An Eye-opening Experience - Built Environment for the Blind and Visually Impaired

INTERN STUDY | Over the course of my internship at Design Collaborative, I researched design for the blind and visually impaired and how to make buildings more accessible to this population. A lot of my inspiration came from a blind YouTuber named Molly Burke. In some of her videos, she talks about the challenges of being blind and design interventions that make it easier for her to navigate through spaces. After watching this video, I thought about how architects can improve people’s worlds by making the built environment more accessible to those who have a very different experience.


In my research, I found that much of the built environment is designed for sighted people. A sighted person predominately relies on sight as a navigational tool. When you take sight away from someone, other senses become more important.
Wayfinding is an important tool to help people navigate the built environment. The top three wayfinding strategies are visual, auditory, and tactile. Visual wayfinding may sound counter intuitive when we are speaking about those with visual impairments. However, it is important to note that individual visual impairments are different; some people can make out forms and shapes, while others rely on light and shadow outlines.


Photo by: Audio Wayfinding Technology

With visual wayfinding, light reflectance value is a key factor that architects can account for during design. Light reflectance value is a measure of the percentage of visible and usable light that is reflected from a surface when illuminated by a light source. It is important to know these values, so that during the design process, architects can make sure there is enough of a contrast between changing elements. It is recommended to have a difference of at least 30 points to ensure detectability (SATRA Technology, 2019). Even if architects use different colors to represent different elements, it is necessary to know the LRV of the color options. If the colors are too similar, they could become undetectable to those who rely on the reflections of materials to understand a space.


Photo by: Brianna Minnich

Audio wayfinding is one of the most important wayfinding tools for people who are visually impaired. Active and passive echolocation are the two different echolocation styles used when navigating by sound. Active echolocation is when the user is generating a sound and listening for the reverberations to gain information about the space. Passive echolocation is where the user is navigating and picks up on different audio cues that are prevalent in the space. Imagine you are walking down a hallway; the sounds are muffled in the ear closest to the wall. However, when you walk by a door or a connecting hallway, the sounds in that ear are no longer muffled. This is an example of how a person who is visually impaired would navigate using passive echolocation. The footsteps of people around you are another good example of passive echolocation.


Photo by: Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Flooring is an essential piece of designing for the visually impaired; it is used to convey useful information such as describing a space and its different uses. Intentional flooring design is a way architects can control how spaces are interpreted and make the spaces easier to navigate. An example of this idea is making the route to an emergency exit one type of flooring. By using a consistent flooring type for the route to an emergency exit, the designer creates a connection between a certain type of flooring and the emergency exit. In an emergency, this design decision makes it easy for people who are visually impaired to exit the building safely. This design decision does not just help the visually impaired; sighted people would make the same association. Spaces off the main walkway could be indicated by a different flooring material. These design decisions create an association between a specific flooring type and a type of space which supports wayfinding and mental mapping.


With the rise and accessibility of technology, wayfinding apps are becoming popular among the visually impaired. These apps can do anything from read signs and help people navigate indoors and outdoors. In certain apps, business owners can input a detailed description of how to navigate their building and the app relays it as audio to guide people through different spaces. This knowledge helps alleviate some of the stress of navigating a new place by giving people easy access to important information about the space.


It is essential for designers to understand tactile ways of navigating. When someone thinks of tactile navigation, braille is often the first option that comes to mind. An important thing to remember when using braille is the user must know where the braille is located and be able to read it. The use of braille has decreased in recent years because of the advancement of technology and because many visually impaired individuals do not know how to read it. Considering that COVID-19 is making designers rethink the tactility of buildings, braille may become more obsolete than ever. If building owners are willing to make their facilities navigable by an app, they would help make spaces more accessible. The tactility of buildings is important for sighted people as well. Different wall types can start to define spaces and become recognizable nodes in buildings. If there is a unique wall type in a space, it can start to allow spatial awareness and mental mapping to occur.


Overall, this research project is about making the built environment more accessible to everyone. If we kept these wayfinding principals in mind while designing, then we would improve people's worlds one subtle design decision at a time.

Brianna Minnich
Architectural Intern