The Future Rewritten


According to the National Literacy Trust, 16.4% of adults in England, or 7.1 million people, are described as having ‘very poor literary skills’ [1]. For the majority of people, being able to pick out directions on road signs, navigate the London Underground or simply read the options for a coffee in the morning are easy, if not automatic, tasks which require very little effort or stress. For those who struggle to read or who cannot read at all, navigating the world and communicating with others can be an impossibly daunting challenge, causing them to feel isolated or ashamed.

German designers Nicolas Bernklau and Tobias Müller picked up on this issue in their home country, where it is estimated that 7.5 million German citizens are illiterate. For their undergraduate thesis, both Bernklau and Müller wanted to design typefaces and decided to use a “participatory design process” whereby a group of 8 people who were functionally or totally illiterate were invited to contribute their ideas and opinions in a workshop. Bernklau and Müller analysed the workshop ideas and developed full alphabets based on the work created by the 8 participants, resulting in 18 fonts which are available to download from their website, free of charge.

Illiteracy is seen as a hinderance, but this project unlocked the creativity within both participants and designers that was previously untapped. The participants could express themselves in ways they normally could not; creating new non-traditional meanings for letterforms and language allowed them to participate in a form of communication usually out of their reach. The new fonts enabled a different kind of visual communication that focussed on aesthetic as opposed translatable language.

Bernklau and Müller’s work opens up a wider discussion on inclusivity, with valuable skills and inputs being regularly overlooked.

With the constantly evolving digital landscape, there is an opportunity for designers and businesses to create more inclusive forms of communication. The rise of voice control, audiobooks, podcasts and an increased use of iconography are all examples of how brands can move toward a more inclusive offering; bypassing the need to read and write and allowing those who struggle to do so to feel confident when using products and services. Through design, these technologies could be used to make daily tasks such as reading menus, using banking apps, or navigating public transport systems much easier for those who struggle to read.

The opportunities for improving quality of life and maximising social inclusion through design are vast. A more inclusive design process, as in the case of Bernklau and Müller, will inevitably bring a more inclusive design output. Agencies and brands alike need to move from design thinking to inclusive thinking.


[1] Literacy Trust