Author Archives: katieshelly

About katieshelly

Katie Shelly is a media technologist at Cooper-Hewitt Labs. She produces videos, graphics, does design research and prototyping. She is also author of a graphic cookbook called Picture Cook (Ulysses Press, 2013) and a graduate of Wesleyan University.

Making of: Design Dictionary Video Series

We often champion processes of iterative prototyping in our exhibitions and educational workshops about design. Practicing what we preach by actually adopting iterative prototyping workflows in-house is something we’ve been working on internally at Cooper Hewitt for the last few years.

In the 3.5 years that I’ve been here, I’ve observed some inspiring progress on this front. Here’s one story of iterative prototyping and inter-departmental collaboration in-house, this time for our new Design Dictionary web video series.

Design Dictionary is a 14-part video series that aims to demystify everything from tapestry weaving to 3D printing in a quick and highly visual way. With this project, we aimed not only to produce a fun and educationally valuable new video series, but also to shake up our internal workflow.

Content production isn’t the first thing you’d think of when discussing iterative prototyping workflows, but it’s just as useful for media production as it is for hardware, software, graphic design, and other more familiar design processes.

The origin of Design Dictionary traces back to a new monthly meeting series that was kicked off about two years ago. The purpose of the meetings was to get Education, Curatorial, and Digital staff in the same room to talk about the content being developed for our new permanent collection exhibition, Making Design. We wanted everything from the wall labels to the digital interactive experiences to really resonate with our various audiences. Though logistically clunkier and more challenging than allowing content development to happen in a small circle, big-ish monthly meetings held the promise of diverse points of view and the potential for unexpected and interesting ideas.

At one of these meetings, when talking about videos to accompany the exhibition, the curators and educators both expressed a desire to illustrate the various design techniques employed in our collection via video. It was noted that video of most any technique is already available online, but since these videos are of varying quality, accuracy, and copyright allowances, and it might be worth it to produce our own series.

I got the ball rolling by creating a list of techniques that will appear more than once in Making Design.

Then I collected a handful of similar videos online, to help center the conversation about project goals. Even the habitual “lurkers” on Basecamp were willing to chime in when it came to criticizing other orgs’ educational videos: “so boring!” “so dry!” they said. This was interesting, because as a media producer it can be hard to 1) get people to actually participate and submit their thoughts and 2) break it to someone that their idea for a new video is extremely boring.

Once we were critiquing *somebody else’s* educational videos, and not our own darling ideas, people seemed more able to see video content from a viewer’s perspective (impatient, wanting excitement) as opposed to a curator/educator’s perspective (fixated on detail, accuracy, thoroughness, less concerned with the viewer’s interests & attention span).

a green post it note with four goals written on it as follows: 1) express new brand (as personality/mood) 2) generate online buzz 3) help docents/visitors grasp techniques in gallery-fast (research opinions) 4) help us start thinking about content creation in an audience-centered, purposeful way

I kept this note taped to my screen as a reminder of the 4 project goals.

It is amazingly easy to get confused and lost mid-project if you don’t keep your goals close. This is why I clung tightly to the sticky note shown above. When everyone involved can agree on goals up-front, the project itself can shape-shift quite nicely and organically, but the goals stay firm. Stakeholders’ concerns can be evaluated against the goals, not against your org. hierarchy or any other such evil criteria.

Even with all the viewer-centric empathy in the world, it can still be hard to predict what your audience will like and dislike. Would a video about tapestry weaving get any views on YouTube? What about 3D printing?

Screen shot of a tweet that says: Last chance! Tell us which design techniques interest you most in this one-question survey: http://bit.ly/Museum4U

We asked our Twitter followers which techniques interest them most.

We created a quick survey on SurveyMonkey and blasted it out to our followers on Facebook and Twitter to gauge the temperature.

a list of design techniques, each with an orange bar showing percentage of people who voted for that technique.

Surveying our Twitter and Facebook fans with SurveyMonkey, to learn which techniques they’d be interested in learning more about.

We also hosted the same survey on Qualaroo, which pops up on our website. My hunch about what people would say was all wrong. We used these survey results to help choose which techniques would get a video.

By this point, it was mid-winter 2014, and our new brand from Pentagram was starting to get locked in. It was a good opportunity to play with the idea of expressing this new brand via video. What should the pacing and rhythm be like? How should animations feel? What kind of music should we use?

grid of various images, each with a caption, like a mood board or bulletin board.

Public mood-boarding with Pinterest.

Seb & I are fans of “Look Around You” and we liked the idea of a somewhat cheeky approach to the dreaded “educational video.” How about an educational video that (lovingly, artfully) mocks the very format of educational videos? I created a Pinterest board to help with the art direction. We couldn’t go too kitsch with the videos, however, because our new brand is pretty slick and that would have clashed.

Then I made a low-stakes, low-cost prototype, recycling footage from a previous project. I sent this out to the curatorial/education team for feedback using Basecamp.

In retrospect I can now see that this video is awful. But at the time, it seemed pretty good to me. This is why we prototype, people!

With feedback from colleagues via Basecamp (less book, more live action, more prominent type), I made the next prototype:

I got mixed reactions about the new typography. Some found it distracting. And I was still getting a lot of mixed reactions to the book. So here was my third pass:

I was starting to reach out to artists and designers to lend their time to the shoots, and was cycling that fresh footage into the project, and cycling the new video drafts back to the group for feedback. Partially because we were on a deadline and partially because it works well in iterative projects, we didn’t wait for closure on step 1 before moving on to step 2.

a pile of scrap papers, each with different lists saying things like: "copy pattern, cover pattern with contact paper, mount pattern" or "embroidery steps: 1) cut fabric 2) stretch main fabric onto hoop 3) cut thread" et cetera

I got a crash course in 14 different techniques.

Every new shoot presented a new chance to test the look and feel and get reactions from my colleagues. Here was a video where I tried my own hand at graphical “annotations” (dovetail, interlock, slit):

By this point my prototype was refined enough to share with Pentagram, who were actively working on our digital collateral. I asked them to style a typographic solution for the series, which could serve as the basis for other museum videos as well. Whenever you can provide a designer with real content, do it, because it’s so much better than using dummy content. Dummy content is soft and easy, allowing itself to be styled in a way that looks good, but meets no real requirements when put through a real stress test (long words, bulky text, realistic quantities of donor credits, real stakeholders wanting their interests represented prominently).

Here is a revised video that takes Pentagram’s new, crisp typography into account:

This got very good feedback from education and curatorial. And I liked it too. Yay.

All-in-all, it took about 8 rounds of revision to get from the first cruddy prototype to the final polished result.

And here are the final versions.

Video Capture for Collection Objects

Stepping inside a museum storage facility is a cool experience. Your usual gallery ambience (dramatic lighting, luxurious swaths of empty space, tidy labels that confidently explain all) is completely reversed. Fluorescent lights are overhead, keycode entry pads protect every door, and official ID badges are worn by every person you see. It’s like a hospital, but instead of patients there are 17th century nightgowns and Art Deco candelabras. Nestled into tiny, sterile beds of acid-free tissue paper and archival linen, the patients are occasionally woken and gently wheeled around for a state-of-the-art microscope scan, an elaborate chemical test, or a loving set of sutures.

A gloved, cardigan-ed museum worker pushing a rolling cart down a hallway of large white shelving units.

A rare peek inside the storage facility.

If you ask a staff member for an explanation of this or that object on the nearest cart or shelf, they might tell you a detailed story, or they might say that so far, not much is known. I like the element of unevenness in our knowledge, it’s very different from the uniform level of confidence one sees in a typical exhibition.

The web makes it possible to open this space to the public in all its unpolished glory – and many other museums have made significant inroads into new audiences by pulling back the curtain. The prospect is like catnip for the intellectually curious, but hemlock for most museum employees.

Typically, the only form of media that escapes this secretive storage facility are hi-res TIFFs artfully shot in an on-site photography studio. The seamless white backdrop and perfectly staged lighting, while beautiful and ideal for documentation, completely belie the working lab environment in which they were made.

We just launched a new video project called “Collections in Motion.” The idea is super simple: short videos that demonstrate collections objects that move, flip, click, fold, or have any moveable part.

Here are some of the underlying thoughts framing the project:

  • Still images don’t suffice for some objects. Many of them have moving parts, make sounds, have a sense of weight, etc that can’t be conveyed through images.
  • Our museum’s most popular videos on YouTube are all kinetic, kinda entrancing, moving objects. (Contour Craft 3D Printing, A Folding Bicycle, and a Pop-up Book, for example).
  • Videos played in the gallery generally don’t have sound or speakers available.
  • In research interviews with various types of visitors, many people said that they wouldn’t be interested in watching a long, involved video in a museum context.
  • Animated GIFs, 6-second Vines, and 15-second Instagram videos loom large in our contemporary visual/communication culture.
  • How might we think of the media we produce (videos, images, etc) as a part of an iterative process that we can learn from over time? Can we get comfortable with a lower quality but higher number of videos going out to the public, and seeing what sticks (through likes, comments, viewcount, etc)?

 

A screenshot from YouTube Analytics showing most popular videos: Contour Crafting, Folding Bicycle, Puss in Boots Pop-up book, et cetera

Our most popular YouTube videos for this quarter. They are all somewhat mesmerizing/cabinet-of-curiosity type things.

Here are some of the constraints on the project:

  • No budget (pairs nicely with the preceding bullet).
  • Moving collections objects is a conservation no-no. Every human touch, vibration and rub is bad for the long-long-longevity of the object (and not to mention the peace of mind of our conservators).
  • Conservators’ and curators’ time is in HIGH demand, especially as we get closer to our re-opening. They are busy writing new books, crafting wall labels, preparing gallery displays, etc. Finding a few hours to pull an object from storage and move it around on camera is a big challenge.

So, nerd world, what do you think?

Three adventures: shadowing a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (3/3)

This is the third in a series of three “adventures in universal design,” a design research experiment carried out by Rachel Sakai and Katie Shelly. For an introduction to the project, see our earlier post, here.

SHADOWING:
OBSERVE LINDA & DAVE AS THEY VISIT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
AUGUST 22 2013

On the Science Sense tour, we met a wonderfully friendly and warm husband and wife duo named Linda & Dave. We asked if they’d be interested in volunteering for some more research by allowing us to shadow them at any museum they chose.

They agreed, and a week later, off we went. Linda is blind and Dave is sighted. They love museums, and they have visited many around the world, together.

 

Linda & Dave stand in front of the museum, Dave has his arm around Linda. It is a sunny summer day and the entrance is full of people. They are smiling and Dave is wearing a red flowered shirt.

Linda & Dave in front of the Met Museum

Here’s a play-by-play of their visit:

-As we entered the crowded lobby, I noticed that Dave firmly placed his hand near the back of Linda’s neck to guide her—it was so crowded and loud, he had to use firm physical contact to help her navigate the security bag check and chaotic lobby. Linda also used her rolling cane in her left hand.

-Once we got inside, the first thing they did was go to the information desk and ask how to find the exhibition they wanted to see—Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan. The desk person indicated the location on a paper map. L & D didn’t use the map; instead they listened and remembered the attendant’s verbal instructions (left at the arch, elevator to floor 3, make a left, etc).

-Linda carried a paper flyer in her purse with a list of special exhibitions on it, and she brought it out when talking to the attendant, saying “yes, we want to see the one on this list.” Interesting that though she herself could not see what was on the paper, she knew what it said (ostensibly because Dave had told her earlier) and she kept it in her hand, so she could use it later when conversing with others.

-On the way to the elevator, we walked past a table with audioguides, L&D did not notice it.

-At the top of the elevator, we saw an Information Desk with an attendant. Dave expressed excitement that they have Info Desks throughout the Met, saying “before they had these things, I would just wander around this place getting lost!”

-L&D approached the satellite info desk, and asked about the acoustiguide— does it include the Japanese Brush Writing exhibition? The attendant explained that the audioguide covers the whole museum. Audioguides are not being given out from this desk, though. L&D did not get an audioguide.

-We walk down a hall full of artifacts toward the Japanese Brush Writing show. Dave went into “concise tour guide mode” just to give Linda a sense of the scenery, simply naming a few of the objects we went past: “Perfume bottles.” “Ceramic horses.”

-We found our destination: a dimly lit gallery. Linda asked, “is it all paintings?” And Dave explained that no, the gallery had a combination of statues, ceramics, and scrolls. They were pleased that there was a variety of objects and it wasn’t all flat work.

-L&D approached the standing warrior statue at the entrance of the show. Dave began with a visual description of the statue— materials, colors, posture. When talking about the statue’s long earlobes, he lightly tugged Linda’s earlobes. When talking about the statue’s tufty hair, he lightly touched the crown of Linda’s head— anything to make the experience more than just standing and listening. After his thorough description, he read the object label aloud.

-They were very methodical. This is what they did in front of each object they looked at:

1) Dave gave a purely visual description. Colors, size, subject matter, mood.

2) Maybe a few clarifying questions from Linda (“Are the lines roundish or squarish?” “Are the lines harsh?” “Are the people done finely?”)

3) Dave read the object label aloud, sometimes omitting a bit of info, sometimes reading it all right down to the donor details.

4) A bit of back-and-forth, sharing their reactions to the piece, making a connection to prior knowledge or experiences, or simply expressing how pretty and/or interesting they find it.

Dave & Linda standing with their backs to us, facing a beige and black painting.. Dave has Linda's hand in his, and is holding it outstretched.

In front of this artwork, Dave guided Linda’s hand through the air to help explain the size and composition. (It looks a bit like she is touching the artwork because of the angle of this photo, but we assure you that she is not).

-Dave often would take Linda’s hand in his, hold it outstretched, and wave it around to delineate shapes and spatial relationships (“there are mountains here, and a waterfall right here…”)

-A few of the Buddha statues were doing mudras with their hands. Dave would put Linda’s arms and hands into the same position, mimicking the statue. Sometimes he’d join her in the pose, so they’d both be frozen, holding the pose for a moment of contemplation. (Extremely adorable.) I don’t think many sighted visitors would think to do this, but it looked like they were having fun, and perhaps gave them a bit of “somatic insight” into how that statue might be feeling.

-As Linda got more details about the piece in front of her, she would exclaim surprise, “oh!” “oo-ooh!” As if she was building an image in her imagination, and each new bit of info from Dave was like an exciting clue in an unsolved mystery.

Dave and Linda are facing each other, standing a few feet in front of a Buddha statue. Dave is looking at the statue, and hoding Linta's arms. Linda is facing Dave and holding the pose.

Dave puts Linda’s arms into the same position as the statue.

-I noticed that sometimes Linda would touch the glass in front of an object. Just to get some sense of space and anchoring, I’d guess.

-About halfway through the exhibition, Dave took a break to sit down on a bench. Linda, Rachel and I took the chance to chat a bit. Linda commented that she would like to get a sense of scale and mood upon entering a museum. A sighted visitor gets a whole bunch of scene-setting information right upon entering with a sweep of the eye, and can choose what piece they want to check out. For her, however, she’s generally subject to Dave’s decisions about what to look at when they tour an exhibition. She said that she doesn’t mind this, because she likes Dave’s taste, but it is a consideration for any blind visitor.

-From Dave’s perspective, it’s a lot of talking and mental work. He seemed to be a bit worn out at times when reading aloud those long object labels. No wonder he needed a break!

-Linda also mentioned that they like to go to the gift shop, and that sometimes there are statuettes or replicas of things in the exhibition that you can touch, so that’s a good blind person’s “hack.”

Linda stands in front of three shelves full of smallish, about one foot tall statues and figurines. She is touching one of the statues.

Hacking the museum: the gift shop is a good place to find touchable replicas of objects in the collection.

-As we moved on, we neared a fountain. Right away, Linda heard the water trickling and said, “I hear a fountain!” Dave started to describe the fountain, which, as it turned out, is kinda hard to describe in words. There were some children seated on the wooden platform beside the fountain. Linda asked if she could sit down on the platform, which is somewhat bench-like, but sort of ambiguous-looking as to whether you can sit there or not. We said, sure, go for it. One thing led to another.. and soon Linda was feeling the white stones, and then the fountain itself. There was no guard in the area, just a few fellow patrons who seemed touched and tickled, as were we, watching Linda light up as she discovered the different textures and shapes. “Ooooh!” “Ahhh!” “Wowww!!” She was so, so into it. Just totally beaming. Finally, something to touch! Dave turned to us with a wink, and said “See what a difference tactile makes?”

A darkly colored, slick slab of basalt perfectly centered in a rectangular bed of round white stones. The basalt slab has some smooth planes and some rough planes, and a well of water in the top. Water is running down all sides of the slab.

The Water Stone, a basalt fountain by Isamu Noguchi. Photo by Flickr user wallyg

-Our last stop was a Japanese Reading Room, where the museum has tea ceremonies and other social events. The room has some Japanese-style floral arrangements, and beautiful wooden furniture by George Nakashima. Linda gave herself a thorough tour of the furniture, feeling the curves, bends, and joints in the massive walnut table and matching chairs. since it was definitely OK to touch. It was really the only moment when Linda could be independent in the museum.

A room with wood-paneled walls and a large raw-edge, round wooden table in the center. Linda is standing, stooped at the far end of the table, with one hand on the table surface and the other hand on her rolling cane.

Linda giving herself a tactile tour of the Japanese Reading Room furniture at the Met.

Takeaways

– Linda & Dave had carbon-copy experiences. Many people enjoy visiting a museum with a partner and staying side-by-side the whole time. Sometimes, though, you don’t want to visit in that way. Personally, when I’m in a museum, I tend to break off from the group and explore on my own. How might we allow blind visitors to have the option for an independent experience?

– Sighted visitors can easily get a sweep of the room immediately upon entering. What looks interesting in this gallery? What’s the mood? Where do I want to go first? How might we afford blind visitors a “sweep of the room” upon entering?

– Linda pointed this out to us during the tour: neutral description > coded description. A neutral (and blind-friendly) description would be, “on the left there is a small, simple building with a thatched roof and open balcony on all sides.” A coded (and blind-unfriendly) description would be “on the left there is a small building, looks like early Japanese architecture.” Get the difference? A neutral description uses transparent language that requires a minimum amount of previous knowledge. A coded description requires some prior education or knowledge to understand it.

Tactile makes a huge difference. Tactile moments were highlights of the tour: Dave tapping Linda on the head while describing a warrior’s messy hairdo, Dave sweeping her hand around to convey space, folding her hands into a Buddhist mudra, Linda tapping the glass in front of her for a spatial anchor, detailedly exploring the furniture in the Reading Room and a covert tickling of the Noguchi fountain. I’d argue that if these literal “touchpoints” were formally afforded to all visitors, all visitors’ experiences would be enhanced, not just experiences of the blind and partially sighted.

Quietness of the gallery was on our side. The gallery was small, only had a few people in it, and was carpeted. Dave and Linda could hear each other without straining their voices or their ears. This made the experience very tranquil and pleasant. Imagine how different their visit would have felt in a noisier, more echoy gallery.

We didn’t observe much active use of sound. L&D didn’t have audioguides, and there was no music or anything like that in the galleries. Linda mentioned various fountains in different museums that she liked. As a sighted person, I have to admit that fountains are not usually a highlight for me, but I think for Linda, because it’s something she can experience directly, they are often a highlight. What if museums with fountains (or any acoustically cool architectural feature) encouraged all visitors to close their eyes and really listen?

We didn’t observe any use of tech. L&D kept this visit analog. Wonder how the visit might have been better/worse/the same with some type of technological aid? How to design such technology to support and enhance rather than distract and annoy?

Linda, Rachel and Katie smiling inside a contemporary Asian art gallery at the Met museum. There is a very unusual sculpture in the background of a real deer, taxidermied and covered in glass orbs of variable sizes, as if it had been dunked in an oversized glass of club soda, and all the bubbles were sticking to its sides.

Linda, Rachel and Katie at the Met. We had a good time!

 

Three adventures: the Science Sense tour at American Museum of Natural History (2/3)

This is the second in a series of three “adventures in universal design,” a design research experiment carried out by Rachel Sakai and Katie Shelly. For an introduction to the project, see our earlier post, here.

The entrance to the American Museum of Natural History. Clear blue sky, pedestrians walking up the stairs, banners hanging on the facade, and taxicabs in the foreground. Architecture is stately, four tall columns and ornate inscriptions and statues near the roofline.

The American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Flickr user vagueonthehow.

COMPETITIVE PRODUCT SURVEY:
SCIENCE SENSE TOUR AT AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
AUGUST 15 2013

About once a month, AMNH offers a special tour for the blind, a program called Science Sense. Many museums in New York City have similar monthly tours for the blind. (The Jewish Museum’s Touch Tours, The Whitney Museum’s Touch Tours, MoMA’s Art inSight, the Met Museum’s Picture This! Workshop, and many more).

We chose to go on Science Sense because it worked with our schedule. Our tour was in the iconic Hall of North American Mammals.

Screenshot of the AMNH site. The page reads: Science Sense Tours  Visitors who are blind or partially sighted are invited to attend this program, held monthly in the Museum galleries. Specially trained Museum tour guides highlight specific themes and exhibition halls, engaging participants through extensive verbal descriptions and touchable objects.  Science Sense is free with Museum admission.  Thursday, August 15th, 2:30 PM North American Mammals Discover the dioramas in the stunningly restored Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, which offers a snapshot of North America’s rich environmental heritage.

The AMNH website’s info page about access for the blind and partially sighted

Here are some highlights and observations from our tour:

– We gathered in the lobby of the planetarium. The tour’s organizer, Jess, explained that the tour meets in the planetarium entrance and not the main NMAH entrance because it is a more accessible entrance. (Ramp, no stairs, large doorways with push-button opening, etc)

– It was a summer Thursday at 2:30, so we were a small group. Many of our fellow tour-goers appeared to be about retirement-age, which makes sense given the time of day. There was one teenaged boy, who was with his mom who has partial vision.

– The group had a chatty and friendly vibe. About 10 guests total. People were chatting with each other and having getting-to-know-you type conversations during our walk to the Hall of Mammals.

– Only 2 out of the 10 attendees appeared to be blind or low-vision. Each of the blind/low-vision guests had a sighted companion with them. The other 6 attendees appeared to be fully sighted.

– Irene, our tour guide, wore a small amplifier around her waist and a head-mounted microphone (something like this). The hall wasn’t terribly loud, but the amplifier made for more comfortable listening (and probably more comfortable speaking, too).

In a very dimly lit gallery, Irene stands with a group of attentively listening museumgoers on her left, and a brighly lit diorama of taxidemy bison on her right. She wears a blue employee badge and microphone headset.

Our guide Irene describing the bison diorama for the group.

– Once we arrived in the darkened Hall, Irene began our tour the same way most tours begin: an explanation of historical context. (When and why the dioramas were originally created, when and why they were restored… etc.)

– Irene described the first diorama thoroughly, element by element. (Backdrop, foreground elements, taxidermy animals.) One guest asked about how big the diorama is. Good question. Irene suggested that a second guide take the blind guests for a walk from one edge of the diorama to the other to get a sense of scale. This was a suggestion I wouldn’t have thought of; seems more fun than just stating a measurement.

Irene is holding an approximately two foot by one foot swatch of bison fur in both hands, grinning as she holds it out for others to feel.

Irene delights in sharing the touch sample (bison fur) with the group.

– Irene had a number of touch samples on a rolling cart. Some plastic animal skulls and a sample swatch of bison fur. At the end of our time in front of the bison diorama, she gave everyone a chance to feel the musky, matted fur.

– Naturally, as Irene was explaining the diorama and the touch samples were sitting behind her on the cart, many other visitors to the Hall (not part of the tour) took the opportunity to touch the fun stuff as it sat unattended on the cart.

– We went around to four more stunning dioramas, where Irene and a second guide (who was in training) took turns describing and contextualizing the displays.

– I noticed that sometimes the sighted companion of one of the attendees would quietly add on his own description to what the tour guide was saying. Once I saw him lift his blind partner’s arm, and sweep it through the space to explain where different objects in the diorama were positioned. (We would later chat with these folks, Linda & Dave, who ended up going on a trip with us to the Met, which we’ll talk about in the next section.)

Takeaways:

– Rachel & I both happen to be big radio/podcast listeners. During the tour, I realized that a blind person’s experience is a lot like listening to radio. They are relying only on the guide’s words to “see” what’s there.

What if museum tour guides were trained to think and speak like radio hosts? What if each stop on the tour opened with a detailed, theatrically delivered, visual description? Listening to a luscious, mood-setting, masterfully crafted description of anything on display— be it a Bison diorama or a Dyson Vacuum Cleaner or a Van Gogh painting would be a delight for sighted and blind visitors alike.

A photo of Ira Glass smiling and looking into the distance. There is a microphone in front of him.

What if your tour guide could describe works as viscerally and virtuosically as Ira Glass could?

-There was some confusion about the basic size and shape of the dioramas. What if there was a tiny model of each diorama that visitors could feel? Blind visitors could understand scale and shape right away, and sighted visitors might enjoy a touchable model, too. Imagine touchable mini-models of paintings, sculptures, and other museum stuff, too.

Check out our third and last adventure in universal design research, observing a blind person’s museum visit.

Three adventures in universal design, or, what does a veggie peeler have in common with a museum? (0/3)

A hand shown holding a black, rubberized OXO veggie peeler against a crisp white backdrop.

Though designed specifically for the arthritic, this product “appeals” to everyone.

“The way to think about ‘everybody’ is not to think about the average person in the middle, but to think about the extremes. Think about people at the edges of your potential buying public and think about people who are most challenged.”
[Dan Formosa interviewed by Debbie Millman in Brand Thinking]

If you hang out at a design museum long enough, you start to pick up on certain recurring concepts. One good recurring concept has to do with a thing called universal design:

The term “universal design” was coined by the architect Ronald L. Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.
[Wikipedia]

So what’s the lesson behind universal design? Pretend you’re a bossman trying to cut costs wherever possible. For you, universal design might seem like a non-critical endeavor. Sure, it would be nice for the disabled and the elderly to have easy access to all aspects of your [insert product being designed here], but you don’t have room in the budget for anything elaborate. “We’ll tackle accessibility if we have leftover funds at the end of the project,” you’d say. Or “after we design the bulk of our [widget], then we’ll start work on the accessibility stuff because it’s required by law.”

If you were to study your design history, however, you’d realize that this view could limit your opportunities for innovation and crowd-pleasing design.

A sign in the foreground reads "This ramp and fishing platform meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and may be used by anyone. Please respect the desire of people with disabilities to fish on the fishing platform. In the background is a lake surrounded by trees.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required organizations and institutions to make buildings, public transportation, signage, and more accessible to everyone. Image by USFWS Pacific.

The amazing truth of universal design is that when a design team focuses on “edge users,” or “extreme users,” it very often leads to unexpected insights, which can then lead to innovative features that benefit all users. When you design for the edges, everybody benefits.

The OXO Good Grips line is one of the most commonly cited examples of this phenomenon. The Smart Design team sat down to design a line of veggie peelers, can openers and scissors for people with arthritis and limited hand mobility. After the chunky, ergonomically superior new products hit the market, they became a huge mainstream success.

A group of five people riding motorized segway scooters riding single-file down the sidewalk curb cut and into the crosswalk. Washington DC in wintertime. They are wearing winter coats and helmets.

Segway scooter riders enjoy the benefits of curb cut sidewalks. Photo by Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

Another example are Selwyn Goldsmith‘s “curb cuts.” The mini-ramps we see now on most city street corners were designed primarily with wheelchair users in mind. After they were implemented, it became obvious that this ergonomic consideration benefitted not only wheelchair users, but also luggage-toters, stroller-pushers, stiletto-wearers, cyclists and anybody who enjoys a bit of added ease and comfort in getting around.

With all this in mind, our summer intern (psst—applications for next year are open!Rachel Sakai and I set out to do some research. We have a very small part in the über-mega-process that is the Cooper Hewitt gallery re-design, and we wanted to take on a summer project that could enrich that work.

We decided to focus in on a blind person’s museum experience. How might an understanding of a blind visitor’s experience inform and enhance the design decisions being made in our re-design project?

We chose to embrace a mindset of Human Centered Design. (Note that Human Centered Design is not the same thing as universal design). I’ve helped to create lots of Museum content—videos, exhibitions, books—on the topic of Human Centered Design. After so much experience intellectualizing about the technique, I was pretty eager to find a way to try it myself.

Human-Centered Design (HCD) is a process and a set of techniques used to create new solutions for the world….The reason this process is called “human-centered” is because it starts with the people we are designing for. The HCD process begins by examining the needs, dreams, and behaviors of the people we want to affect with our solutions.
[From IDEO’s HCD ToolKit]

front and back of 3 different method cards. Each card explains a different HCD research method. The front of each card has a full-bleed photo, the back has the name of the method and a short paragraph describing it.

Our 3 chosen IDEO method cards: Empathy Tools, Competitive Product Survey, and Shadowing

We borrowed a set of IDEO method cards from Cara and chose three that served our goal to better understand the blind museum visitor’s experience. In the next three posts, we’ll explain how we applied the methods of Empathy tools, Competitive Product Survey, and Shadowing:

1. Empathy Tools: Go on a blindfolded museum visit.

2. Competitive Product Survey: Take a museum tour designed for the blind.

3. Shadowing: Observe a blind person’s museum visit.