With Braille six dots can be turned into 64 different characters. Photo: PharmaBraille
Braille on packaging
One dot top left means A; two dots at the top mean C and four dots mean seven. Those mastering the Braille alphabet can decipher any text in the world without seeing it. This is important not only from the literacy perspective but crucial when blind people have to find their bearings in the public space; and it is also decisive for packaging – especially of highly critical products such as drugs. Today, the European Union, for example, provides for packaging to be additionally labelled with these 64 different characters. But how did this trail-blazing invention come about?
At the tender age of six the namesake of the world-famous characters, Louis Braille, crossed paths with a military captain in Paris. There the blind boy was introduced to “nocturnal typeface” – a system for reading made up of tactile characters. With the help of twelve dots arranged in two rows commands were conveyed to the troops in darkness. For longer texts, however, this system prooved too complicated. Braille reduced the number of dots to as little as six thereby inventing today’s Braille that allows characters, mathematical equations and even sheet music to be translated into this tactile language.
In the EU drug packaging must feature Braille. Photo: Ingenious Brandcare
The stated goal of the European Union is to bring down everyday barriers for blind people and those with visual impairments. Alongside signposting for visually impaired persons in public spaces such as authorities or means of public transport, Directive 2004/27 EC of 31/03/2004, which has been in force since 2007, provides that drug names must be stated in Braille on the outer packaging. The Directive only excludes micro boxes of up to 20 ml and/or 20 grams, drugs with an annual output of below 7,000 units, registered natural cures and drugs exclusively administered by health professionals. Upon demand packaging inserts must also be made available in other formats to visually impaired patients by pharmaceutical companies. Serving as a worldwide and most frequently used standard here is font (dot) size ‘Marburg Medium’.
Valuable extra effort
It is plain to see that the meaningful Braille labelling also has an effect on labour and costs. On the one hand, printers have to know that not all dots are the same for all languages. The dot combination for %, / and a full stop is different in Spain, Italy, Germany and Great Britain. On the other hand, printers have to account for specific dot diameters, offsets and line distances when embossing or printing to make sure that the Braille dots are easily touchable. However, designers here also always have to strike the right balance between function and looks. After all, the raised surfaces must not interfere excessively with the legibility and appearance for non-visually impaired persons.
Today, Braille no longer requires elaborate embossing. Special inks/varnishes simplify printing thereby even making possible personalised products with Braille such as the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign products in Argentina and Mexico. Photo: Prencio
In concrete terms, this generates cost increases of some five to 25 percent for printers. Pharmaceutical companies have to allow for more comprehensive controls and longer set-up times when using Braille. In Germany alone the extra costs associated with applying Braille to packaging are estimated at some Euro 160 million each year.
Application made easier by digital printing
Until a few years ago Braille still had to be embossed and corresponding embossing dies had to be produced for this. Then screen-printing was introduced – thanks to this first evolution the industry only required a screen-printing stencil. But the real revolution only arrived with digital printing. Now Braille dots were simply applied by means of ink jet printing and varnish.
Braille also makes sense on other everyday products such as cosmetics articles. Photo: M&H Plastics
However, it’s not all that easy: prerequisites include good nozzle flow rates and ideal drying properties also with high printing speeds. On top of this, the ink jet must correspond to the requirements for minimum dimensions, feature good adhesion and no misting. As a result, the selection of printing ink/varnish requires a lot of experience that many companies in the industry have now acquired.
There is that occasional call for abolishing mandatory Braille application on selected packaging. These costs could be saved by electronic labelling, some say, arguing that this would also allow users who can neither read the alphabet nor Braille, like the elderly whose vision has impaired over the years, to obtain the desired information.