Inside Understood's Accessibility-First Rebrand, Starting With Its Typefaces

Shaping the world for difference

Social impact organization Understood has redesigned its website, typefaces and marketing collateral for broader accessibility.

One in four people in the U.S. have a disability of some kind, and one in five have something like ADHD or dyslexia, which impacts how their brains process information, affecting reading, writing, math, focus and following directions.

To facilitate its goal of helping families, and increasingly individuals, gain access to resources and community at pivotal moments in life, Understood rethought the way modern design conveys information at every step of its rebrand.

"Our ambitious mission will change people's lives and deliver impact at scale, particularly as we look toward rebuilding our society in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic," says Understood CEO Fred Poses. "We are focused on supporting each individual, and our programs work together to help more communities embrace differences, provide accessible resources for all, and empower that individual to thrive."

Understood worked with Wolff Olins and typography designer Martin Vácha of Displaay to create UnderstoodSans, a more readable typeface that now appears throughout its digital content and other collateral.

"Our research showed that there's an overarching guidance to use simple sans serif typefaces for compliance, but other than signage, as well as letter sizing and spacing (which wouldn't apply much to digital formats), the ADA doesn't go into specifics on the drawings of the actual fonts," Jan Eumann, Wolff Olins's head of design, tells Muse.

"Instead, it references faces like Interstate/Highway Gothic along with more popular choices like Arial, Helvetica and Frutiger. The UnderstoodSans typeface was customized to not only make certain letters and numbers more distinguishable for readers, but also improve readability for those with learning and/or thinking differences (specifically dyslexia)."

Eumann continues, "Lowercase letterforms such as 'd' and 'b,' as well as 'p' and 'q,' aren't just flipped. They feature additional details and increased variations to clearly identify them from each other. In another case, the lowercase 'l' (L) isn't just built from a stem. It adds the bottom loop to ensure it's differentiated from the uppercase 'I' (i). And, of course, open letterforms like the single storey 'a' and 'g' make the overall typeface easier to read for Understood's online resources and support."

Its rebrand sports a complete new design system, including ADA-compliant color palettes, inclusive photography and illustrations, and a new sonic logo, music and tone of voice guidelines, created by sound design firm Listen.

Understood Logo Sonic 1
Understood Logo Sonic 2

"Sonic branding is the strategic use of music/sound/voice to enhance customer experience and build the brand, applied holistically across customer touchpoints [i.e., TV, radio, mobile, digital, retail/POS, events, products, OOH, etc.]," explains Brett Volker, a founding partner of Listen. 
"For the Understood sound logo, we were inspired by the role of sound in the classroom, and the way that musical mnemonic devices can facilitate memorization and communication for students with dyslexia. Just as the animation breaks down the word 'Understood' into digestible syllables, our sound logo reinforces the pronunciation of the word with a simple, bright and minimal melodic phrase. This approach dovetailed with our overall efforts to provide Understood with comprehensive guidelines on how to score content with music and sound in a way that avoids sonic overload for those with ADHD and is intelligible for all listeners."

Understood has four areas of impact. Its Workplace Initiative works with companies to hire, advance and retain people with disabilities, as well as people who learn and think differently. It provides information for families and caregivers on supporting children with unique needs at school, at home, in social settings and in community. A section for educators provides ideas for more inclusive teaching strategies. 

Later this year, it will launch a program for first-job support, targeted to young adults. 

"The needs of the diverse communities we serve, from grandparents to principals, from young adults to employers, informed all aspects of our new brand ecosystem," says Understood chief marketing officer Nathan Friedman. "The redesigned brand will help ensure that our resources engage as many people as possible and help them thrive in school, at work, and throughout life."

More redesign features appear below.

Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is the European markets editor at Muse by Clio. She also writes about gaming and fashion, and whatever else she's interested in, really. She's based in Paris and North Italy, so if you're local, say hi. She might eat all your food.

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