The Braille FAQ, featuring Confettis.
1.01 Why do we need another Braille font? If you’ve ever brought up the subject of fonts at a party, a couple of things’ve likely happened. First, you weren’t invited back. (Just kidding, fonts are the coolest.) Second, someone responded with “Aren’t there already enough fonts out there?” At which point so many arguments bubbled up in your head that you couldn’t shove all the words out one by one, and it came out as a muffled BWHAMHAAAGUUZ. Yet, in discussing Confettis with other type designers, that was repeatedly the first question. The answers in section two serve to bridge that gap.
2.01 Do font weights exist in Braille? A sighted typeface will often contain a variety of weights and grades: bold for emphasis, light for delicacy, consideration for scale and for the printing process. Sometimes, these considerations are taken to such extremes that entirely new shapes manifest themselves. (Retina, I’m nodding at you.) Until now, available digital Braille fonts offered just a single weight of precise circles. While there’s not as much need for fine gradation, the same added value for emphasis or printing methods exists. When I interviewed a blind Braille reader, her response to weight differentiation was giddy with excitement as she proceeded to recall a children’s book that used different weights and textures to great effect within a story, akin to visual poetry.
2.02 What are the traditional ways to emphasize text in Braille? In lieu of a full palette of italics, small caps, size variation, and colors to differentiate the text, Braille writers use a notation system to translate sighted cues. In concept, it’s analogous to the way basic computer code is set. There are opening and closing indicators that wrap the text you want to highlight. For instance, to set an italicized section, you might use the code 4646 to note the start, and 46 to note the end. There are different standardized codes for notating different emphasis, and as long as there is a key, the option of adding codes as you go.
2.03 What other differences exist between sighted text and Braille? A visual glyph is almost infinite in the combination of squiggles, lines, dots, and directions available to it. A Braille glyph, on the other hand, can only exist as a combination of six dots presented in binary. To communicate all the symbols we’re accustomed to using, Braille functions via ligatures. Where a basic letter takes up one cell, a less common underscore or parenthesis exists as a combination of two. For efficiency within a system that spells out a lot of what sighted readers take for granted, Braille developed a number of abbreviations to speed up the reading process. For example, the word immediate gets shortened to imm, knowledge to k, little to ll. This results in a more nuanced relationship than the one-to-one keyboard typing most of us are used to.
2.04 How does Braille vary for different languages? For English, the law of the land is the Unified English Braille (UEB) standard, whose latest revision was released in 2016. Worldwide, Braille is used by 133 different languages, each adhering to its own rules and formats.
3.01 Where does Confettis fit in? Confettis is a carefully crafted and considered font family that fits snuggly within the current French Braille traditions. (For English or another language, you’ll have to contact Jonathan Fabreguettes directly to get a remapped file.) The three weights add desirable options for emphasis or to adjust for the nuances of the printing. Confettis is doing important work focusing on a segment of the population overlooked by type designers. Some limitations though, are that it doesn’t balk at or reconsider the existing ways of setting type, restricting Braille typesetting to those who’re already familiar with the workarounds required. I imagine a future font that takes advantage of OpenType capabilities, mapping the symbols to their ligatures and abbreviating long words to their designated contractions. A typeface that enables any neophyte to typeset a postcard to send to a friend, relative, or the charming woman who helped consult on this review.
Thank you to Rainer Erich Scheichelbauer and Frank Grießhammer for hypothetical OpenType fictionalizing, and to Ernestine Patterson for the conversations on the evolving state of Braille.
Ksenya Samarskaya drafts ideas on napkins, replies via sms, and has opinions on everything. Samarskaya & Partners is a design studio that’s half branding agency & half type foundry; headquartered in Brooklyn, NY.