Design de-sign

I love entering an environment that is so cleverly designed that you feel safe and clearly directed, as if an usher were guiding you. Colours, light and acoustics all play a role in how a foyer or room makes you feel. I am not sure if sighted folk are aware of the subtle influence or whether I have just become more cognisant of these elements as my sight has deteriorated.

Recently I went to an exhibition of the final interior design students at the BHC building in Cape Town. Entering an unfamiliar building is always a bit stressful for me, especially on a bright, sunny day, as my eyes take a while to adjust to the new lighting leaving me totally blind for a few minutes – hence the white cane.

On this day, the well lit entrance eased me into the foyer where I was greeted, not by a butler, but by a wide yellow walkway that immediately surprised me and filled me with joy…. maybe a yellow brick road association. The pathway (if that’s what you call it in an indoor setting) began wide and seemed to gather us up and then, it’s flowing lines swayed us towards the front desk. The colour even continued up the desk creating a sense that it was awaiting our greeting. In theme, it was in fact attended by a very sunny lady welcoming us to enjoy the exhibition. At first I couldn’t work out why I felt so safe in a new space . I love the folk I was with and was celebrating their daughter’s talent (who was named top student the following day….brag, brag), but I don’t think I have ever found an unknown space so low vision friendly. The design of the flooring actually guided us along unconsciously … clever, social engineering. I love it.

This kind of design would be so useful for something like a customer service desk in large retail stores. Many people don’t read actual signs, but look for simple pictorial or visual cues to direct them. I love buildings where the tiles, doors and walls are an indication of where to go. Having only peripheral vision, I am very aware of this, especially in places where there are a lot of people moving in different directions … like auditoriums and bus stations. I feel less stressed when the way to a specific place is marked by the change in tiling or denoted by planter boxes or benches. Airports are my favourite (when they are designed well). Large groups of people form all languages and cultures use non-verbal clues as they find out where to go. I love it when there is a tastefully demarcated corridor from the disembarking shute to the conveyer belts where your luggage gets belched out and then the tiles lead you towards the exit.

There is a particular part of a shopping centre in Cape Town that exhausts me, even on quiet days. The floor is so intricately patterned and the lights so busy, that I detour to avoid it completely. If I was a kid in that space I would play up and have a tantrum from sensory overload. My tolerance for shopping has short-circuited there twice. My family know about it so when we walk past there I just pull down my dark glasses from their almost-permanent perching place on my head, whip out my white cane and hold onto the nearest volunteer tricep until we get to a place where they can see the serenity of the clear line between the floor and the wall.

I know that music and temperature subconsciously affect a person’s behavior, but until recently I had not noticed the impact of the visual cues.

In these modern times I know there are certain standards for buildings being ‘accessible’ for persons with disability. There is wheelchair access, being the most important (cos you have to at least be able to get into the building), but I do think there is a lot more that can be tastefully done for making spaces more friendly for low vision folk. This would also include seniors and those with mental challenges who also like to get around as independently as possible.

I really appreciate thoughtfully decorated public spaces that keep people moving in the right direction or waiting patiently with the least possible stress.

Well done to the designers who have achieved this. Like the interiors, they are not just pretty facades, but clever subliminal experts.

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