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Section I: Designing Tactile Illustrations

Before beginning to design a tactile book, it is essential to:

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.

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.

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

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

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.