Written by:
February 4, 2020

R is for repulsion

Last updated on March 24, 2021

I’m thoroughly impressed with the typeface Digestive by Jérémy Landes (Studio Triple), not only because it’s such a novel typeface—taking inspiration from Art Nouveau and Gothic architecture as well as marine plants and organs,  but together it becomes something never before seen—but because it evokes such a strong reaction in people. And as it turns out, the typeface seems particularly unpalatable to autistic people, as you might have read in D is for discomfort.

The fact that the word ‘unpalatable’ comes to mind is interesting, considering Jérémy’s food inspiration:

While designing this typeface, I tried to make a balance between something attractive and repulsive. This made me add some food-related inspirations as I cook a lot. Call it long Italian pasta with a sticky sauce for example.

Hence the name, Digestive.

 

Embrace Autism | R is for repulsion | type Digestive Two


Motivation

So why another post on this? Well, for one, there is an intersection between autism and typography that I never considered before, which begs to be explored further. How do autistic people process typefaces differently from non-autistic people or neurotypicals? Are there different thresholds for legibility? And if so, what implications might this have? There is a small market of dyslexia typefaces; is something similar possible or necessary for autistic people?

Unfortunately, since the research on this is lacking, I am unable to answer any of these questions, but I have been thinking about these and related questions a lot lately, and thinking of conducting a research study on autism and typography at some point. But what I want to do in this post, is to offer more reactions from autistic people on Digestive. Why? For three related reasons:

  • Intensity — This time I asked for responses on Twitter (last time I used Facebook), and some of the reactions seem stronger and more expressive in some cases than before. It’s likely that people express their opinions more strongly on Twitter because the character limit urges people to write snappy messages or punchy one-liners. More intense responses could emphasize what the problem is that autistic people seem to have with the typeface.
  • Expression — Social platforms not only give people the means to express themselves, but the format can also limit or influence how people express themselves. The way people express themselves on either platform isn’t necessarily more genuine than on the other, so by also showing responses from Twitter, different expressions and information may come up that could clarify what brings autistic people so much repulsion upon seeing the typeface.
  • Experience — Some of the responses I received differed not only in intensity and expression, but were qualitatively different as well; a few autistic people expressed relating to the typeface in an unexpected way. More information about this can be found further down in this article.

 

Embrace Autism | R is for repulsion | type Digestive Odious


Repulsion

So I asked autistic people on Twitter what they thought of Digestive, and received the following responses (among others):[1]Digestive | Embrace ASD | Twitter

Yuck. Quite simply yuck. When I saw it, I said out loud,
“Oh my GOD—that’s disgusting!”. (David)

My dreams tonight will be cursed. (Steve)

Yes; those e’s give me the willies (Bird)

What does that even say?? It’s just wiggles. It’s rubbish. (“Doodler”)

Why does this font exist? I want to burn it. (Ra)

Why would anyone ruin perfectly good letters this way? (Torako)

In the article someone suggested a primordial fear of snakes, but I have absolutely no fear of snakes. I love snakes, and always have. The font made me nauseous, not fearful. I would never visit a site with that font anywhere on it. Blech. (Ali)

I’m also dyslexic, and it made my brain physically hurt to look at this type. My eyes can’t track any of the letters. (Dawn)

If it’s discomfort they’re embracing, they’ve hit the nail on the head. I just want to beat it with a broom. (Liz)

It’s terrible. And I love words and lettering and practically all fonts. But it’s hard to read and ugly. (C.L.)

IT’S BAD. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t exist. Yuck.
(Not the best coherent response, I know, I just woke up) (Seta)

I can’t look at that typeface. It makes me feel like an aural migraine is coming on. (Christine)

Gave me a headache. Made me want to puke. Immediately. (Jørn)

It’s exacerbating mine. I already know some fonts do this to me—our official font at work (Fontin) is one of those. I use portable Waterfox with custom scripting to force Arial instead when needed. (“Mindwarp”)

Worst font ever award. Like trying to read posters put up in a house of mirrors. (Louise)

I’m autistic and that typeface evokes a visceral fear, kind of like the sound of leaf blowers. Looking at those “e”s makes me shiver, literally. Like my spine is making an escape attempt. (Luna)


Abomination

Steve Asbell, an autistic illustrator with a background in graphic design, also got curious about autistic people’s responses, and asked, “Does this typeface bother you as much as it bothers me?”.[2]Digestive | Steve Asbell | Twitter These are the responses:

Does anyone else experience trypophobia? I do and I can’t stand the feeling I get from those holey, blistery visuals—really gross and off-putting. But the font was sort of hypnotic. It made me feel weird and uncanny but I kind of liked it? (“Badger”)

I can’t articulate *why* but I agree, it *viscerally* bothers my eyeballs and I hate it. (Lauren)

My eyes were already hurting from a migraine, and somehow my brain’s attempt to make sense of the font made them hurt even more! (Steve)

I immediately felt a sense of revulsion, my skin crawled and I cringed. I had no idea a font could do all that. (“Bitey”)

I just looked at it again and I want to die a little bit. (“Bitey”)

What the fresh hell IS that eldritch abomination. (Sonja)

It’s a new torture device now waterboarding is discouraged. (John)

On a scale of 1 to nope, that’s an “Oh hellllll no!” (Heidy)

First image was uncomfortable but I could deal with it second image was a pretty immediate “Don’t like that thing, no sir, not one bit” and I had to leave the page. Even after several minutes away the revulsion is very visceral. (Mag)

I can read it but it hurts; there are tears in my eyes from trying to read it. (“Rain”)

Wow, I didn’t realize I could get so queasy from a font. (Mikayla)

When I first saw it, I was like “I’d never use this, but it’s not terrible”, which soon became “Oh god those Es!”, and then when I saw “DIGESTING”, it became “Get this as far away from my eyeballs as possible!” (Hale)

It makes me feel dizzy, nauseous, anxious, and a little bit angry. (Tsuki)

Omg that was physically painful. (“Possum”)

It makes me feel viscerally uncomfortable—it’s a disturbing feeling. Noooo thank you! (Liz)

Instant nausea and headache here. (Isha)

It made me very uneasy….and to agree with many others, especially the Es. (Christian)

I had to click away almost immediately. I nearly vomited. (Kidar)

I can totally appreciate it as art in that it (might be? haven’t got time to read) meant to make a statement about what we experience. I also hope to never see it seriously being used in anything I’m supposed to look at. (Kestrel)

It bothers me in ways I cannot express in words. (Seth)

I can’t look at it. (Alice)

Yes!! It hurts to look at, I get a gross feeling in my throat and my eyes have to squint to read it. (“Spooky”)

I’m normally not visually sensitive but reading the typeface nauseated me. (Niels)

FUCKING HELL KILL THAT TYPEFACE WITH FIRE! (Katherine)

YES It’s bothersome beyond belief! And for that alone it’s a masterpiece! (Mirai)


Steve Asbell remarked:

Well, congratulations Embrace ASD!
You discovered autistic kryptonite in font form!

An illustration of (blue) kryptonite.


Empathy

A few people also identified so strongly with the discomfort they felt about Digestive that they anthropomorphized the typeface:

It looks like it’s suffering, pinched and crushed, it looks almost cruel. It physically hurts to actively look at each letter, especially the twisted ones.

Who would do that to them??? Why would you treat your words like that? (Finn)

This is a fascinating response, as Finn seems to attribute sense experience to an object. A digital “object”, even. It’s even more intriguing to me that Jérémy’s design aesthetics and craft is seen as the abuse of innocent letterforms. Jérémy, you are one of the cruelest type designers I know.

Kestrel highlighted that this is a feature of so-called empaths, which is a colloquial term for people with a high amount of affective empathy, sometimes to a debilitating degree (such as in mirror–touch synesthesia):

Most people: It’s gross and should not exist.

Us, hyper-empaths: I feel sorry for the font and I want to give it a hug. I want to find a way to include it in my art even though it triggers my migraines. We have conflicting needs, but I’m doing my best to be loving and tolerant. (Kestrel)

A few people were having an internal struggle between empathy for the typeface on the one hand, but revulsion on the other hand:

I’m kind of in the middle of those two camps. I feel bad for the font, but fight/flight responses kick in because it literally hurts my eyes. (Steve)

Same! It makes me feel really physically sick/disorientated and kind of unnerves me (and I’m someone who normally LOVES psychedelic art/fonts/design). But I also wouldn’t want it to feel rejected, and I feel bad for the person who took a lot of time and effort to design it. (Anna)


Character set

Speaking of the person who took a lot of time and effort to design Digestive, I received one comment expressing disbelief about how Jérémy could stand his own work long enough to design it:

How could someone look at that long enough to come up with all 26 letters!
(52 if it has upper and lower case) (Hugo)

Hugo is very mistaken about there being possibly 52 characters that had to be designed. Digestive consists of seven fonts, each containing hundreds of characters. Remember, a typeface also needs to include numbers, punctuation, symbols, and characters for broader language support. To be more precise, Digestive features six display fonts of 473 characters each, and one additional text version of 462 characters. That’s a total of 3,300 characters! It must

The typeface even features two vulva characters, because why not? Doesn’t every typeface need this?

Embrace Autism | R is for repulsion | type Digestive Vaginas

Why does the typeface possibly include vulvas? I believe it’s the designer’s sense of humor, after observing that when you surround the letter ‘o’ with brackets (o), it looks quite suggestive.

Embrace Autism | R is for repulsion | type Digestive Brackets

I don’t know if me mentioning this just now will improve autistic people’s opinions on Digestive, but I like it.


Intention

A question came up about the intended effect of Digestive. Was it made to repel autistic people?

Is it intentional that it’s disturbing for us? (Bill)

Yes and no. Digestive is a deliberate exploration in attraction and repulsion, as well as in legibility. The lack of legibility alone is bound to cause discomfort. Jérémy, states:

We consciously know that playing with legibility would bother some people, and exclude some in the most extreme cases.[3]Digestive – Legibility | Studio Triple | Twitter

So Digestive is meant to bring a sense of discomfort, but the fact that autistic people seem to respond to Jérémy’s typeface more intensely was something he had not foreseen. He says:

Digestive plays with this idea of discomfort and disgust, so it’s not bothering that people feel those emotions while seeing it. It might just mean that I succeed in what I was trying to do.[4]Digestive – Discomfort & disgust | Studio Triple | Twitter

I just wouldn’t want it to discriminate anyone in particular. Just make everyone uncomfortable.[5]Digestive – Indiscriminate discomfort | Studio Triple | Twitter


Discrimination

But the typeface does discriminate, because it doesn’t offer discomfort uniformly. People with sensory processing differences experience more difficulties interpreting the letterforms without adverse effects or a disproportionate amount of effort. Anna offered a nice explanation of the underlying issues:

A lot of it for me is about visual stress (common in dyslexics, but plenty of other people too!) as well as general visual hypersensitivity (has its benefits—I’m good at drawing/design). I suffer from migraines, which are often accompanied by visual vertigo, dizziness and nausea.

I also get motion sickness. The combo of ALL these factors means that font actually looks like it’s moving. I really do like the psychedelic aesthetic (my way of seeing things negates any need for LSD!), but this is far too extreme. (Anna)

Tathagata echoed the same about focus being difficult:

While I do think it looks pretty in an “artistic” way… my eyes and head hurts so much from trying to actually read what it says…. so yeah… looks pretty but as a font it’s just….. no…. just no…. can’t even focus to read it at all so had to give up to prevent a headache. (Tathagata)

But while Jérémy wanted to bring discomfort without discrimination, it’s relevant to note that no typeface is without discrimination. Whether subtly or not, we all experience the world (and typefaces) differently.

Yet the homogeneity in responses to Digestive from autistic people is an intriguing phenomenon, which ought to be explored further. You will see another article from me on this if I ever do.

Let me end this article with a few of the positive responses I received on Digestive:

Am I the only one that loves it? I feel it too, like a wierd wave going through the whole body. But it’s so fascinating that I can’t stop looking at it. Mesmerising. (Asia)

I  am a big fan of this! (Barbie)

Wow. It’s wicked!! I love it. (Fozia)

I find this font oddly captivating, almost in a hypnotic way. It gives me a hard time when it comes to actually reading what it says, but I somehow enjoy just looking at the shape of the letters. (Aïlath)


Embrace Autism | R is for repulsion | illustration R

This article
was written by:
martin-silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace Autism, I’m living up to my surname as a silver award-winning graphic designer. Besides running Embrace Autism and researching autism, I love typography and practice type design. I also fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

I discovered I’m autistic when I was 19, and was diagnosed at 25.

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