The design thinking behind Understood

This article was originally published by It's Nice That. You can read our Understood case study here

One in five people in the US have learning and/or thinking differences, such as dyslexia and ADHD, while one in four has a disability. It’s these people that social-impact organisation Understood advocates for and supports with its online resources and community. Until recently, its work had been focused on families, but now it has expanded to help individuals too; therefore it needed a rebrand. Design consultancy Wolff Olins stepped in to give the brand a new purpose – “Shape the world for difference” – and overhauled its visual identity to reflect this new message, with accessibility central to every detail, from its shape-shifting ‘U’ icon to its dyslexic-friendly typeface.

“Since Understood serves a broad audience with many different needs, accessibility and diversity were top priorities for the design work,” explains Wolff Olins’ Matt Welch. “We considered accessibility of all types, such as how someone who learns differently might see letters as well as react to quick motions or a set of colours. Even in our illustrations, we created a series of figures and a colour palette allowing for all types of diversity to be represented. Everyone should be able to connect with and see themselves in the Understood brand.”

The ‘U’ logo is meant to represent “you and your world,” Welch says. The outer perimeter of the capitalised ‘U’ from Understood’s word mark is formed from negative space, around which the different “worlds”, as it were, appear in a range of shapes and colours. Simply, the changing form hopes to visualise how difference can be beautiful and impactful.

Working with Displaay font designer Martin Vácha, the Wolff Olins team also developed Understood Sans, a typeface that addresses the legibility issues of certain typefaces to those with dyslexia. “Our research showed that people with dyslexia can struggle with letterforms that are similar, like a lowercase ‘p’ and ‘q’,” says Welch. “The typeface therefore reduces that type of confusion, making the letterforms easier to read. These adjustments across the entire typeface have created a better reading experience for people who learn and think differently.”

Wolff Olins and Martin Vácha from Displaay: Understood Sans

Similar inclusive thinking has been applied to every aspect of this rebrand, from inclusive photography and illustration, to accessible web design and brand architecture. Motion graphics animate in a way that “allows someone to focus”, Welch explains. For example, the name Understood animates in by syllable, making it easier to see and identify. Also, the colour palette is created to be “welcoming, human and intentional”, says Understood’s Nathan Friedman. The design team tested colour pairings to adhere to the American Disabilities Act and used higher contrast between colours for maximum readability.

The rebrand includes a three-note sonic identity, created by Listen, that emphasises the syllables of the brand name. “Marrying rhythm and language has been shown to help recall for people with dyslexia, ADHD, and audio processing differences,” Friedman explains. “Additionally, people with learning differences can be overwhelmed easily by excessive sensory inputs, so it was important not to use too many notes in succession.”

The team also created two illustration systems, “to remove as many barriers to accessibility and inclusivity as possible,” Friedman says. This included a new library of abstract shapes, which “allows us to express metaphorical ideas through their forms and relationships to each other,” and figures which “evoke emotion through posture and interaction with each other and authentically represent the diversity of our audiences”.

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