awareness.
Please tell me more about your intent related to awareness.
It’s very important that people understand the struggles that children and adults go through when dealing with dyslexia. And they need to know that there are helpful interventions. First though, people need to recognize if they have a problem themselves.
Students with dyslexia shouldn’t be pushed, instead they should be motivated. I know that I didn’t want any help at that age. For dyslexia, the font can make a difference. Research has shown that with dyslexia, people make bigger jumps between words or letters when reading; it’s difficult to track properly. With the use of the Dyslexie font, I am told that readers make less errors and are able to comprehend the text better. It can be more relaxing for the eyes.
So the first step is for people understand their reading problem. And then to increase awareness of approaches that can be useful to help them.
Thank you for this interview, Christian. You’ve accomplished so much and I wish you continued success with your innovative approaches. I’ll let you know what feedback we hear from users of our website regarding the Dyslexie font option. We’d also be happy to assist in your efforts to increase awareness of dyslexia.