Universal Design: The Future of Normal

We live our lives interacting with spaces created, branded and furnished by architects, designers, artists and even creative DIY’ers. Most of these creatives, like the majority of us, are sighted and hearing. So something that was tugging at my brain after a recent art gallery visit: How might one experience creative architecture and design without seeing or hearing it. Would their experience be as rich, navigable and informative?

The short answer: Yes, if designed correctly. Here is an individual and organization who are leading the way in designing it correctly for hearing and sight impaired.

A Mind’s Eye for Design

Chris Downey, Architectur for the BlindChris Downey, a San Francisco Bay Area practicing architect, lost his sight in 2008 due to a surgery. With no intention to give up on architecture, he returned back to the office a month after. “I lost my sight, not my vision”. Today, Downey at Architecture for The Blind consults on projects adding insight to the unseen experience of architecture. He is a pioneer in a field traditionally driven by sighted architects and designers. He focuses on the environmental cues that assist our navigation skills. His work, however, is not limited to accessibility for visually impaired but also for multi-sensory experiences. Downey brings design awareness, insight and expertise to a growing population of visually impaired. By 2030 rates of severe vision loss are predicted to double along with the aging population, which is expected to be about 20%.

Spaces for Sight

Over 28 million Americans are considered deaf or hearing impaired. The reality is our culture continues to be inundated with noisy technologies getting louder and more frequent. As a result, the number of hearing impaired is increasing.

Gallaudet UniversityIn Washington DC, Gallaudet University is a liberal arts institution for the deaf or hearing impaired. Gallaudet’s architects are involved in a design movement called DeafSpace: an approach to architecture and design that is primarily informed by Deaf people’s sensibilities. The ultimate goal of this program is universal design or designing for the widest range of end users. The DeafSpace philosophy consists of five basic principles: Space and Proximity, “Sensory Reach”, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics. These principles sound like they are straight from a school design textbook for the sighted, but for the Deaf, these principles relate to everyday comfort, communication and simply getting around. An example for those who communicate all day with their eyes, is reducing contrasting colors and introducing diffused light that reduces vibration, a major cause of eye strain.

The Horizon of Change

Universal Design IconsOne day, universal design principles will not be such a specialized niche but rather the new norm. We’ll see spaces that demonstrate the highest level of play between visual design and multisensory spaces that are rich for all. On a human level, technological innovations that integrate the human body are opening a world of independence for the impaired; product innovations such as bone conduction headphones with 3D audio, a fully implanted hearing device, SFO’s Bluetooth prototype for navigation assistance, and self-driving cars are here, now. On our horizon, emerging technologies in bioscience, artificial intelligence and robotics may simply make us superhuman altogether and redefine what universal design principles look like.

Now, about that gallery experience, thoughtful and inclusive programs have opened the creative skill of masters to visually impaired art lovers so they too can indulge their senses.

Our future is here and this is our new normal.

Want to hear more?

Listen to Architecture for The Blind’s Chris Downey interviewed on 99% Invisible podcast

Watch Chris Downey on Ted

Listen to Gallaudet University’s Robert Sirvage interviewed on 99% Invisible podcast


Marlene Sironi

Workplace Strategist

With over 20 years of design application and workplace strategy experience, Marlene understands the changing world of work, from the most influential Bay Area to a broad range of markets nationwide. She engages with clients on discovery, visioning and thoughtful design strategy.