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What first drew you to design? When I was ending my sophomore year in high school, the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning had a summer program for minorities where they got us paid jobs in design. I initially wanted to be an architect, so that summer, I worked for the City of Cincinnati Architects, an urban development department. I was blessed with the opportunity to work under Marcia Shortt, the head of the graphic design department. I felt so honored that Marcia and her team allowed this fifteen-year-old to sketch and design with them all summer as though I was an equal member of their design team. Through this experience, I realized that I didn’t want to be an architect—I wanted to be a graphic designer.

Two projects in particular created my thirst to understand typography and design systems: street signage to better aid visits on a driving tour of the city; and a signage system for the Findlay Market, an inner-city fresh produce and meat market. From these projects, I understood the power of typography to be expressive yet communicative.

How did you arrive at the idea for See Word Reading, a multisensory tool that uses dynamic letterforms to teach early reading principles? A friend’s dyslexic child had attributed his reading struggles to the layout of the letters on a page as he took his tests. Being a graphic designer and typographer, I wondered if I could help.

After much research into reading and dyslexia, I realized that there are strategies that we as graphic designers use when we build brand identity systems and interactive experiences that could possibly be of use to help with early reading skills. For example, when we make a logo for a company, there are qualities to the letterforms or how an image is integrated with type that reflect the ideals of the company; I am using these same strategies to essentially brand the 44 sounds of the English language. Additionally, I took an experimental typography course that helped me think about the true function of type in reading. The course allowed me to question, experiment and hypothesize on what type could be to help with K-12 literacy.

Once at the University of Cincinnati, I partnered with Ben Meyer, an interaction designer, to help develop the app, along with literary specialist Dr. Allison Breit-Smith and educational psychologist Dr. Beth O’Brien, who helped ensure that the tool was grounded in educational and cognitive research theories on reading.

Good user experience requires a designer to look, listen and observe way more than she talks and acts in order to truly understand the context she is designing for.”
 
How can typography help improve literacy for dyslexic readers? Letters are visual symbols that have the power to become mnemonic devices that allow someone to read. Typography is the visual reflection of spoken language. In my work, I try to make that connection between the written and spoken visually evident in the hopes that letters become mnemonic devices that enable someone to have cognitive retention of letters and sounds in order to read.

Why is literacy such an important issue for you? After hearing my friend’s child’s frustrations with reading and seeing the national statistic on reading, which says that one-third of US children are reading at merely a functional level, I knew I wanted to try and help. What hit my heart even more were the statistics that say that 83 percent of low-income fourth graders and 84 percent of African American fourth graders are reading below the basic reading level. What drove me to push through challenges in developing the tool was the statistic that says that 70 percent of prison inmates can’t read above a fourth-grade level. I wonder where those people would be if they had learned to read. Literacy is the key to success, and I want to help change these numbers.

What was the greatest challenge of designing a tool whose audience is primarily children? Finding a school to partner with so that my research team and I could do testing on the tool with children. I ultimately got my opportunity when a colleague, Rayma Waters, who ran an after-school program at a Cincinnati public school, called the Mt. Washington school. Deb Klein, the principal, allowed me to run a club that would enable my team to test the tool on at-risk readers in kindergarten and first grade.

Through the making of See Word Reading, what have you learned about user experience design? In order to create a good user experience, you have to build enough time in the design process to codesign with your audience. Good user experience requires a designer to look, listen and observe way more than she talks and acts in order to truly understand the context she is designing for. Children are honest and don’t hold back. Hearing their feedback meant all the world to the development of See Word Reading. Working in co-creation sessions with teachers and speech pathologists also allowed me to listen and to observe possible design solutions, as opposed to assuming what the solution should be based off my desires.

How do you balance your time spent on See Word Reading and teaching? Both have the same goal: to help the next generation learn and enjoy the process of learning. During the times of conducting active research in public schools, an average day for me could be working with first-year college students as they drew letterforms to try to understand how to build a visual system in a group of letters; then, in the afternoon, helping kindergarten and first-grade students decode the visual system of letters. I often say that the college and elementary-school students’ frustrations and successes are manifested in similar ways. I do my best with balance. With prayer and a will-do attitude, I just go after it every day in the hopes of getting new opportunities to do both.

Where do you see the biggest opportunity for design to make an impact on education? K-12 teachers know what works to help children learn. I believe designers partnering with educators can aid teachers in all subjects and levels to disrupt any methods of teaching that are not working. The opportunity lays in our ability to foster good collaborations with educators and their students.

What trends in type design are you most interested in? Variable fonts are very exciting. I cannot wait to see all of the useful ways this technology will be used to enhance legibility in the digital environment, create new variabilities in branding systems, and embed necessary cues in letters to help someone read, as I am seeking to accomplish.

Reneé Seward is an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning’s School of Design. Seward has been teaching typography and graphic design in the communication design program for the last eleven years and has been serving as the program coordinator for the last three years. Prior to teaching, Seward worked for Olika, an award-winning design studio where she did work for such clients as Bath & Body Works, Nickelodeon and Target. She received her master’s degree from North Carolina State University.

Her research focuses on the development of digital and physical multisensory tools that seek to address literacy problems in our society. Her company recently launched her first reading tool, See Word Reading, to market. She and her research team member Dr. Beth O’Brien were awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Education for a two-year test of the See Word Reading tool. Additionally, she is working in a collaborative research team to develop a tool to help correct speech problems in young children.

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