Beyond the Bounds - June 1, 2019
Leave a comment

Making Picture Books Accessible for Children with Visual Impairments

By Jessye Holmgren-Sidell

In almost any bookstore or local library, there is a young children’s section—a secluded friendly corner filled with squashy chairs, colorful wall art, and preschoolers sitting in their parents’ laps. Those children are reading picture books. Picture books can facilitate preschool children’s literacy comprehension and ability to retain information (Fang, 1996; Strouse et al., 2018). Through interactive reading with their parents, children begin to internalize the illustrations they see in stories and apply them to real-life experiences (Strouse et al., 2018) (Figure 1). As a visual means of conceptualization and communication, picture books offer an array of potential benefits to young readers but are not an inclusive medium for those with visual impairments.

Figure 1. A diagram of picture book benefits for preschool children, as identified by Fang (1996); Greenhout et al. (2014); and Strouse et al. (2018).

While accessible, interactive picture books do exist, they typically use raised illustrations that are not scalable (Living Paintings, n.d.; The Tactile Picture Books Project, n.d.). Children feel the pictures alongside their parents but cannot take accessible elements from one story and use them to conceptualize another; each book is its own entity with its own set of tactile visuals. My final project for NCSU’s Master of Graphic Design program centered on creating a toolkit that children with visual impairments and their parents can apply to multiple existing picture books to create interactive, performative reading experiences.

When creating solutions for accessibility, I found it most helpful to conduct and observe interviews with end-users (children with visual impairments and their parents) and literacy development experts. As a sighted designer, I cannot assume anything about my users’ experience; I need their insights and expertise. I used the information gleaned through these conversations to develop four personas, two sets of parents and children with a range of visual impairments. I then journey mapped their current reading experiences to isolate opportunities for design intervention (Figure 2).  

Figure 2. A journey map of my persona’s current reading experience.

Identified pain points:

  1. Exploring contextualizing picture clues.
  2. Using visual references to follow the story.
  3. Understanding the Gestalt of the story.

In Fang’s (1996) research on the relationship between illustrations and text, he notes that picture books function in multiple ways, specifically to establish setting, describe and develop characters, extend or develop plot, provide readers with a different perspective, contribute to textual coherence, and reinforce text. To generate potential components for my toolkit, I created a conceptual matrix using a combination of Fang’s identified modes of functionality (Axis 1), accessibility methods (Axis 2), and systems of meaning (Axis 3) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The conceptual matrix. This diagram structured my investigation’s exploratory studies.

In addition to the identified pain points, I wanted my components to address:

  1. Mobility as an opportunity to help children with visual impairments develop fine motor movement skills (Ferrell et al., 1990, as cited in Erickson et al., 2007).
  2. Tactility as a means for children with visual impairments to identify and differentiate between specific forms and functions (Hathazi and Bujor, 2013).

Figure 4. My completed conceptual matrix.   

I initially focused on illustrations as plot development (Fang, 1996). If illustrations dictate a story’s progression, then page turning controls its pacing. How could mobility and tactility represent the act of page turning?

Figure 5. Blank booklets with turnable pages. Children can flip through the booklet to simulate the same action in picture books and control pacing.

Figure 6. This prototype uses page-turning as completion. Every time their parents turn a page, children drop a pom-pom until they fill the container.

Figure 7. Dial with scored indents that reference page numbers. Children feel the ridges on the curve and turn the dial to align with the scores.

I also considered how to give children an overview of a book’s plot before, during, and after story time. Would that overview involve moving elements, like a character following a path? How could children situate a specific moment in the story that they are reading on the plot overview?

Figure 8. Pipe cleaner symbolizes plot developments, both positive and negative. As their parents read aloud, children follow the story by moving the sponge along the line.

Figure 9.  Children trace the bent wire to follow positive and negative developments.

Creating character representations posed the biggest challenge for me. I initially made moveable pieces on a board that children could customize using attachable accessories. While their parents read aloud, they would use the figures to act out scenes and interactions happening in the story. I applied the same approach to settings and built particular forms that I thought would be recurring elements in stories (trees, for example). One solution I considered was that children would generate these elements themselves before and during story reading. Every time the scene changes in the book, children and parents would work together to create and assemble the new setting.

Figure 10. Realistic human representation with removable hair and outfit.

Figure 11. Abstract human representation.

Figure 12. Abstract tree representation.

I observed that the majority of my explorations fell on the line between tactile and mobile, indicating that components should address both characteristics, rather than one or the other. Additionally, setting a scene for each picture book spread takes time and could become confusing for children, particularly if some spreads requires a new setting and characters. Tactile and mobile systems of meaning should help children conceptualize existing picture books, rather than become tools for children to create their own stories. Most importantly, I understood that while it is essential to explore and generate initial solutions, these solutions have no value until tested. Moving forward, I began to think of my toolkit, not as a collection of disparate components, but a functioning system that enhances a parent and child’s actual reading time.

At the beginning of this investigation, I kept going back to digital solutions and trying to work within those limitations—“This should be an interface,” I thought. “This should be designed for screens.” Research and interviews helped me better understand users’ needs and identify the tools necessary to address those needs; this meant working with three-dimensional, tactile objects, as well as going beyond the scope of my interpretation of “graphic design,” which, I realized, was a narrow scope and interpretation. So often, we get caught up in making products for the most amount of people, without considering what specific people particularly need and the resulting affordances. I strongly believe that designing for accessibility encourages us to look beyond existing solutions, to work with end-users as they bring their expertise to the conceptual and creative process.

Jessye Holmgren-Sidell (MGD ‘19) is a recent graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master of Graphic Design program. She’s interested in accessibility, book, and interface design.


Leave a Reply