An Introduction to Tactile Graphics

By Robert Stuart Jaquiss

December 24, 2010

Robert Jaquiss is totally blind, is literate in braille, was educated in the public school system and graduated with honors from Silverton Union High School in 1971. Robert obtained a BS in Computer Science from Oregon State University in 1976. Robert has been employed for nearly twenty-seven years, first at Tektronix Inc. and then at the National Center for the Blind. Robert is currently the volunteer executive Director of VIEW International Foundation (VIEW). Robert has served on the National Federation of the Blind's Committee for Research and Development, and the Committee for the Promotion and Evaluation of Technology. His main assignment is to track technologies and techniques that can produce tactile materials. Robert has been involved with Tactile Graphics since 1962. Robert has written articles for the Braille Monitor and Future Reflections.



This paper is intended to introduce the reader to the field of Tactile Graphics. Topics covered are:

  • The need for tactile graphics
  • The history of tactile graphics
  • Basic decisions
  • Techniques and technologies
  • Suggestions for research

It is the intent of this author to acquaint the reader with sufficient terminology and introductory information that the reader can then acquire more detailed and technical knowledge. An appendix lists further resources.


Definition of Terms

Listed below are terms and their definitions. Some examples are provided, but these should be viewed as partial lists and are included to enhance the definition.




A type of sculpture showing the front and partial sides of the subject. Examples include coins, medals, embossed decorated tins, greeting cards and freezes. Bas-relief is sometimes referred to as two-and-a-half dimensions.


A substrate onto which a variety of materials have been glued.


Computer numerically controlled machining is a process whereby a computer controls the removing of material from a block to produce an image or part.


A drawing primarily composed of lines and labels. Areas of a diagram may be shaded or colored for added effect. Examples include, graphs, outline maps, flowcharts etc.


The study of touch. Haptic technologies are used to allow a person to "feel" a virtual object.


A term used to refer to either a picture or diagram.

Key (legend)

A key is a list of symbols, and short sequences of letters and numbers accompanied by their associated definitions. An example is a map key.


A scaled accurate reproduction of a real object. Examples include diecast cars, model trains, anatomical models etc.


A scaled accurate reproduction of a real object. Examples include diecast cars, model trains, anatomical models etc.


An artistic or craft medium primarily composed of small pieces of paper and glue. Example uses include sculptures, parade floats, decorative panels, lacquered boxes and trays, masks etc.



Polymer clay

An artistic or craft medium usually used to create small objects such as jewelry. Polymer clay is usually baked to harden it. Two well known brands are Fimo and Sculpy.

Rapid Prototyping

Often abbreviated as RP, is a family of technologies that produce three dimensional objects. Additive RP builds objects by adding material. Subtractive RP creates objects by removing material from a block.

Tactile diagram

A diagram consisting of raised lines and textured areas.

Tactile graphic

A raised image that is more sculptural. In the literature, these terms are sometimes used interchangeably.


A person who specializes in creating tactile materials.


A process in which a heated plastic sheet is formed over a master using a vacuum.


A person who transcribes printed material into braille.

Virtual Reality

The use of computer software and display technologies to display objects that appear real.

3D scanner

A device that can scan a three-dimensional object creating a computer file.

Sizes of images used in the graphics industry

These terms are commonly used to designate the sizes of images. The numerical measurements are in inches.

A-Size 8.5X11
B-Size 11X17
C-Size 17X22
D-Size 22X34
E-Size 34X46

The Need for Tactile Graphics

Why should we deal with tactile graphics? This may seem an odd question, but it must be answered. Throughout the history of the National Federation of the Blind, the necessity for blind children to be age appropriate and to do and learn the same things as their sighted peers has been often stated. This author first heard the term age appropriate in 1990 when Ruby Ryles, then a teacher in the state of Washington, made a presentation to a parents conference in Vancouver, Washington. From infancy, what do sighted children see? The answer is pictures. Pictures in books, pictures on walls, pictures on television, pictures on signs, pictures on products etc. What do blind children see? The answer... no pictures or, for those with some vision, fuzzy or distorted pictures. In school, textbooks are filled with pictures and other graphical representations. The advent of desktop publishing and changes in the publishing industry in the early 1980's made it very easy to create illustrated materials. This has caused a great increase in the use of graphical presentations.

In the workplace, information is often presented graphically. Having access to tactile graphics would make many jobs much more easily doable for a blind person. The list of jobs would be very long, but would include jobs as varied as stock broker or financial planner, military historian, architect, real estate developer, and sportswriter.

The History of Tactile Graphics

This author has found no references to the use of tactile graphics prior to 1784. This coincides with the opening of the first school for the blind in Paris France, by Valentin Haüy (1745-1822).1Biographies of Louis braille (1809-1852) describe how his father, a saddle maker, used tacks hammered into a piece of wood to outline the shapes of letters. Teachers used their ingenuity and materials at hand to create tactile images and models.

This author recalls visiting the Oregon State School for the Blind. At one end of the library was a museum of taxidermied animals. Each animal had a braille label identifying it. A more thorough and detailed study of this subject can be found in Dr. Eriksson's work Tactile Pictures: Pictorial Representation for the Blind 1784 - 1940.2

Basic Decisions

When a picture or diagram is encountered, there are some decisions that need to be made.

The first is whether or not to make a tactile version of the picture. Some pictures are mainly decorative and do not convey any information. For this situation, a brief text description is sufficient. An image must be viewed in terms of the contextual material.

The next step is to determine what components of the printed image will actually be used. Print images often contain decorations or superfluous material. It is essential for the transcriber or tactilist to reproduce only what is actually needed. Because it is difficult to produce tactile images larger than B-Size, it can become necessary to use several tactile images to convey what is shown in one print image. At this point the making of tactile graphics becomes more art than science. The braille Authority of North America (BANA)3 is in the process of adopting rules for the creation of tactile images. As of this writing, the BANA board approved the guidelines at its October 2010 meeting. The process of producing tactile materials takes time to learn. It is essential that the tactilist interact with his/her readers to ensure that the tactile graphics can be understood. Blind readers vary in their abilities to evaluate, understand, and employ tactile materials.

Techniques and Technologies

There are a variety of techniques and technologies available for producing tactile graphics. No single technology will produce all material types. It is therefore important to be familiar with a variety of technologies.

The Collage Method

A collage is created by gluing a variety of materials to a substrate. These are usually masters constructed for the purpose of producing thermoformed copies. The substrate of a collage is usually tagboard. It is important to keep the substrate from bending. The tactile image is designed in layers. Tactilists have used a wide variety of materials. Some examples include sandpaper, textured cloth, string, wire, other pieces of tagboard, papier-mâché, polymer clay, and embossing foil, (See next section on Embossing Foil.) Some tactilists have used seeds, and/or various types of pasta and other food stuffs for creating affects. This practice is unwise since vermin will be attracted to these substances. It is important to remember that the collage will be subjected to heat, so care must be exercised when selecting materials and glue.

Embossing Foil

One way of creating masters is by embossing large sheets of heavy gauge aluminum foil known as embossing foil. Labels, symbols, and special textures can be embossed. American Printing House for the Blind (APH) sells a special kit designed for embossing this material. The foil sheet is placed on a rubber pad and special tools are used to form lines, textures and symbols. A slate can be used to add braille labels. Considerable practice is required to become proficient in foil embossing. The finished masters should be fastened to tagboard sheets to stabilize them and keep them from wrinkling. Use caution when handling foil since the edges and corners are sharp.

Capsule Paper

In the past few years, capsule paper has become a popular medium for creating tactile graphics quickly and easily. Capsule paper is a generic name for various paper and fabric-based products treated with a coating of micro capsules--each of which is filled with alcohol. The processes involved are relatively simple. Carbon-based ink is used to form an image on the coated side of the paper. When exposed to infrared light, any microcapsule that has been inked absorbs the light, heats up, and expands due to the vaporization of the alcohol inside it. The process is a small scale version of the action of popcorn being popped. The paper will then contain a tactile image. Capsule paper can be printed on with inkjet printers as long as the ink contains carbon. Hewlet Packard inkjets are commonly used because HP uses carbon in its ink. It is also possible to copy an image onto capsule paper using a copier. Care must be taken to avoid copiers whose temperature is excessively hot, as this could cause an adverse reaction between the capsule paper and copier, leading to possible damage of both. One should follow the vendor's specific instructions and equipment recommendations when using capsule paper. Three suppliers of capsule paper and equipment are:

American Thermoform (Swelltouch™)

Humanware (Picture in a Flash™)

Repro-Tronics (Flexi Paper™ Tactile Image Enhancer)

Paper Embossers

Some braille embossers can produce tactile graphics. The best known of these is the Tiger family of embossers manufactured by ViewPlus Technologies in Corvallis, Oregon. Tiger embossers are able to produce dots of varying height and spacing. As a result, images can have a variety of lines and shaded areas. The Tiger embossers are equipped with drivers that allow Windows™ based software to send files using the same protocols as laser or inkjet printers. As a result, if a line diagram is displayed, a tactile version of it can be produced. It should be noted that the diagram must not be too complex--otherwise the resulting image will not be comprehendible, as significant tactile clutter can occur. ViewPlus also offers specialized software that allows text labels to be translated into braille.

The Index4 and Enabling Technologies5 families of embossers can create images with specialized software packages.


Thermoforming is used mostly for copying collage and embossed foil masters. Historically, thermoforming was used as a way to copy braille materials utilizing the Perkins braillewriter. The process is deceptively simple. A master is placed on a perforated plate called a manifold. A sheet of plastic often Brailon™6 is placed on top. A frame clamps the edges of the plastic to the manifold and then heat is applied. After about ten seconds, a vacuum pump removes air from between the plastic and master. The result is a copy. Masters must be durable because the high temperatures and pressure can cause them to degrade. They also must be perforated to allow air to flow through them. The temperatures in a thermoform machine can range from 250-350 degrees Fahrenheit. Other types of plastic can be used such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It is advisable to use thermoform machines in a well ventilated room. Work areas should be kept clean and uncluttered and a fire extinguisher should be in close proximity.

Computer Numerically Controlled Machining

Computer numerically controlled machining (CNC) is a process for the production of masters, or molds from which masters can be created. The process is not commonly used, but when employed correctly, can produce excellent masters for thermoforming. Graphics software is utilized to create the image from which the casting then takes place. A negative of the image is carved into a piece of plastic such as acrylic or Plexiglas™. Silicone rubber is then poured into the mold creating a positive image. This positive image is in turn used as the master in a thermoform machine. As with other types of masters, air holes must be made in silicone masters in order to facilitate the thermoforming process. This can be accomplished through the utilization of a Dremel™ tool and a small bit (1/32 inch). Touch Graphics is the major supplier of materials created with this technique. Touch the Sun by Noreen Grice was the first book produced using this technology.

Rapid Prototyping

Rapid Prototyping (RP) is a term commonly given to technologies that deposit materials involved in the creation of layered three-dimensional models. Specialized computer software known as computer aided design (CAD) is used to design the model. Several technologies are available--with one vendor, Stratasys, able to produce models which are both durable and very detailed and which contain moving parts. The RP industry is one of dynamic development with decreasing prices and improving performance. RP technologies are commonly used for prototyping parts and product enclosures. Due to the prohibitive expense of the equipment involved, RP has not been used by the blindness community.

Deposition Printing

The latest technology to become commercially available is the Roland DG family of LEC printers. These are the LEC-300, LEC-330, and LEC-540. The LEC printers use epoxy based ink cured by ultraviolet (UV) light. The ink is deposited by technology similar to that used on inkjet printers. This process creates a very long lasting image. When successive layers of ink are deposited, the image becomes tactile. The LEC printers can produce quality braille, as well as raised lines of various forms and textures. Because epoxy ink is available in a wide array of colors, the LEC printers can produce visually stunning graphics. The end result is that these technologies can produce materials usable by both the blind and the sighted.

Commercially, the LEC printers are used by the graphics industry to produce large signs and prototype packaging. They are also capable of cutting and creasing material. This allows them to cut sheets of tagboard into the shape necessary to form a box. The LEC-300 and LEC-330 can handle media up to thirty inches wide. The LEC-540 can handle media up to fifty-four inches wide. The LEC-330 and LEC-540 can also handle stiffer flat stock up to 1M or 0.040 inches thick. These have the advantage of being able to create tactile images on an on-demand basis. No molds are necessary, which greatly decreases the time and cost required to create materials. The downside of the LEC printers is their high outlay cost. The LEC-300 is priced at about $45,000, the LEC-330 at about $64,000, and the LEC-540 at about $67,000. As a result, this equipment is probably best used by centralized facilities.

Suggestions for Research

The available literature on tactile graphics can generally be divided in to the following areas:

  • Guidelines for producing tactile graphics.
  • Demonstration projects.

An index or catalog of the existing literature will greatly aid future research efforts.

The available literature on tactile graphics can generally be divided in to the following areas:

  • Guidelines for producing tactile graphics.
  • Demonstration projects.

An index or catalog of the existing literature will greatly aid future research efforts.

Resolution 2002-217 passed by the National Federation of the Blind in 2002 calls for, among other things, the establishment of a pilot program to establish a Tactile Graphics Lending Library. The idea is that models and other tactile materials could be borrowed for study by students. This has yet to be tried.

There are sociological aspects of tactile graphics. How does having tactile models impact the peer relationships between blind and sighted students? On a personal note, my father made several maps for me to use during my school years. My teachers observed that my sighted peers also benefited from these maps.

Suppose a class is studying Native American cultures. The printed books show pictures of tipis, hogans, pueblos, long houses, and their occupants in native dress engaged in various activities. What would happen if, for example, a blind child was provided three dimensional scale models of the same items?

What areas of study benefit from the use of tactile materials? Economics, geography, history, music, and all the sciences are obvious answers. Do other fields of study benefit from the use of tactile images?

Graphic novels are becoming more prevalent in schools. What is the best way for a blind child to read this kind of book? Can the text be brailled and descriptions of the images added? Is it better to provide a few tactile illustrations? It is the opinion of this author that due to the large number of illustrations in a graphic novel, that it would be cost prohibitive to reproduce all of them tactually.

The trend toward electronic publishing and the use of e-books is another challenge for blind students. braille display technologies can display text but not graphics. There have been a few attempts to create tactile displays, but they are cost prohibitive. Several years ago, the University of Glasgow8 9 and the University of Delaware,10 conducted research using haptic devices to allow blind students to "feel" virtual images. The results were positive, but no follow-up has been done. (See Appendix C for more information.)

Schools are turning to computer simulations for teaching subjects including math, science and computer literacy. How can blind students deal with these situations?

In recent years, the federal government has called for more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in schools. How can a blind student create and edit a drawing with a computer? How could a blind engineer create and edit a three-dimensional model? It is certainly possible to use a raised line drawing board such as the Sewell or Draftsman to create a drawing which can be scanned with an optical scanner. Similarly, clay, Legos™, or other building systems could be used to create a three-dimensional model which can also be scanned with a 3D scanner. Again, the question is how does a blind student edit the image?

In the area of computer science, Universal Modeling Language (UML) is used to design computer applications. Software now exists that allows sighted programmers to draw programs and then generate the actual code. How does a blind professional or student deal with this environment?

In the workplace, what are good practices for a blind person to produce his/her own tactile graphics? For example, if a stock broker wanted to discuss a trend with his/her peers, waiting for a tactilist to prepare a graph would impact work productivity.

Following are several examples of the likely implementation of tactile graphics in the real world that were provided by earlier readers of this manuscript:

Example 1:

I will give a very specific example in the field of history. We often think of basic maps for the study of geography, and tactile versions of such maps, although perhaps not widely available, are relatively easy to acquire. It is very difficult to obtain a map for specific historical studies. In a recent book I read, the author seeks to convey what the experience of combat meant for the participants at the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. Maps are used to illustrate visually what it takes dozens of pages to explain. If I were a historian doing research for a book of my own or developing a course to teach at a university, the fact that I could not access maps would be a fairly significant problem for me. I would have to spend significant resources to get these maps into a form that I could access before I could even begin to do the history-related part of the work.

Example 2:

Tactile graphics should be used in music. As a blind student, I only learned the graphical symbols for the staff, different types of notes and rests, and the sharp and flat signs. A blind musician or music student, although he generally may be using braille music very effectively to learn specific pieces, should be able to understand the layout of a print score or other piece of music. This includes an understanding of what dynamic signs, key signature symbols, etc., look like and where they appear relative to the notes. In medieval and early renaissance music, different colors are sometimes used rather than different symbols to represent something. Additionally, other concepts expressed graphically that do not have adequate braille music equivalents include neums, ligatures, rhythmic modes, and mensuration. The linear nature of braille music makes these difficult to represent without a graphical solution.

Example 3:

Part of financial analysis involves looking at and comparing charts of stocks and stock averages. This is called technical analysis, and it must be combined with fundamental analysis to get a complete picture of stocks for specific companies and industries and of general stock market trends.

These questions and more await those interested in researching areas of tactile graphics.



Appendix A
List of Vendors

Below is a list of vendors mentioned in this paper.

The American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.
1839 Frankfort Avenue
P.O. Box 6085
Louisville, KY 40206-0085
Phone: (502) 895-2405
Toll Free Customer Service: (800) 223-1839
Fax: (502) 899-2274
Email: [email protected]
Web Site:

American Thermoform Corp.
1758 Brackett Street
La Verne, CA 91750
Phone: (909) 593-6711
Fax: (909) 593-8001
Email: [email protected]
Web Site:

Enabling Technologies
1601 NE braille Place
Jensen Beach, FL 34957
Phone: (772) 225-3687  
Toll Free: (800) 777-3687  
Fax: (772) 225-3299
Toll Free Fax: (800) 950-3687  
Email Within the U.S.A.: [email protected]
Outside the U.S.A.: [email protected]
Web Site:

Humanware Inc.
445, Parc Industriel
Longueuil, Quebec
Canada J4H 3V7
Toll free: (888) 723-7273
Phone: (450) 463-1717
Fax: (450) 463-0120
Email: [email protected]
Web Site:

Repro Tronics Inc.
75 Carver Ave.
Westwood, NJ 07675
Toll Free: (800) 948-8453
Phone: (201) 722-1880
Fax: (201) 722-1881
Email: [email protected]
Web Site:

Roland DGA Corporation
1563 Barranca Parkway
Irvine, CA 92618
Phone: (949) 727-2100
toll free: (800) 542-2307
Web site:

Tactile Graphics resources and information compiled by Lucia Hasty and others.

ViewPlus Technologies
1853 SW Airport Ave.
Corvallis, OR 97333
Phone: (541) 754-4002
Fax: (541) 738-6505
Email: [email protected]
Web Site:


Appendix B

Resolution 2002-21

The following was excerpted from the braille Monitor, September 2002 Vol. 45, No. 7.

Resolution 2002-21

WHEREAS, from infancy sighted children are exposed to pictorial information; and

WHEREAS, educational materials increasingly rely on pictorial information to convey information at every level from infancy through college and adult education; and

WHEREAS, the use of pictorial information makes it more difficult for blind children to acquire the same knowledge as their sighted peers unless they are provided with nonvisual alternatives; and

WHEREAS, technologies exist for the production of both tactile graphics (maps and diagrams) and three-dimensional models; and

WHEREAS, tactile graphics and three-dimensional models can provide an effective and efficient means for blind students to access the pictorial information available to their sighted peers: Now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this ninth day of July, 2002, in the City of Louisville, Kentucky, that this organization express strong support for the development of techniques, technologies, and practices designed to improve the availability of tactile graphics and three-dimensional models as a means of providing access for the blind to pictorial information; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge braille textbook producers to include more tactile graphics in the material they produce and to work with the National Federation of the Blind to make the use of tactile graphics more prevalent; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon research funding agencies, including but not limited to the federal Office of Special Education, the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research, and the National Science Foundation, to establish funding priorities to support research into the use of tactile graphics and three-dimensional models as an educational learning medium for blind students, including an investigation of the feasibility and usefulness of a lending library of electronic and tactile models for this purpose.


Appendix C

Papers and Publications on Haptics

1. J. P. Fritz, "Haptic Rendering Techniques for Scientific Visualization," MSEE Thesis, University of Delaware, 1996. postscript

2. J. P. Fritz and K. E. Barner, "Stochastic Models for Haptic Textures," Proceedings of Photonics East '96 - the SPIE's International Symposium on Intelligent Systems and Advanced Manufacturing, Boston, MA, November, 1996. postscript doi:10.1117/12.263011

3. J. P. Fritz and K. E. Barner, "Design of a Haptic Graphing System," Proceedings of the 19th RESNA Conference, Salt Lake City, UT, June, 1996. postscript

4. J. P. Fritz, T. P. Way, and K. E. Barner, "Haptic Representation of Scientific Data for Visually Impaired or Blind Persons," Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, California State University, Northridge, Los Angeles, CA, April, 1996. postscript

5. J. P. Fritz and K. E. Barner, "Haptic Scientific Visualization," Proceedings of the PHANTOM User's Group Workshop, Boston, MA, September, 1996.

6. M. Asghar and K. E. Barner, "Multiresolution Representation of Data in a Haptic Environment," Proceedings of Photonics East '96 - the SPIE's International Symposium on Intelligent Systems and Advanced Manufacturing, Boston, MA, November, 1998. doi:10.1117/12.333681

7. N. Grabowski and K. E. Barner, "Visualization Methods for the Blind Using Force Feedback and Sonification," Proceedings of Photonics East '96 - the SPIE's International Symposium on Intelligent Systems and Advanced Manufacturing, Boston, MA, November, 1998. doi:10.1117/12.333677

8. N. Grabowski, M. Asghar, and K. E. Barner, "Joint Haptic and Aural Methods for Data Visualization," Proceedings of the 21st RESNA Conference, Minneapolis, MI, June, 1998.



Listed below are the endnotes.

1 Valentin Haüy. (2010). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online:

2 Eriksson, Y. (1998). Tactile Pictures Pictorial Representation for the
1784 - 1940. Vastervik, Sweden: AB CO Ekblad & Co.

3 braille Authority of North America (BANA) establishes guidelines for producing braille materials within the United States.

4 Index embossers are sold and serviced by American Thermoform Corp.

5 Enabling Technologies embossers include the Romeo, Thomas, Juliet etc. and are sold by Enabling Technologies.

6 Braillon™ is a trademark of American Thermoform Corp.

7 Resolution 2002-21 The braille Monitor, September, 2002 Vol. 45 No. 7. (See Appendix b)

8 A number of papers have been written. One of these is:
Haptic Graphs for Blind Computer Users
Wai Yu, Ramesh Ramloll and Stephen Brewster
Department of Computing Science
University of Glasgow
Glasgow, G12 8QQ, UK
+44 141 3304966
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]

9 The Glasgow Multimodal Interaction Group. This site contains much research.

10 See the site: for more information and downloadable software.

The Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research is copyright (c) 2014 to the National Federation of the Blind.

back to top