Section I: Designing Tactile Illustrations
Before beginning to design a tactile book, it is essential to:
- understand touch as a means of gathering information
- be aware of principles of good tactile design
- know how to design the most appropriate tactile illustration for a particular child, suited to his skills, interests, and background knowledge
A tactile illustration should not be an attempt to reproduce a visual picture in a tactile form. Unlike visual illustrations that use color, shape, and distance perspective to provide information to the viewer, tactile illustrations that rely on texture, size, and sequence provide the most meaningful information for a young tactual learner.
A young tactual learner experiences and conceptualizes the world differently than a child who is sighted. To the extent an illustration—even if it can be experienced through touch—represents a sighted experience, it cannot convey the same meaning as it would to a sighted child.
Learning Through Touch
To begin, let’s consider the ways that tactual learning differs from visual learning, affecting both how real objects are perceived and how tactile illustrations are examined and interpreted by a child who has never had usable vision.
- Tactual learners typically have fewer opportunities to gain experience with objects. A tactual learner experiences an object when he is in contact with it, but this may be far less often than a sighted child sees the same object in his environment. Incidental learning through observing others is unavailable. Objects that are too large, too small, or too faraway to examine by touch will remain largely unknown. This relative lack of experience and related concepts can make it more difficult for the child to recognize these objects when they are depicted in a tactile illustration.
- Touch gives sequential, partial information. Vision provides instantaneous, global information. With touch, however, the “viewing area” is limited to what is beneath the fingertips (16). Objects are not understood as a whole until the child feels each part and then relates these to one another in his mind. Similarly, a tactile illustration is not understood until each part is examined and related to the other parts. Cognitively, this requires much more from a young tactual learner than a visual glance requires from a sighted viewer (11).
- Gathering tactual information depends upon movement. To examine objects or tactile illustrations fully, the child must be active—able to move both hands and fingers in an efficient, strategic manner. Furthermore, many types of tactual sensations fade unless “refreshed” by repeated contact (17).
- Touch provides different types of sensations that overlap. Moving and stretching muscles in the fingers and hands provides feedback about the overall shape and expanse of an object or tactile illustration. This information is received at the same time as sensations received through receptors in the skin give critical information about texture and detail (18).
- Touch is a sense of proximity. Every time the child touches the same object, it “looks” the same to his fingers regardless of how he “approaches” the object. There are no “viewing angles” or differences between distant and close-up appearances. Illustrations that show a particular view of an object or different views of the same object, and close-up or “cut away” illustrations in which a part appears without the whole (e.g., a person’s head without the rest of the body) do not make sense to a tactual learner without explanation and training.
- The child’s experience of how an object feels cannot be duplicated in a tactile illustration; there are no tactile “photos.” This makes it harder for him to connect the tactile illustration to the object it is intended to show. For example, he may recognize his own hairbrush by the particular texture and stiffness of its bristles. Even when the tactile illustration uses a real hairbrush, if it has a different type of bristle or shape, a young child may not recognize it as “hairbrush.”
- An object’s 3-dimensional shape feels very different from a 2-dimensional representation of its contours. A 2-dimensional illustration of a cat’s shape shown in a side view does not feel at all like the living, moving, and furry cat the child has held. Sighted viewers frequently see the contours of objects in a side view or overhead view and recognize these almost immediately when they are depicted in a visual illustration. A tactual learner does not have these “views” and the associated contours in mind.
- The same 2-dimensional shape (contour) can be interpreted in many different ways, so shape alone is seldom a sufficient clue to an object’s identity. A circle can be a ball, the sun or moon, a wheel, a plate, or the rim of a cup. Tactile illustrations must be given a context—either provided in the book’s text, through verbal explanations, or both.
- Like shape, texture provides the child with clues but still may not give enough information to identify a thing. A cat is furry, with a scratchy tongue and claws. Some of these textures can be imitated—a patch of fake fur, scratchy sandpaper—but these could be confused with many other things that have a similar texture.
- Spatial relationships between objects or between parts of the same object are difficult to show and to interpret in a tactile illustration. Showing where elements are in relation to one another on a page is quite different from how the child has experienced positions such as above, under, behind in his tactual explorations of objects in the everyday, 3-dimensional world. A child may tactually recognize the kitchen table by its height and how long it takes to feel along its edge as he turns each corner, feeling each leg in sequence. A tactile representation of the table on a flat page is very unlike this experience.
- Tactile illustrations that show very large objects at reduced size can be confusing. A house, for example, has parts he has probably never had the opportunity to touch, such as the roof or chimney; so depiction of these as a triangle with a small rectangle on top would not be familiar at all. He may also have only a vague notion of how all these parts relate to one another. Your explanations and firsthand experience with the object or a 3-dimensional model may be needed beforehand.
- Tactual learners may not be provided with sufficiently rich verbal descriptions that reflect tactual experience. Sighted adults often tend to describe features that are significant for a visual learner, making it more difficult for the tactual learner to build vocabulary he needs to describe and recall his own experience. Language can support memory, so it is possible this may impact his ability to build concepts needed to interpret a tactile illustration.
- Tactual learners may lack scaffolded opportunities to learn exploratory skills from an adult who understands learning through touch. Adults guide sighted children, almost from birth, to use their vision to explore objects in their environment, pictures, and the connections between the two. This learning is usually informal and embedded in daily activities. Adults who have vision may be less capable of introducing a tactual learner to needed skills and knowledge.
Principles of Good Tactile Design
In addition to factors just mentioned, a child’s ability to interpret a tactile illustration can also be affected if the designer has not followed key principles of good tactile design. To make a usable tactile illustration, it is critical to become familiar with these principles.
- Use textures, shapes, lines, and symbols or items that feel distinctly different from one another. Differences between textures help the tactual learner organize and understand information. Neighboring textures should be distinctly different in order for a child to discriminate between them.
- Use more obvious or “loud” textures for the most important part of a picture—unless this is a representation of an object that has a different associated texture that should be respected, such as the soft petals of a flower. Loud textures, such as corrugated cardboard, carpet, fur, sandpaper, and raised lines made from pipe cleaners and Wikki Stix® attract attention more quickly and indicate that this is the most important information on the page. Be aware, too, that some children do not like these; so you must take into account the child’s willingness to touch whatever you use.
- Be consistent in the way you represent a particular thing throughout the book, or it may not be recognized. Ideally the size, texture, and contour you choose to show should always be the same.
- Simplify and avoid clutter—many lines or elements in an illustration make it confusing to examine by touch. Leave out unnecessary details and lines. A good tactile illustration shows only a few of an object’s most important, identifying tactile details, such as the stem on an apple to distinguish it from an orange.
- Use elements that are large enough to be discriminated one from another. Raised shapes should be at least 1/2 inch wide, no smaller, to be identified. Textures may require more area in order to be identified.
- Add height to illustrations. This helps the tactual learner locate important information on a page more quickly. Collage illustrations allow the designer to use different thicknesses—a 3-dimensional illustration is not created but some modeling can be effected. Layering can be used to show different parts of an object and their relationship to one another, such as a “knob” glued on top of a rectangle to represent a door.
- “Fill” large outlined shapes or areas with a “fill pattern” (areal pattern) to help the child tell what is inside and what is outside the shape.
- Leave sufficient space between elements. Place lines or shapes no closer than 1/4 inch apart; lines closer than 1/8 inch apart are not felt as being separate.
- Avoid intersecting lines as much as possible. Lines that do meet and cross over one another should be tactually distinct from one another (e.g., a dotted line versus solid line).
- Break up the illustration into two or more illustrations if there are many objects or elements. For a young child, a tactile illustration should show only one to a few objects per illustration. To show a complex illustration, “build” the illustration gradually by first providing only the most basic elements; in the next illustration, add to this. Continue to add until all elements of the illustration are presented.
Sequence of Use for Types of Tactile Illustrations
We recognize that learning through touch is different, that 2-dimensional tactile illustrations have inherent challenges, and that illustrations that respect good design principles are easier to explore and interpret. Designers have also wondered if there is an overall order of difficulty among different types of illustration. One recent study found consistently higher rates of recognition for textured collage illustrations versus thermoform and raised-line drawings among students from 6 to 16 years of age (27).
Is it easier to interpret raised-line drawings, collaged illustrations, or real object illustrations? What contours afford the easiest interpretation? Which identifying features should be included and which details should be excluded for better interpretation? Although we do not have a great deal of research to “spell out” a precise order of difficulty, we do know some of the factors involved. Some are best explained in terms of the tactile illustration, and others, in terms of the child.
Real Object Illustrations: First and Familiar
Children who are less than 2 years old most often explore with their whole hand instead of using their fingers separately. This continues to be true for some older preschoolers, and children who exhibit tactile selectivity. Putting together what we know about a young child’s development of “hand skills,” early cognitive development, and the number and strength of clues provided by different types of tactile illustrations, it is likely that large areas of texture and real objects used as tactile illustration provide the best introduction to tactile illustrations for a young child.
Whole objects are most easily identified, for reasons previously explored. When a whole object is too large to include, using only part of the object in a tactile illustration may not always be a suitable compromise. You need to evaluate each instance carefully, based on the child’s familiarity with the whole object as well as its parts, his ability to understand part/whole relationships, and how distinctive or unique the part is. A tab from a soft drink will not signal “soft drink” to a young child who has never drunk from a can. Placed alone on the page, it may not be understood, even if the story supplies a context.
Similarly, miniature models are often difficult for a young child, who may not understand the relationship between the model of an object and its real-life counterpart. Parts of objects and miniatures are objects, but objects used in a symbolic way.
Always, before sharing the book with the child, give firsthand experience with the things and events in the book. Let the child handle the objects as you give him the appropriate words for each.
Guidelines to Consider When Creating Real Object Illustrations
- Select objects that are familiar to the child. To the extent possible, use the real thing (rather than a model, miniature replica, or part of the object).
- When possible, use the child’s own items and toys as object illustrations. If he is capable, let him choose or help you choose the objects to use as tactile illustrations.
- Objects that have unique and distinctive textures greatly assist recognition.
- When possible, use objects that feature actions the child can perform—a purse that opens up, a spoon attached to the page that he can detach and use.
- It may be easier for the child to recognize objects that have simple forms, unique shapes, or distinguishing features.
- If the objects can be detached from the page, try to use ones that can be grasped easily by a child’s small hands and that fit his current grasp style (e.g., palmar, whole hand, pincer).
- If the real object is too large to fit on the page and if the book’s words provide enough supporting information, it may be successful to attach a texture or material like that of the object (e.g., a story character has a soft, fuzzy blanket—provide a large swatch of blanket material, attached at one edge rather than glued down, so it can be “crumpled” and feels more like a blanket might actually feel).
- Objects can be attached to the page, enclosed in the pocket of the TBB Kit’s Pocket Page or Ziploc® Page. Remember that objects are more difficult to recognize if they cannot be detached from the page since they cannot be handled or used.
- Limit each tactile illustration to one or two objects per page unless you are showing multiples of the same object.
- Position objects on the page so there is enough space to separate each of them; things positioned too closely may merge, to the sense of touch, into one object. However, do not scatter objects so widely that the child is likely to miss one positioned off to itself.
- If the child is beginning to use fingers separately and together to investigate details, objects with more detail and complex contours can be used.
- If the child has remaining vision, provide an appropriately contrasting background for the objects you use to add interest, to help him locate the objects for grasping, and to guide tactual exploration.
Collage Illustrations: Texture, Shape, Size, and Sequence
Collage illustrations offer a next, but significant, step away from the 3-dimensional objects a child knows into 2-dimensional tactile illustrations (27). Even typically sighted preschoolers pay special attention to texture and give it a higher priority as a classification criterion over shape and size (9). Just as different colors are used to indicate visual differences, so too should the textures vary. As discussed before, texture in a tactile illustration functions much as color does in a visual illustration; it adds interest, assists in identification, and differentiates the objects shown, one from another (11). Different parts of the object may be shown by using different textures to set them apart. Layering allows the designer to achieve different thicknesses—a 3-dimensional illustration is not created but some modeling can be effected. Layering can also be used to show different parts of objects and their relationship to one, such as a “plate” glued on top of a rectangle that represents a placemat.
Most collage illustrations attempt to keep important textural clues and also present a related 2-dimensional shape—such as a smooth, round apple shown as an apple shape cut from smooth, slick poster board. As mentioned earlier, a largely flat shape glued to the page does not give as much information to a tactual learner as a visual shape does to sighted learners.
If the collage illustration also preserves the size of the object it represents, then this important clue is also available to the child. In addition, the way the collage illustrations are placed on the page can also give important information to the young child. When placed in a linear sequence, the child learns that a series of events occurs over time or that something is changing. Sequence can show very dynamic processes in the story as well as teach important concepts of storytelling, such as first this happened, then that.
Adding 3-dimensional items to a collage illustration can also assist recognition—for example, silk flowers added to a collage side view of a vase or a shoelace added to a collage shape of a shoe. If your collage can include other sensory aspects of the real life object, don’t hesitate to provide these. Think of collage illustrations as a form of mixed media. Scent the silk flowers with a floral perfume. Provide something that makes a sound like the object—plastic material that crackles just like the wrapper on an actual piece of candy. If your collage can include any of the functions of the real life object—a flap that opens to simulate the lid of box, and a small clasp to close it—these can be essential clues for a tactual learner and add fun to exploring the illustration.
Remember that the young tactual learner has in mind a 3-dimensional mental representation of the object, learned by holding the whole object in his hands. The contours you choose to show will not be recognized automatically. For this reason, it is always a good idea to have the real object on hand for immediate comparison to the collage illustration. Let the child trace with his finger, on the real object, the contour the collage represents.
Always, before sharing the book with the child, give firsthand experience with the things and events in the book as you give him the appropriate vocabulary for each.
Guidelines to Consider When Creating Collage Illustrations
- When you select objects to represent, rather than trying to match the visual appearance of the object, choose textures that reflect the qualities of whatever is being illustrated. Using materials that feel very similar to the child to illustrate vastly different objects is like using the same color for everything in a picture—imagine a picture where the sun, the trees, the playground, the little boy and his ball are all the same shade of yellow.
- In some cases, it may be easier for the child to recognize the collage shape of an object that has a simple, symmetrical form. For example, the contour of an orange, because it is symmetrical, will be the same regardless of view chosen. At the other extreme, a collage shape attempting to show a shoe could be difficult—in part because of large differences in contour depending upon whether it is shown in side view or from above and also because shoes vary so much in style.
- When deciding which objects to represent, continue to choose objects that are familiar to the child or that he can examine before reading the story. If something is too large, too small, too faraway, or too fragile for the child to feel firsthand—a butterfly, for example—you may be able to show the child a 3-dimensional, full size model and explain how it is like and unlike a real butterfly. Let the child trace the contours of the real object or model and compare to the collage illustration of it.
- As much as possible, involve the child in selecting the textures and contours to use to show elements in the illustrations; discuss how you might position these in the tactile illustration to show spatial relationships.
- Think about what is important to show—then eliminate unnecessary detail. In particular, it is unnecessary and can be misleading to show details that are primarily visual—such as colored stripes on a ball.
- But do show one or two defining details, such as the eraser at the top of a pencil. A single detail, such as a feather on a bird, can “jumpstart” recognition and increase the ease with which some illustrations are interpreted.
- If the child has remaining vision, provide appropriately contrasting backgrounds to add interest and guide him to locate all parts of the collage.
- At first, keep illustrations to a size that is no larger than what fits beneath the child’s hand or two outspread hands. It can be more difficult to identify large illustrations that must be examined by moving the hands from one part to another.
- Continue to show objects at their actual, real-life size until a child understands the idea of scaled sizes. Then, if you are showing multiple objects, try to show them in relative proportion to one another. A flower should be smaller than a tree, a mouse smaller than a cat. This is another case in which size can be informative. When making tactile illustrations, size is not about distance or perspective. Rather it is about concepts such as big and little, and also about relative age and status—for instance, mother and child.
- In deciding which contours to represent, consider the child’s tactual experience of the object in real life. Is this an object, such as a plate, whose shape is usually felt from above? Is a critical, identifying detail only obvious if a side view is presented—such as a cup’s handle?
- Once the child has been introduced to simple collage illustrations and understands more about interpreting these, if he is beginning to use fingers separately and together to investigate details, you can depict objects that have more complex contours and create illustrations that include smaller collage shapes.
- Once a child understands that objects can be represented with collage shapes, the next step is to represent spatial relationships among multiple objects. Again, demonstrate and compare the spatial relationship with actual objects. It will be quite a change for the child to think of “above” as being at the top of the page instead of somewhere in space “hovering” over the page. Do make sure he has an understanding of spatial terms (above, below, beside, between, etc.) in his everyday activities before you feature these in illustrations.
- To some extent it is possible to layer collaged shapes to build up different thicknesses to form something that has more relief than a single flat shape. A spoon can be shown with the bowl of the spoon slightly indented. This is more like the 3-dimensional shape of a spoon the child probably has in mind.
- In general, avoid occlusion, hiding one shape by overlapping another. However, sometimes layering one shape on top of another shape can give spatial information about the two objects. For example, a round shape meant to show a plate can be glued on top of a rectangular shape that represents the placemat. This common spatial arrangement is a clue that might trigger recognition.
- Openings in an object can be suggested — a second texture can be shown “inside” the round opening in a collage shape of a bowl to show some of its contents.
- Showing animals and other characters is a challenge for designers. The shape you choose to show may be a poor cue, and size will almost certainly be different from the actual size of the animal or story character. In general, show animals from a side view. People are usually shown from a front view. Show all of an animal’s legs and the characteristic shape of the ears and tail—long and thin, short or thick. Position arms and legs away from the body so they can be felt as separate from the rest of the body. Look for “telling characteristics” you can provide—a lion’s mane. Look also for details you can omit and possible simplifications of the overall shape. It is not necessary to be visually realistic. Showing details such as a bulge for the knees of the horse or the elephant’s shoulder can distract rather than add to the child’s ability to identify the animal.
- Many animals are furry, but you can use clear differences in the type of fur to denote different characters. For instance, Spot and his mother are both dogs; therefore, their collage illustration should both be of soft, furry materials that resemble what a dog feels like. However, Spot is a puppy, and he is the little one. His fur should be shorter and feel softer than his mother’s fur. And if Spot has other furry friends in the story, the feeling of their fur should be so distinct and different from dog fur that there is no confusion.
- Front views of faces also tend to be identified correctly by older tactual learners, so it may not be a mistake to include details (eyes, nose, mouth, and ears) in a collage illustration. Ears are particularly noticed and used to identify the shape as a face.
- If a tactile illustration has multiple parts, consider breaking the illustration into several different illustrations. A growing plant could be shown first as a single stalk, then shown as a stalk plus branches, and finally as a stalk plus branches plus leaves.
- However you choose to represent an object or story element, be consistent! If you show it at a certain size, use that size throughout the book. If you use a particular texture, use the same texture for that object each time. Shape should be consistent, too. If you use a contour based on a side view, it should be the same each time you show the object unless there is a change in the object that is part of the story and mentioned in the text. Some stories offer a compelling reason to change some aspect of what is being shown—for example, the story of a small pumpkin that grows larger each day.
Raised-Line Illustrations: Later and Lacking Clues
Given what we know about children’s development of tactual discrimination and exploratory skills, as well as the number of tactile clues that are lacking in a raised-line illustration, it is reasonable to expect raised-line illustrations to be more difficult to interpret than other types of tactile illustration (27). In most cases, they are best reserved for use with an older preschooler or school-age student who has had successful experiences with other types of illustrations. Raised-line illustrations require the child to use his fingers separately, trace along lines with fingertips, note where lines intersect, decide which line to follow, and develop a strategy to ensure he completes his examination without retracing portions he has already explored.
Raised-line illustrations are more like the tactile diagrams, maps, and other raised graphics the child will encounter in school textbooks and test; so there is reason to provide experience with them. Nevertheless, most children will continue to enjoy and benefit from using real object illustrations and collage illustrations since they are inherently more interesting and tactually informative.