Sensory Design

In an important address at the American Institute of Architects 2014 convention in Chicago, Bauman, Nichols, and Rubin discussed “sensory design”—in short, creating spaces where people feel comfortable regardless of their sensory capabilities.  Bauman was part of the team that developed the DEAFSPACE design criteria discussed here

The recommendations provided by this team for the design of spaces where deaf people are comfortable and can communicate effectively would be useful additions to universal design guidelines, in general, because they can improve the experiences of a variety of people in designed spaces:

  • Although natural light is great for lifting moods, etc., in spaces deaf individuals use, light streaming into a space through windows can lead to glare or backlighting that make it difficult to read lips or signs.  Skylights also let in natural light, but since they’re overhead, it’s much less likely that sunlight that flows through them will make communication difficult.  Clerestory windows can also be useful in places to be used by deaf people, for similar reasons.  Opaque, instead of clear, glass in any window/skylight also make it less likely that natural light will generate stress for the deaf.
  • Wall colors should be selected so that the actions of people using sign language are easy to see when signers are standing in front of them.  Sometimes the actions of White people are difficult to see against a wall painted white, for example.  People selecting wall colors should consider how the appearance of the color will change when it is sunlit, at night, etc.
  • Plain backgrounds (e.g., wall papers) are better choices than complex ones;  when they’re used it’s easier to pick out sign language messages.
  • It’s useful to place glass panels in doors; they make it easier for a deaf individual to determine if they should be aware that a door will begin to open soon, for example.  In cases where privacy is required, for example in bathrooms, opaque glass can be used in these panels instead of clear glass.
  • Chairs should be able to pivot so that deaf individuals can shift their orientation while seated to see the faces and signing of everyone in a room. 
  • People signing stand further apart than people speaking to each other.  To smooth communication, 6.5 feet wide corridors are recommended in more private spaces, such as dormitories, while 10 foot wide walkways are suggested in more public places.
  • Changes in textures underfoot and colors on walls alert deaf people to watch for some other change in the environment they’re traveling through, such as an upcoming corner, stairs, etc.  Textures used should not confound the use of canes by the blind.
  • People who are deaf are particularly concerned about sitting with their back to other people in a space or to a walkway.  Seats in areas to be used by deaf people should be configured to make this unlikely.
  • People who are deaf prefer to communicate when face-to-face as opposed to when side-by-side; seating arrangements should facilitate face-to-face conversations.

Bauman, Nichols, and Rubin advocate that people be sensitive to “non-standard” ways of experiencing design.  They equate sensory design with empathetic design, which has clear benefits for human welfare.

Hansel Bauman, Robert Nichols, and Philip Rubin. 2014.  “DEAFSPACE:  Repositioning Architectural Practice Through Sensory Design, Culture, and Community.” AIA Convention 2014.  June 26-28, Chicago, IL.