Picture Perfect – Designing Tactile Images

The old adage says ‘ a picture is worth a thousand words’.

Actually unlikely to be true if you’re blind– then it may be better to have the ‘thousand’ words.

Looking at a picture and understanding though vision is an instantaneous, effortless and undemanding process. One that allows us to quickly comprehend and integrate both complex and detailed concepts. By comparison understanding pictures and interpreting their content through touch is a painstaking process, and can never deliver the same shortcut to understanding.

So consideration number one regarding a tactile diagram? Perhaps it’s this: is the image really necessary for understanding – can understanding actually be better delivered in another way.

tactile mapThere are times of course, when a tactile image will be the most useful way to support learning. Then consideration two comes in to play: is the final image easily intelligible as a tactile experience to be helpful.

When creating the picture, this boils down to: stop considering the design from a visual point of view. Obvious if you think about it, but when the majority of us are primarily visual operators, harder than you think in practice.

Having just worked my way through the RNIB Accessible Image training materials on the Load2Learn site, I can bear witness to that. I did get better, but if there’d been a tactile image transgression checker, marking my first attempts at image adapting, I would have been a high scorer in the: committed detail includer; faithful copy transcriber; and multiple texture lover categories.

Having worked with tactile images, I thought I might have started with an advantage – but no. So as well as being both really interesting and enjoyable to complete, the course activities have been surprisingly revelatory and illuminating to my understanding. (If you’re any way involved with using or producing tactile images I would heartily recommend you have a go).

So how do you make tactile pictures understandable to a blind reader?

Having completed the activities, the key points I’ll now be keeping in mind in are to:

  • Identify the key element/s the tactile image will explain
  • Synthesise this into its simplest, best-spaced, and cleanest design.
  • Remove the visual principles eg. perspective, 3D, transparency, occlusion
  • Make good use of lines and textures (and red alert – beware those textures and lines that may look different visually, but actually when it comes to touch, may actually feel similar)
  • Investigate the image in an organised and logical sequence.

And be prepared to use some of those ‘thousand words’ to provide a supplementary image navigation description:

  • Step 1- say what the image is in one sentence
  • Step 2 – give a brief summary of what the image is and where the important elements can be found.
  • Step 3 – Locate each element of the picture and describe the detail in more depth eg. the appearance and/or function of the different parts.
  • Step 4- End with a short summary and if appropriate some wider background information that further explains the image content or context.

As part of my completion of the Unit 9 Inclusive technologies for Reading Course I had to submit a redrafted tactile image. If you fancy a peek, it’s attached below: the original RNIB tactile image which was used for the redrawing exercise; reasons behind any changes; my version of a new draft tactile image; and an accompanying navigation description.

Though unfortunately the training didn’t improve my artistic skills, I hope that the final pic indicates the application of some of my new awareness.

Download File: Assessing and changing a tactile image