This screenshot is from Josh Penn's animation, “What Is It Like To Be Dyslexic?”

The Student Project That Made Clients Come Knocking

By Terri Stone

Until quite recently, United Kingdom native Josh Penn was at university, majoring in graphic design and minoring in motion design. For one of his final projects, he created an animation that simulates the experience of dyslexia (a neurological condition that makes it difficult to read and write). He graduated and started a freelance design business. And then, on a lark, he asked renowned designer Stefan Sagmeister to critique that dyslexia animation. Sagmeister’s 16-word response changed Penn’s career.

Penn’s request of Sagmeister was succinct: “I'm a dyslexic student and I recently created a kinetic typography animation describing and showcasing what it is like to have dyslexia. What do you think?” Sagmeister’s even shorter response: “This is good. Describing dyslexia in 60 seconds is no small feat and you succeeded gloriously.”

“You succeeded gloriously”! That was all it took for potential clients to come knocking.

Watch “What Is It Like To Be Dyslexic?”

Here’s Penn’s explanation of his motivation and process:

“'What is it like to be Dyslexic?'” a question often thought about but rarely acted upon. There are many organisations, companies and individuals who work to help individuals with dyslexia and the daily struggles that they face. I as a dyslexia student, wanted to take a different approach with this university minor project. I wanted to communicate to individuals that do not suffer from the neurological glitch known as dyslexia, I wanted to build a better understanding of the condition for those that do not have dyslexia- I wanted to find a way to communicate to them and show them what it exactly is.

“My first thought was to create something print based, whether this was a poster or leaflet, anything. But, I eventually discovered that this would have been the most ineffective solution possible. I would have been giving people a piece of printed design, with jumbled letter, bad spelling and other dyslexia symptoms and essentially telling them ‘ this badly’. A person without dyslexia will not understand because they understand the written language, telling them to read badly wouldn't work, so I had to perform it for them.”

Penn primarily used Adobe After Effects CC on the project. “After Effects is my go-to for all motion design pieces,” he says, but in the past, he was more likely to work on projects such as animated logos. “The dyslexia video was my first time animating something with a narrative. I had to consider a lot more variables and learn a lot more tools.”

"This was also the first time I've worked solely with type in an animation,” Penn continues. “That was a fun and exciting challenge. I wasn't sure what After Effects was capable of when dealing with type, but I soon found out that it could do a lot! To start, I used the text animation presets. I wanted to get an idea of what was possible, and it helped with the bulk of the animation and ideas. Then furthering from that, I was able to play with and manipulate separate properties and other variables to really bring the animation to life.”

But Penn is not about mindless movement. “I think the most important thing to remember when animating is, that everything has to have a purpose and a reason,” he explains. “it needs to follow a story or narrative, it needs to give a reason for the viewer to care.” 

While dyslexia may be described as a neurological glitch, Penn’s success is no glitch, as proved by his other final project, “Remember Me: Alzheimer's Awareness Social Media Content.”

Watch Penn’s university major project on Alzheimer's.


Stefan Sagmeister regularly critiques projects on his Instagram feed. To submit your work for his review, send him an email with a square .jpg or .mov file on a white or black background, and include your Instagram address. 

September 21, 2017