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Visible Touch

A lot of universal design feels more like a tacked-on concession to special interest groups than an intrinsic element in the design process. Now let’s suppose we flip that around. 


We’ve all seen Braille labels ineptly screwed to walls as an afterthought, with no sensitivity to the overall environment. Naturally, whenever Braille is incorporated into a design, readability for those who need it is fundamental. But if it is treated as a separate accessibility measure by a team knowledgeable in disability but not design (rather common), often the perceptions of the sighted can be overlooked.

The irony is that this in itself undermines universal design. Anything so clunky that it is off-putting to anyone who has an alternative by default becomes a special-needs product—–and a stigmatizing one at that. If the aspiration is truly universal design, Braille would become part of everyone’s experience, not just that of the people who read it. What if the decorative texture of Braille were designed with sighted people in mind as well, even if it remained illegible and abstract to them?

However counterintuitive this might sound, we need designers to explore new visual languages that might involve Braille: new ways of combining Braille with visible text or lending Braille a decorative quality. Suppose we reverse the traditional process of conceiving a space, a building, or an object and center it on Braille for a change, and then work out how to apply visible text to fit in. Braille might suddenly proliferate and be celebrated, rather than be kept at a grudging minimum in order to satisfy mandated accessibility legislation.

The seeds of exciting, radical new approaches are already being sown in cutting-edge art, craft, and design: Shelley Fox, professor of fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, has sent out beautiful invitations to her private views only in Braille and Moon writing (another form of embossed writing) for their aesthetic qualities. She has even made a tactile knitted Braille dress.

Ceramics designer Bodo Sperlein makes exquisite bone-china plates with a Braille-like texture of raised dots. His motivation is to intrigue people and to invite them to touch. These plates are not a solution to accessible labeling, but they could inspire us to imagine Braille as so much more than a clumsy add-on.  

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    An Introduction to Universal Design

    Mention universal design and see your companions’ eyes start glazing over. Though formally flashy chairs and posh penthouses may reside at the sexier end of the design world, universal design actually affects us all. So pay attention and prepare to learn something - your less hale days aren’t far off; none of ours is.

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