This ‘Broken’ Typeface Symbolizes the Language Barriers Many New Yorkers Face

The PSA for Literacy Partners will make an appearance in Times Square

hard to read
The nonprofit group Literacy Partners has created a "broken" typeface to drive donations. Literacy Partners
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Many of us take the ability to read for granted, but a good number of adults in the U.S. struggle to do so. According to the nonprofit Literacy Partners, roughly 18% of New York residents do not speak English proficiently, making it difficult for them to read everyday documents and messages.

Working with The&Partnership’s New York office, Literacy Partners recently created a typeface that’s symbolic of this issue. Called Sans 18%, this “broken” typeface illustrates what it’s like to look at a billboard, pamphlet or prescription and not understand what it says.

The short video, which was narrated by a Literacy Partners student, is running digitally with pro bono support from media agency m/SIX. It will also run in Times Square for one day. The PSA encourages viewers to visit its site and make a donation to “close the literacy gap.”

Literacy Partners provides free classes, workshops and books to immigrant parents and caregivers who want to improve their literacy and language skills. In a statement, CEO Anthony Tassi said Covid-19 has revealed the “urgent need” for universal literacy.

“We can’t afford for some members of our community not to be able to read basic public health information,” Tassi said. “Their inability to do so has potentially fatal consequences for not only their families, but for everyone around them.”

He added that Literacy Partners has made its programs available online and “ensured that families have the technology they need to participate.”

According to Justin Ruben, executive creative director at The&Partnership in New York, the idea for a “broken” typeface was in the works before the pandemic hit, and the agency reworked the PSA’s messaging somewhat to make it more relevant.

“We had planned to launch the campaign at Literacy Partners’ annual gala, which was due to take place in April but was of course canceled because of the pandemic,” Ruben said. “The gala is also the biggest annual fundraising event for Literacy Partners—with that having to be postponed, this campaign became a vital way for them to drive donations now.”

Two years ago, The&Partnership created a campaign for Literacy Partners called “Unreadable Books,” a bookstore activation that involved scrambling the titles of well-known books to raise awareness of its mission.

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.