Designing Tactile Illustrated Books

By Philippe Claudet

Mr. Claudet is a French TVI (teacher for visually impaired children) who founded the non-profit organization Les Doigts Qui Rêvent (Dreaming Fingers) in 1994, which designs tactile illustrated books for mass production. ([email protected])


How can we help to awaken and develop a blind child’s awareness of reading and written language without books? All scholars agree that books are needed. But before reading and while learning to read Braille, those books should be tactilely illustrated. The aim of this article is to try to show exactly what a tactile picture is and what it is like to read one with hands, from the point of view of a French TVI with 20 years of experience in designing Tactile illustrated Books.


Tactile illustrated books, visually impaired children, tactile pictures, haptic pictures


We think a map or a diagram, all called “tactile graphics,” is not the same as an illustration in a picture book for blind children. Therefore, we prefer to use the acronym TiB (Tactile illustrated Books) instead of “graphics” when speaking about picture books for blind children.

Some dates

Les Doigts Qui Rêvent (Dreaming Fingers) is a non-profit organization that has been producing TiB since 1994. TiB have already had a long history, even if very few TiB have been produced (Eriksson, 1997). In France at the end of the 19th century, Martin Kunz was a pioneer in tactile illustrations (Kunz, 2013). He made tactile pictures, much like those being made everywhere in the world at that time, but he mass produced and disseminated them all over the world. In the 1980s, a private publisher started the first private modern mass production of TiB. However, it ended after 10 years, not for lack of demand but rather for economic reasons following a personal accident and the producer’s resulting disability. Then in the 1990s, Dreaming Fingers was founded.

The situation concerning TiB in most parts of the world is much the same. In most European countries today, organizations for the blind, libraries for the blind, and special schools have chosen to distribute TiB using a lending system. One copy is handmade by volunteers and is lent throughout the country or within a school, which means there is a very limited selection of books. Very few organizations are producing multiple copies of many titles, especially for young blind children (Claudet, 2009).

About the Author

The beginning of the integration of blind students into mainstream schools in France took place in the 1990s. The French Culture Minister established a policy to make books available in ordinary public libraries for people “prevented from reading” (i.e., foreigners, blind, deaf, etc.), which provided grants to public libraries to buy these books and to organizations (mainly non-profit) to produce them. This was an exceptional situation in Europe. Luckily, Dreaming Fingers was around at that time and we have been very fortunate. As a teacher I was like all teachers for the blind, making tactile books during weekends and holidays, like a monk in the Middle Ages. One day, people from the Education Minister came from Paris for training in our special school. They saw my tactile books and asked the director for several copies. That is how the whole story started.

At the same time, parents, noticing the difference in sighted children in the same class in mainstream schools, asked for adapted books for their blind children. In 1994 we established Dreaming Fingers with four sets of parents. None of us knew anything about how to mass produce books (100 copies per title). We were just very anxious to offer books as quickly as possible to blind children, because we could not accept the idea of teaching reading without books. We had no money, no space, and no time for this during our normal working hours. At that time, I was 100% sure that in the other countries, the situation with tactile books must have been much better than ours. I discovered one year later that I was wrong. If you look at a map, you can see that France is a very small country and not so far from five other countries. For all of these reasons, we have always had the desire to cooperate.


Let us draw a kind of frame in order to reach a better understanding. We are living in two very different countries, with different histories, so before going on, it is worth stressing some cultural differences. In France (where everything is not so beautiful) and most of the European countries, the idea is that it is the duty of the society (and the public budget) to find solutions to special needs. So as a public school teacher, my duty was and is to find the best possible solutions for meeting the needs of blind children concerning reading access.

Why TiB?

As far as we know, we are one of the few organizations in France, Europe, and the world that is mass producing TiB (made with textures, hard covers, and adapted binding) for young blind children as a “publisher” (Theurel, Witt, Claudet, Hatwell, & Gentaz, 2013). Since 1994, we have produced over 210 titles consisting of 100 to 300 copies per title for a total of 36,000 TiB. The reasons to use TiB are the same as for sighted children, but our main concerns are developing the child’s awareness of reading and writing language. It is still possible in Europe that a blind child can start first grade without ever having handled a single TiB! If he never touches a TiB with Braille for pleasure, and if he doesn’t experience adults who use Braille in their daily life, how then can the awareness of writing language arise?

“Reading” a Tactile Picture

Now let me share with you our doubts and questions. What is it to “read” a tactile picture?

Eight white and orange dots arranged like the fingers on two hands on a black background in the upper right quadrant. Eight gray dots arranged like the fingers on two hands on the right-hand side, center, of a black background.

Figure 1. Two pictures of eight light colored dots on a black background, symbolizing the portion of a tactile illustration that can be “viewed” tactilely at any one time.

Fingers scan with impacts and slips, going from one place to another on the page, following a shape or a texture, going back and forward, and that takes time. Imagine a camera at each fingertip and each time a finger touches something on the picture, the camera is on but as soon as the finger is not touching something the camera is off.

Then, going from one picture to another, as in Figure 1 above, means that the blind child has to remember what he has just touched. With four fingers multiplied by all the clues he touches, a very simple tactile picture for the sighted child is not as simple for the blind child. In addition, most tactile pictures are visual ones made in relief by sighted people for whom it is very difficult to forget their sight. This means that many sighted people create tactile pictures as if blind people have “eyes at their fingertips”. But those visual-pictures-made-in-relief are very far from the universe of blind children and their experiences of the world. When the sighted look at the drawing in Figure 2, made by a blind teenager in Poland consisting of two horizontal parallel lines and one vertical line at the right,

Two black parallel horizontal lines with one vertical black line above and to the right on a white background.
© Marek Bob

Figure 2. Tactile drawing of two horizontal parallel lines and one vertical line to the right.

or this model of a circle with small dots inside made by a blind teenager in Brazil (see Figure 3),

A tactile drawing of a golden circle with gold and white dots within the circle on a green background.
A tactile line drawing of a black circle containing several black dots within it on a white background.

©  Maria Lucia Duarte

Figure 3. A tactile drawing of a circle containing several small dots inside it (left) and a modified line drawing (right), which is based on the drawing on the left.

they are just as lost as the blind child is in front as this simple picture made in relief (see Figure 4).

Page from a tactile storybook containing a tree, a house, a donkey, and the sun in the sky all seen from a distance in relief.

© Michael Ziolo

Figure 4. Tactile illustration of a tree, a house, a donkey, and the sun in the sky.

Sight and touch are different, as can be seen when we more closely compare both modalities:

Global (synthetic)
Fragmentary (analytic)
Takes time
Visual field nearly unlimited (if no obstacles)
Limited to the contact area
Placed at distance (body outside the perception)
Interactive (I touch and I’m touched, body inside the perception)

They are really opposite to each other. As much as sight needs distance, touch needs contact just as much.

Let’s take the example of the tactile picture of a tree seen below in Figure 5. To recognize a tree, the young blind child will have to find in his memory his knowledge of a tree based on his experience of a tree. And what is a blind child’s experience of a tree? It is just a trunk. And when he touches the tree in this tactile picture everything is surprising! For there is nothing in common between the tactile picture and what he has experienced in touching a tree!

A tactile drawing of a tree in relief. A photograph of the midsection of a tree trunk with the top and bottom outside of the frame.

Figure 5. A tree on a tactile picture made with fabrics compared with a photo of the midsection a tree trunk.

Tree on the tactile picture
Tree in reality
No smell

On the other hand, when this young blind child touches a tactile picture, each item he touches is not one thing. It is a texture, a position on the page, a shape, a direction, a temperature, and an interactive event (i.e., a door to open), each of which is relative to the other items. So one item touched gives him at least six clues. And that demands a lot of work for his young memory and for his cognitive skills when out of all these pieces of information, he has to build one whole mental image.

The Sherlock Holmes Paradox

Every blind child has some experience of the reality around him. To read a tactile picture by touch means for him to find within the tactile picture some clues he knows through his own firsthand experience. This will take him some time (remember the fingers exploring the tactile picture); whereas for the sighted, it is all done instantaneously. And in most cases, the child who is blind will have to deduce and infer, because the tactile picture doesn’t provide the clues he knows. On the other hand, the sighted “recognize” an image that is very like their remembered visual experiences.

For a better understanding, let us take another example. In most picture books for children there are stories about animals. So let’s consider an elephant in a tactile picture. It is only because the child knows, not by direct experience, but through language (i.e., things said by adults) and reflection on what an elephant is (e.g., an enormous animal with a trunk, 2 tusks, 2 ears, 1 tail, 4 legs, etc.), that he can, over time and through trial and error, infer that what he touches is meant to depict an elephant. Rather than recognizing something he experienced, he is making an inquiry and let us hope he has a Mr. Watson sitting beside him to help him!

After seeing the point of view of the tactile reader we can now ask: What is it to design a tactile picture?

The Sock’s Paradox

Let’s imagine that as a TVI we have to illustrate a story about a sock for a young blind child. This TVI will use the Theory of Mind (Darras, 1996) to imagine what is like to be blind. For a sighted person, the first, easiest, and cheapest way to illustrate a story about a sock will be to glue one on the page. But what is the blind child’s experience with a sock? To play with when Mom is in a hurry in the morning by putting a hand in it, stretching it, or making a ball with it. But as soon as the sock is glued down all this firsthand experience is impossible. All his clues are lost and all that remains is the fabric of the sock.

 A second way to illustrate the sock is to thermoform it in plastic or emboss it on paper. But then all the play is still impossible, for even the fabric is no longer there. Finally, a very quick technique is to sketch a sock using a microcapsule paper or swell paper. Then the young blind child is in the same situation as I am when in front of an equation of Einstein. For him a sock has no shape, and where are the inside and the outside? Where is his experience of the sock? Where is the fabric?

A photograph of a child’s sock.
A tactile drawing of a child’s sock in relief.
A tactile line drawing of a sock.
  © Sadie Can Count, Ann Cunningham, 2006 © Eric et Julie, CRDP Lille,1993

Figure 6. A photograph of a child’s sock (left), a solid embossed illustration of a sock (middle), and a raised outline of a sock (right).

As soon as sighted children start to look at picture books, parents also provide them with paper and pencils. Children show their scribbles and slowly the adults around will help them to draw little by little the pictorial language of their sighted community. Believe me, sighted reader, I’m very bad at drawing, but I can draw for you a flower or a rabbit and you will recognize it! Since I was born, I have been taught to draw with as few lines and as quickly as possible a flower’s draft or a rabbit’s sketch which has something in common with a real flower or a real rabbit. These pictures are as my sighted community represents them (i.e., seen from a particular point of “view”, to be different from anything else). And this happens in a situation of communication because those drawings are to be shown. Blind children do not have this experience in their community. 

This drawing of a fish is what Rudolf Arnheim (1969) calls an “archetype”. Even the worst sighted artist can draw this fish with the expectation that it will be understood as a fish.

A line drawing of the outline of a fish.

Figure 7. The archetypal outline of a fish consisting of two semi-circular lines that form the body and intersect to form the tail.

A tactile picture can be taken as an interface between two communities, sighted and blind, if it has to be accessible to both. Pictures for the sighted are based on shapes (i.e., a figure on a background), but according to Katz, Lederman, and Klatzky for a blind child the texture is the first clue (as cited in Hatwell, Streri, & Gentaz, 2000).

Let’s take another example.

An illustration of a green turtle on a white background.
A photograph of a turtle on land.

Figure 8. A drawing of a green turtle (left) compared with a photograph of a turtle (right).

Sighted children develop very early in life a library of pictures in their brain, which have some similarities to reality and therefore they recognize the referent, as in this case where all sighted people will instantly recognize a turtle. Those two pictures (see Figure 8) are not the same but they have enough visual analogies in common to allow the sighted reader to very easily identify the archetype of a turtle (cf. The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images) by René Magritte, 1928-29). However, they do not share any tactile analogies.

A tactile drawing of a tree in relief.
A photograph of a tree trunk at midsection.

Figure 9. Tactile picture of tree made with fabric (left); photograph of a tree trunk (right).

For a blind child, the links between reality and a tactile representation, which are depicted in relief in pictures and drawings for the sighted, do not exist. He will have to learn the way sighted people draw things. But it is not his “native language.”

Two black parallel horizontal lines with one vertical black line above and to the right on a white background.
© Marek Bob

Figure 10. The tactile drawing consisting of two horizontal parallel lines and one vertical line (previously shown in Figure 2).

I spoke earlier about the Theory of Mind (Darras, 1996). Here we have a drawing (above) from a blind teenager from Poland. We are exactly in the same situation as a blind child touching the tactile picture of the tree (see Figure 9). We don’t know what the referent is because this is not our sighted mother language. And it is very difficult to imagine being in the body and mind of a blind person to understand what the referent of that drawing is in reality. 

If we listen to what blind children say, we may also notice that they have another way to interpret the world, yet the language they use is that of the sighted (Claudet, 2008). There are very few words to tactually describe the world; it is like they use the language of another culture:

“Why is everybody saying that Tom looks like Grandfather, when Tom is all sweet and warm and Grandfather is prickly and all stiff?” (The idea of resemblance is very difficult for a blind child.)

“How can you see a big tree across a small window?” (Perspective is also very difficult to catch for him.)

“I can hear I lost my way, but I don’t know where I am!” (His experience of the world is much more multisensory than that for the sighted.)

When an explorer showed Amazonian natives the photograph he just took beside them, they could not recognize him. Without the 3rd dimension, they could not link the photo and the reality before them, just as we cannot link this drawing to its referent.

Even the gaze is cultural. When Western people look at Hokusai’s famous painting The Great Wave, they focus on the waves and the boats, while an Asian person will appreciate the vacuum around the waves and boats. The talent for them is how the painter organizes the empty space.

The way of representing things also depends on the historical period. At the time of the Crusades people knew that the king was smaller that the tower. But it was more important to show the social rank than to represent the reality. The brain of the sighted observer was doing the job. So the gaze is also historical.

Tactile drawing of a bus with two horizontal lines symbolizing the steps and a vertical line on the right-hand side symbolizing the hand rail.
Tactile drawing of a river with a circle representing the water touching the artist’s waist and dots within the circle representing the stones beneath her feet.
© Marek Bob
© Maria Lucia Duarte

Figure 11.  Drawing of two horizontal lines and one vertical line, previously shown in Figure 2 (left), and drawing of a circle with dots inside, previously shown in Figure 3 (right).

I really think that those two blind teenagers’ drawings, called “haptic icons”, are truly wonderful. Can you guess what each represents?

The picture with two parallel horizontal lines and one vertical line beside them is a bus. Two of the lines are for the two stair steps and the third one is the bar to help people to get into the bus. Those three lines are the three contact points of the teenager’s body encountering the bus, and not at all like a bus seen at a distance (i.e., a figure on a background), as all sighted people will draw it.

The second picture of an oval with small balls inside it is a river. The circle represents the feeling of the water around her waist, and the small balls are the gravel felt under her feet. As much as sight needs distance to see, touch needs contact. Here the blind teenagers draw the points of contact of their bodies with the bus and the river. The place and role of the body is completely different than it is in seeing.

Remember the Braille letters, which have nothing to do with the Roman alphabet, but instead speak to the fingers in the tactual language. All the trials of raised Roman letters have been a failure. But Braille is wonderfully adapted for tactual reading and writing.

So right now, aren’t we looking at blindness as a “culture”? That is the main topic for Dreaming Fingers these past several years. Instead of trying to find ways to teach, to train, or to adapt sighted pictures and drawings for the blind, why not consider tactile pictures with an anthropological look? And maybe we will discover that this other way for people who are born blind to perceive the world is also enriching for the sighted.

Of course, blind children are a minority living among a sighted majority and they will have to learn the conventions of the sighted to represent things. But do they have to forget their own tactile mother language?

According to McLinden and McCall (2002),

All of us who have the privilege of working with these children need to ensure that we do not impose our view of the world onto the child but rather seek to acknowledge and appreciate the child’s unique perspective. This perspective can help us to see behaviours that we might otherwise consider irrational or outlandish for what they really are: logical and coherent adaptations to a world mediated predominantly through touch (p. 137).

Characteristics of a TiB

Each person speaking on behalf of someone else’s perception or of someone else’s experience is doing a meta-representation, which is called Theory of Mind (Darras, 1996). But the world of blind people is different, in perception, in experience both semiotically and phenomenologically. And all sighted people around blind children want those TiB to be accessible to both perceptive modalities of vision and touch.

 The six key features of a TiB are:

  • writing in both large print and Braille
  • tactile illustrations (whatever the production technique used)
  • color contrast for low vision
  • a binding which allows pages to be fully horizontal
  • a hard cover page
  • be equally as attractive as picture books made for sighted children

It should also be sturdy and cheap! However, the main demand of parents and professionals is that TiB should be a tool for integration.

There is no place here to speak about tactile adaptations of sighted picture books, or that the text in a TiB that should give clues which the tactile picture does not (Linders, 2009), or about our way to mass produce TiB. There is no room to speak about the complaints concerning the lack of TiB all over the world at the same time that there is an absolute lack of cooperation (Claudet, 2009).  We cannot discuss here an ideal progression of TiB ending with an artist’s tactile illustrated books. And we cannot cover the crucial role that translated notebooks about that field from abroad can play because they are rare in each country, yet one notebook can change the way of working for many practitioners. All that will be saved for next time.


Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Darras, B. (1996). Au commencement était l'image: Du dessin de l'enfant à la communication de l'adulten [In the beginning was the image: From the drawing of the child to the communication of the adult]. Paris, France: ESF.

Claudet, P. (2008). Un long couloir rempli de fauteuils en haut d’un escalier en plein vent [A long corridor full of armchairs at the top of a stair in full blast]. Talant, France: Les Doigts Qui Rêvent.

Claudet, P. (2009). The Typhlo & Tactus Guide to Children’s Books with Tactile Illustrations. Talant, France: Les Doigts Qui Rêvent. Retrieved from

Eriksson, Y., & Claudet, P. (2008). Images tactiles: représentations picturales pour les aveugles: 1784-1940 [Tactile pictures: pictorial representations for the blind, 1784-1940]. Talant, France: Les Doigts Qui Rêvent. (Original work published by Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1998)

Hatwell, Y., Streri, A., & Gentaz, E. (2000) Toucher pour connaître; psychologie de la perception tactile manuelle [Touching for Knowing: Cognitive psychology of haptic manual perception.] Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Kunz, M. (2013). 1856-1906, Geschicht der Blindenanstalt zu Mülhausen sowie Kongressvorträge und Abhandlungen über das Blindenwesen [1856-1906, Historian of the institution for the blind to Mulhouse and Congress presentations and discussions of the Blind] (Les Doigts Qui Rêvent, trans.). Talant, France: Les Doigts Qui Rêvent. (Original work published 1907).

Linders, C. (2009). Le langage glissant [The slippery language]. Talant, France: Les Doigts Qui Rêvent. (Original work published as Zweeftaal, en andere raadsels in het woordbegrip van blinde kinderen. Huizen, Netherlands: Visio, 1998)

McLinden, M., & McCall, S. (2002). Learning through Touch: supporting children with visual impairment and additional difficulties. London, England: David Fulton.

Theurel, A., Witt, A., Claudet, P., Hatwell, Y., and Gentaz, E. (2013). Tactile picture recognition by early blind children: The effect of illustration technique. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 19(3), 233-240. doi 10.1037/a0034255

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