The Senses—Design Beyond Vision

Merit Award 2020
Finalist 2019

Museums are places for community education, yet they are seldom accessible to everyone nor equitable in their presentation of content. Acknowledging the unfortunate truth that visually impaired people struggle to enjoy museum experiences, “Senses: Design Beyond Vision” invited visitors of all abilities to actively engage in the exhibition in ways surpassing conventional “universal design” considerations. In collaboration with 65 contemporary designers, the design objective was to find innovative, artistic and technologically advanced ideas to create an environment and experience that welcomed visitors to encounter design through all of their senses. The exhibition featured direct sensory moments and displayed practical, inventive and exploratory objects to touch, hear, see and smell through several interactive installations. Some designs on display included: a touch-activated musical fur-lined wall, chairs that vibrated in response to audio clues, a food scent-diffusing “clock” that signaled mealtimes to people without sight or hearing, and color-changing lights that responded to room population density.

Given the historic building fabric and its fragile finishes, the museum required the 10,000 square foot installation to maintain structural independence from the envelope—a challenge that was solved through the use of undulating steel screens made with richly colored vinyl threads from Bolon. Designers were impressed by Bolon’s color range and the fact that each thread yard is comprised of two colors. The material itself is inexpensive, a significant factor in providing an economical temporary installation with an overall $100K budget. The screens were either woven for more transparency between areas or hung for more privacy between visitor and object onto black steel frames.

Offering both visual and tactile stimuli, these screens evoked “moods” by oscillating between cooler, low-frequency colors and warmer, high-frequency colors that seamlessly blended into different gradients. They served as both backdrops to the objects and definers of spaces, allowing different aesthetics to occupy the same installation while pragmatically solving issues of sound and aroma bleed and requirements for varied lighting levels. 

The modes of display considered how visitors would interact with the works both individually and in groups. Visitors were encouraged to smell, feel and listen to highly distinct and original manifestations of design to better understand the complexity of our world, beyond vision. While some exhibition pieces were secured under vitrines, the majority were experienced through multiple senses and required custom means of installation, security, and contamination prevention. As awareness on accessibility was the show’s intent, a cohesive braille overlay on museum labels provided simultaneous information for all. Labels remained at a static height, tilted for custom accessibility throughout all areas.

A complimentary smartphone app connected visitors to full-length visual and aural materials and T-coil–enabled devices provided audio descriptions of video content. The use of scent and vibration became an attraction for those with hearing impairments. The ability to understand music in varied ways coupled with other presentation techniques were of particular interest to this segment of visitors. 

A large number of museum professionals visited the show. They were specifically interested in how we met the challenges of making meaningful displays that use tactile presentations. Also, there were numerous visits by groups of blind persons and those with low visibility. The use of braille in conjunction with the labeling in a consistent way made this show an excellent example of how to work with their population.

The show’s success was measured in that it effectively breaks the barrier of sight, signaling to all that there is a broader sensory environment and as such sets an example for other museums, and that visitors felt a greater appreciation for how design can provide alternative means of understanding through a multi-sensory process.

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Jury Comments: 

"Love the subject matter, content, and how the designers created a laboratory for exploring with a light touch with the use of threads, playing on the idea of vision as spaces overlap through translucency. "

"A sensitive solution has been found for the exhibition’s subject of inclusive design—exhibition premises integrate into the spatial structures in open, interactive and communicative ways."

Design Firms: 

Studio Joseph

Client: 

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Project Area: 

8,000 sq ft

Open Date: 

April 2018

Project Budget: 

$100,000

Photo Credits: 

Thomas Loof (photography)

Design Team: 

Monica Coghlan (associate for design); José Luís Vidalon (associate project manager); Ellen Wong (lead designer); Sam Weston, Derek Lee, Emma Chen (designers)

Consultants: 

David Genco (graphic design)

Fabricators: 

Capitol Museum Services

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