Online Accessibility Training

Tactile Patterns

In this section, you'll find the standard tactile patterns, lines, and icons used in ABS's series, Art History Through Touch and Sound. ABS uses 6 patterns (plus solid black) in creating tactile diagrams. You can print out 6 pages of reproducible pattern sheets to help you create tactiles.

If you have never used tactile diagrams before, or if you've never used ABS's tactile diagrams, it's important to familiarize yourself with the standard lines and textures and how they're used, depending upon the subject matter. You also need to learn the standard icons. With any tactile diagram, it's imperative to begin at one of the four corners of the diagram and move through the diagram in a logical order, inch by inch.

When someone is guiding hands, he or she should always refer to the patterns, lines, and icons by name. Also, the narrator of a verbal description should use these names to describe shapes, details, and other features of a tactile diagram representing a painting, architectural drawing, or sculpture.

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Standard Tactile Patterns, Lines, and Icons

Note: You'll notice that these pattern examples are outlined. Patterns are outlined in most diagrams to help the user distinguish one from another.

Solid-Rough Pattern

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Solid-Rough Pattern
This is the flattest pattern and the least coarse. It is the most commonly used pattern, and it works well with any type of shape. Because this pattern is the least coarse, it can represent depth. For example, it can be used to identify shapes that are farther back in space, such as those in the background.


Dot Pattern

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Dot Pattern
This pattern is coarser and higher in relief than the solid-rough pattern. It is the second most commonly used pattern. It works best in larger areas. The dot pattern should not be used in areas that are too large, however, because it can dominate the diagram. It is also not effective in small shapes. This pattern can be used to represent depth, but also to identify shapes that are closer to us, such as those in the middle ground or foreground.


Click for full page printable pattern

Coarse Pattern
This pattern is not used as often as the other patterns. It is similar to the dot pattern and can be used in similar ways, although it feels slightly coarser.




Horizontal-Line Pattern

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Horizontal-Line Pattern
This pattern is not used very often. It has the same relief-height as the coarse and dot patterns. It is best employed to represent broad, flat forms that are rectilinear or square. For example, the horizontal-line pattern can accentuate the horizontality of a shape.



Vertical-Line Patterns

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Vertical-Line Patterns
This pattern is not used very often. It has the same relief-height as the coarse and dot patterns. It is best employed to represent broad, flat forms that are rectilinear or square. For example, the vertical-line pattern can emphasize the verticality of a shape.



Basket-Weave Pattern

Click for full page printable pattern

Basket-Weave Pattern
This pattern is good for filling large shapes. Because it has a dense feeling, it can serve to represent solid shapes, such as furniture or structural masses. The basket-weave pattern is not good for small shapes.



Solid Pattern

Click for full page printable pattern

Solid Pattern
This is the smoothest texture and the one with the highest relief. It is the third most commonly used pattern. This pattern works particularly well in small areas, when other patterns cannot be used, or to emphasize important shapes. The solid pattern can also represent objects in the foreground, which are closest to the viewer.


Note: Unpatterned Areas. Sometimes objects or visual elements depicted in a tactile diagram are outlined, but their described forms are unpatterned. Faces are usually unpatterned, so that facial features can be distinguished. In general, flesh is unpatterned, and clothing is patterned. If both flesh and clothing are patterned, it is difficult to distinguish between the two elements. Unpatterned areas are also used to represent elements that are not as important as patterned areas. For example, the sky in a landscape is usually left unpatterned.

Although these standard tactile patterns have different visual features, some feel similar to the touch. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the patterns you put next to one another. For example, the dot pattern and coarse pattern should never be placed next to one another. Additionally, certain types of shapes should be filled with certain patterns. In general, small shapes should be filled with finer patterns, or they should be solid areas. Conversely, large spaces should be filled with coarser patterns, and they should not be solid areas.

Furthermore, just as intersecting lines need a small space around them, so do lines that overlap patterned areas. There should be one-eighth inch of space on both sides of a line that overlaps a patterned area. This space serves to make the line distinguishable.


There are five kinds of lines used in ABS tactile diagrams.

Here, they're shown horizontally, although in a diagram they may appear in any direction. The broken line and the dotted line most often illustrate a feature within an architectural drawing, such as a ground plan showing the layout of a building. The detail line is formed by a series of small arrows and appears in diagrams that are details of larger illustrations. For example, a diagram will sometimes show an enlarged view of a specific feature within a painting or object. A detail line indicates the enlarged view, with the arrows pointing toward the area where the painting or object continues. The narrator will expand upon the detail lines.

thin line
Thin Line

thick line
Thick Line

broken line
Broken Line

dotted line
Dotted Line

detail line
Detail Line


The purpose of icons is to orient the user and provide specific kinds of information. Some icons are reserved specifically for architecture, while others can be used in any type of diagram. Each icon is always placed in the same location on the page. This standardized placement enables the user to acquire a familiarity with the icon, so that he or she will always know where to find the information. ABS uses five standardized icons, described below, and braille letters to convey information.

Orientation Arrow
The orientation arrow is always placed in the upper-left corner of any page featuring tactile information. The arrow points to the top of the diagram, telling the user how to orient the page.


Entrance ArrowEntrance Arrow
The entrance arrow appears only in architectural diagrams. The arrow shows where the entrance of a building or site is located.


Locator DotsLocator Dots
Locator dots can be applied in any type of diagram. Generally, they are placed outside the diagram's outer edge. There should be about one-eighth inch of space between the locator dot and the diagram's edge. In the case of sculpture and architecture, where there is no surrounding edge, the locator dot can be placed next to the sculpture or building.

Compass-Point NorthCompass-Point North
The compass-point-north icon appears only in architectural diagrams. It is always placed in the lower-left corner of the page. The compass point is rotated so that it points north. It does not necessarily point upward.

Human-Scale IndicatorHuman-Scale Indicator
These icons are used in architectural renderings to show the relative size of a human figure, compared to the building or structure illustrated in the diagram. The left icon resembles a stick figure with a head, arms, and legs. The right icon is merely a short vertical line called the small human-scale indicator. Sometimes the building or structure is so large that the small human-scale indicator is used in a diagram to represent the human figure. In diagrams showing the facade of a building, the human-scale indicator is almost always on the left end of the ground line. In ground plans, the human-scale indicator is immediately above the compass-point-north icon In a diagram illustrating an elevation view, it is placed on the left end of the ground line.

Braille Letters
Braille letters are sometimes used to identify certain parts of a diagram. The braille letter is usually placed in the center of the shape you wish to label. However, sometimes letters are placed to the side of a given tactile element. This form of labeling helps distinguish one part of the diagram from another.

Reproducing Diagrams in Relief

The easiest method of reproduction is to use microcapsule paper and a Tactile Image Enhancer. Here's the basic process:

First, photocopy the completed tactile diagram onto microcapsule paper.

Then pass the microcapsule paper 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.

Writing Verbal Narratives for Tactile Diagrams

All tactile diagrams require an accompanying verbal narrative to guide the user through the image, after the user has acquired a familiarity with the standardized patterns, lines, and icons used in the diagrams. A diagram legend featuring the tactile vocabulary and the corresponding names is a good way to introduce this information. 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, however, presents certain challenges, and the narrative must address these. In general, a narrative should fulfill the following functions:

  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. If the image is too complex, however, this information will be more confusing than helpful.

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.

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.

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.

Evaluating Tactile Diagrams and Verbal Narratives

After you have created a tactile diagram and the corresponding narrative, you must test them to ensure that together they convey the desired information. For the diagram to be understood, the narrative must guide the user in a logical and precise manner. Generally, several stages of revision are required to refine a diagram and the companion narrative. You cannot judge how well a tactile diagram will work by its visual appearance. Keep in mind that tactile diagrams are maps, so the tactile diagram will usually look slightly different from the image it represents. This does not mean the diagram is not a good tactile interpretation of the work of art. The goal is for the tactile diagram to convey the visual information through touch rather than sight.

First, test the diagram and narrative yourself. If a sighted person cannot understand a tactile diagram and its narrative, then a visually impaired person will not understand it. Next, test the materials with a visually impaired person. The narrative should be able to guide the user through the diagram and explore all of its components. If the diagram is working properly, it will enhance the verbal description of the actual image. When testing a diagram and narrative with visually impaired advisors, do not help them find elements within the diagram. If you move their hands, you will not know if the diagram and narrative work well together. All users should be able to rely completely on the narrative to guide them through the diagram.

Adapted from Making Visual Art Accessible to People Who Are Blind and Visually Impaired © 1996 Art Beyond Sight.

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