Online Accessibility Training

Learning Tool:
Tactile Diagrams

Tactile diagrams translate images into a tactile language.
They are not exact relief reproductions of visual images.
Tactile diagrams allow people access to the visual information in works of art, maps, architectural and other diagrams, and three-dimensional objects and spaces.

Woman touching tactile map of museum. Hands touching tactile diagram in Art History Through Touch and Sound volume
Tactile map of museum near entrance of Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki Tactile diagram of painting, Art History Through Touch and Sound


ABS's multisensory art encyclopedia, Art History Through Touch and Sound, has hundreds of tactile diagrams, with accompanying verbal descriptions. These diagrams are also available online at Art History Through Touch and Sound Online.

Ma Jolie, cubist painting by Pablo Picasso Tactile diagram of Ma Jolie
Ma Jolie, Picasso Tactile diagram of Ma Jolie
Media player icon showing books

See How to Use Art History Through Touch and Sound Tactiles (1:26)

TV icon
  Page icon
Media player icon showing books

See How to Use Art History Through Touch and Sound Tactiles (2:14)

Practical Considerations:
Tactile diagrams should always be used with narratives that guide the user through the diagram in a logical and orderly manner. In addition, the narrative provides art-historical information and a detailed description of the actual work, which give meaning to the tactile translation of the object in the diagram.

In the museum, tactile diagrams can complement a touch tour, for example when a sculpture is too large for a visitor to access completely through touch. In the galleries, tactile diagrams of paintings can focus and enrich verbal description. Tip: remember to provide a hard surface, such as a clipboard or piece of cardboard, for each member of the tour.

Classroom teachers can use tactile diagrams to prepare students for a museum visit, or to study art, literature, history, and other academic subjects. Learning to read tactile diagrams is essential for blind and visually impaired students, since it strengthens the skills necessary to read tactile maps, scientific diagrams, and graphs.

See Art History Through Touch and Sound Online for an example of how to use a Tactile Diagram.

Writing Directions for Touching Tactile Diagrams
All tactile diagrams require an accompanying verbal narrative to guide the user through the image. A user must first understand the standardized patterns, lines, and icons used in the diagrams. A good way to introduce this information is with a diagram legend featuring the tactile vocabulary and the corresponding names. The narrative must guide the user through each aspect of the diagram, always referring to the patterns by their names. For example, “The coffee can is represented by a solid-rough pattern.” Usually, the narrative begins at one of the diagram’s corners or outer edges. From this starting point, the narrative works inward in an orderly progression. Each image presents certain challenges, and the narrative must address these. But in general, a narrative should follow this basic structure:

  1. Convey the standard information including artist, title, date, mediums, dimensions, and the custodian or location of the work.
  2. Provide an overview of the historical period or cultural context.
  3. Give a general description of the subject matter and color or qualities of the medium.
  4. Tell the user how many diagrams will be used to explore the work and what each diagram represents.
  5. Cue the user that the tactile narrative is about to begin.
  6. When reasonable, provide a brief overview of the patterns that represent the various elements in the diagram. Remember, however, that if the image is too complex this information may be more confusing than helpful.
  7. At this point, you may begin guiding the user’s hands through the diagram. Always start at the diagram’s outer edges, not with an object in the center. In a representation of a two-dimensional work, start with the background and move forward toward the foreground, or vice versa, but do not start in the middle. In a representation of a sculpture, begin with the figure’s head, and move down, or begin at the figure’s feet, and move up. In representations of architecture, begin with the informational icons. After exploring the compass point and the human-scale indicator, move to the entrance arrow and doorway. Then enter the building.
  8. The narrative should guide the user through the diagram in an inch-by-inch path. Always move from one area to an adjacent area. Do not jump from one point to another without accounting for the diagram’s intervening areas. Explore the elements in a way that encourages an understanding of the whole.
  9. After you have explored all the elements in the diagram, you can talk about the work in the same way that you would talk with a sighted viewer. Among the subjects you can introduce are the work’s formal features, iconography, significance, theoretical premise, patterns of intention, or any other relevant issues. Finally, summarize the image and explain its historical importance.

Media player icon showing Robert Jaquiss

Robert Jaquiss, Vice-chairman and Executive Director for VIEW International Foundation, on the range of materials and technologies available to create Tactile Diagrams and Objects.

Robert Jaquiss
VIEW International (14:00)

Page icon


How to Get It or Make It …Cheap and Easy

Reproducing Images in Relief

Egyptian woman carrying basket on her head, vertically split. Half color drawing, half tactile diagram.

The easiest method of reproduction is to use microcapsule paper and a Tactile Image Enhancer. The photocopied image on microcapsule paper passes through the Tactile Image Enhancer, which heats the paper, causing the black lines and patterns to rise. Only the black areas will rise because these areas attract the most heat. The untreated areas of the page remain flat and smooth.

In order to create a tactile diagram using this method, here is what you need:

  • Tactile Image Enhancer/Tactile Image Maker, a photocopier, special paper
  • Guidelines for Making Tactile Diagrams. Includes detailed instructions and examples of different types of tactile diagrams.
  • Tactile Patterns that you can download from this site. These are reproducible pages that you can copy and use in creating your own diagrams.

Remember that tactile diagrams are always used with verbal narratives as described in ABS’s Guidelines for Making Tactile Diagrams. The narratives guide the user through the diagram in a logical and orderly manner. A narrative also provides art history information and a detailed description of an artwork.

Watch this video to see the basic steps of how to design and reproduce tactile diagrams.

Media player icon showing How to Make a Tactile Diagram

See How to Make a Tactile Diagram (2:47)

TV icon
  Page icon
Media player icon showing How to Make a Tactile Diagram

See How to Make a Tactile Diagram (2:55)


Back to top

bullet About UsbulletNetworkbullet Teachbullet Learnbullet Changebullet Home   

Duotone photo of hands exploring a tactile drawing of an African sculpture from Benin, titled
Online Training
How do We Access Meaning in Art?
  What Are Accessibility Tools?
  Theory and Research
  Learning Tools
  Touch Tools
    Tactile Diagrams
    Verbal Description
    Sound and Drama
    Art Making
    Educational Extensions
  General Tools
    Universal Design
    Braille and Large Print
    Tactile Graphics
    Audio Described Media
    Accessible Web Materials
  Next Steps
  Beyond Accessibility


© Art Beyond Sight
Site Credits
Eye logo