Unlike most type designs, the Illitera faces are not meant to be legible. Their idiosyncratic shapes preclude any typesetting use—especially for the people who created them: illiterates. Designers Nicolas Bernklau and Tobias Müller built the 18 fonts with the collaboration of 8 Germans unable to read.
Bernklau and Müller conceived the project in 2017 while working on their undergraduate design thesis at Dual Baden-Württemberg University Ravensburg. The duo, both in their mid-twenties, wanted to design typefaces for their thesis but wanted to do so “through a participatory design process,” according to Bernklau. After first considering designing with children, the pair decided to work with illiterates, which make up 7.5 million, roughly 9%, of Germany’s population.
Bernklau and Müller learned early in their research that, while many type designers have tried to help illiterates read through specialized fonts, experts say that these efforts have been mostly ineffective. Bernklau and Müller set a different goal: not legibility, but enjoyment. Bernklau explained, “Illiterates have had bad experiences with letters, so we wanted to show them a fun aspect of type. We worked with them in a fun environment, creating shapes and letterforms in a playful way.”
The process included extensive interviews with both professionals and participants. Professionals included Gerry Leonidas, Julian Zimmermann, Thomas Lupo, Cordula Löffler, and others. The participants included 8 Germans from a range of “Mutterspache,” or linguistic communities. Müller said that interviewing the participants exposed him to a different world: “What surprised me the most was talking to the participants and hearing how they managed their daily lives. We listened to stories about going on the train or to the supermarket without being able to read, which is such an enormous challenge. I couldn’t imagine what that would be like.”
The collaboration itself took the form of a daylong workshop, during which the participants learned about letterforms, then made their own. “They were able to paint, cut, nail, brush, shape, and glue. […] It was nice to watch them evolve—when we first met, at the beginning of the workshop, they were quiet and scared. By the end, we could see that they all lost their fear and really enjoyed creating the letters.”
Once the workshop completed, Bernklau and Müller then divvied the drafts—four each—and began analyzing the shapes to draw out full alphabets. Some participants’ drafts begot multiple fonts, while others’ work resulted in only one. In total, 18 fonts came from the sketches of 8 illiterates, and while not made for text-use, they function aptly at display sizes. Bernklau and Müller have made all 18 available for download on the project website.
Beyond the typefaces themselves, Bernklau and Müller wanted to produce something to make the participants proud of their work. Turning to the idea of specimen posters, the duo began sending packets of information to designers and firms around the world. Recipients were given one typeface and information on its associated participant. The response surprised Müller, “90% sent back posters.” In total, 34 designers from 11 countries submitted 56 typographic posters; the submissions came in from destinations so far as Japan, USA, and Indonesia and included both static and animated posters.
After the research, workshop, type designs, and posters, the duo needed a way to present it all. The built a website, illitera.de, but wanted something tangible that they could send out to the participants and any potential supporters. After considering their options, Bernklau and Müller designed and printed a book.
Read from one side, the book shows the typefaces—from the other side, the interviews—and in the middle, 16 of the posters. The book has paid off, too, earning the project a litany of features and awards: Metapaper, Arthelps, Typostrate, designwelike, DDC Gute Gestaltung 18 Award, Type Directors Club’s TDC64 Certificate of Typographic Excellence, and the European Design Award, among others. The TDC award excites Bernklau the most, because of its associated traveling exhibit, “it will help get the project in front of more people.”
Though they have left university and are starting their careers, Bernklau and Müller have not lost enthusiasm for Illitera. They hope the success of the first workshop and typefaces will propel the project forward, allowing them to gain government support and work it into the reading curriculum in Germany. To that end, they have begun raising funds for further workshops through limited-release postcard sales and donations.
Optimistic and eager, Bernklau and Müller want to continue using design for good, rethinking common practices and testing new ideas. If the development of illegible typefaces can help people learn to read, where else might innovation hide? These two young designers hope to give us the answer.