Martin Pysny: “Language learning platforms are not designed for dyslexics. We are changing that with Promova and Dysfont.”
Martin Pysny is a dyslexic designer and founder of the special font for people with dyslexia, Dysfont, used in Promova’s Dyslexic Mode. In this interview, he opens up about life with dyslexia and his mission to raise awareness about design for people with dyslexia and visual stress and reduce the impact learning disorders have on people’s lives.
“I’m not good enough. And no matter how hard I try I won’t be able to read effortlessly.” That’s the thought that Martin Pysny had been living with all his years at school. Although he was only 7 years old, Martin could already tell he differed from his peers. Struggling with reading and writing was present from the very beginning. The little boy couldn’t help stumbling through the letters that appeared very weird on paper.
“My parents had me tested when I was in second grade, and I was officially diagnosed with dyslexia (a learning disorder that causes problems with reading, writing, and spelling). But they decided not to tell me about my condition and continued working with me based on the guidelines the doctor gave them,” Martin shared. Back in the ‘90s, in Slovakia, most people were still in the dark about dyslexia. Awareness of the condition wasn’t discussed as much as it is now. So, Martin only found out the truth years later, when he was a teenager. “When I was 14, I came across an episode of an American TV show in which the host interviewed a kid with dyslexia. The kid had the same symptoms as me,” he said. “I talked to my parents about the episode, and they confirmed I was dyslexic. As you can imagine, I wasn’t very happy that my parents kept it from me for so long! But I eventually understood why they did what they did. After all, I had very low self-esteem at that time, and learning disabilities weren’t normalized in society yet. A few years later, I discovered I had visual stress (sensitivity to visual patterns) as well.”
When I asked Martin how he sees texts, he sincerely confessed: “That’s a bit of a hard question to answer since I have no idea how normal people see the text.” Every person with dyslexia has their own issues when it comes to perceiving text. In Martin’s case, several factors influence his perception — the text’s length, typeface, letter size, and line space. “For instance, looking at the Serif font, which has a quite high contrast, ends up with me experiencing visual stress. The text appears vanished, the letters jump and shake, and some areas have dark spots. So, it’s quite disturbing and very hard to concentrate during reading. I have to put in a lot of effort to get the gist of the text every single time. I also require some extra time to comprehend the text because it takes extra seconds to recognize a difficult letter or a whole word.”
For many years, Martin was convinced dyslexia was the reason why he was a little behind his peers. He used to see mistakes in himself, but not in the surrounding world. But after testing a special font for dyslexia that didn’t work for him, Martin realized that the main problem is a lack of accessibility. So, while pursuing a degree in design, he came up with the idea to create a type that would actually help people with dyslexia with their reading and writing. “The birth of Dysfont — a unique typeface designed to help people with dyslexia and/or visual stress — started as my university studies back in 2013. I developed the first version of Dysfont as part of my bachelor’s thesis at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava,” Martin said. “As a kid, I couldn’t have imagined that my mysterious condition, which was making my life complicated, would eventually end up setting the direction of my life.”
For almost 10 years, Dysfont remained a beta version of the product that could potentially change the lives of 780 million people in the world who are dyslexic. However, receiving positive feedback from a small circle of users and introducing the typeface at events like TEDx pushed Martin to return to improving Dysfont.
In 2023, he partnered with Promova, a one-stop solution for all your language learning needs, to create a special Dyslexia Mode that uses Dysfont. “Knowing other languages, especially English, opens new horizons for any person. Unfortunately, people with dyslexia have always fallen behind in learning languages because the process is very exhausting for us,” Martin said. “And, unfortunately, despite their popularity, language learning platforms are not designed for dyslexics. So, we are changing that with Promova and Dysfont.”
Learning and writing in Martin’s native tongue was challenging enough for him as a kid with dyslexia, but when he started learning English as a foreign language just 2 years later. the struggle became even more real. “I remember one of the first tasks we had was to learn 15 simple words like apple and rabbit. I worked so hard to memorize them, pronouncing and writing them down dozens of times. But when the teacher threw a quiz to check what we’d learned, I misspelled a lot of words. For instance, I couldn’t see a difference between lowercase b and d. So, the “rabbit” became “raddit.” And the worst part was that when my teacher returned my paper with corrections, I still couldn’t detect what was wrong with my spelling.” English turned out to be an even more complex language to learn for a person with dyslexia because spelling and pronunciation are rather different. “I was forcing my brain to do something it was not built for.”
Eventually, Martin did manage to master English without the help of a teacher who specialized in teaching kids with dyslexia. As a teenager, he had a chance to spend all summer in the US or UK, so he picked up English more naturally and polished it at school for 12 years in Slovakia. Martin was determined to master his English because he understood pretty early that you can access much more information if you have a good command of English. He even completed a master’s degree in Type and Media at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague in the Netherlands (one of the top art schools in the world), taking courses fully in English. However, Martin still was forced to work much harder than his peers to improve his skills. Those are the two main reasons why Martin decided to incorporate Dysfont into language learning by partnering with Promova.
“When it comes to language learning through apps, there are some things that, in my opinion, should be considered to make it more accessible for neurodivergent people, for example, reducing the color brightness and avoiding colors that heavily contrast, offering different ways to memorize words (like listening and showing an illustration), and avoiding gamification features where you compete with others or yourself to finish activities faster. Promova already does all of that, and I believe adding Dysfont will complete the picture.”
Dysfont helps to distinguish letters by making the uppercase and lowercase versions as similar as possible and differentiating p, q, b, and d. Also, it reduces the contrast between the text and background to ease readability and minimize the negative effects of visual stress. Martin said: “I’m grateful to Promova for becoming the first company in the world to implement Dysfont. Together, we can help empower dyslexics to learn foreign languages successfully.”