Designing for Access

Designing for Access

Designing for Access

Nina Drakalovic and Rebecca Lourey |

When a design festival publishes a theme and invites contributions the simple option for participants is to look at what they have done, and talk about that. The more challenging route is to take that theme and attempt something new, to look forward rather than backwards. Digital agency ustwo decided to take the theme of this year’s Sydney Design Festival as a springboard to look forward and be challenged by addressing the needs of some extreme users.

Sydney Design Festival

The Sydney Design festival has been running for over 20 years and is a platform that gives audiences the opportunity to explore and understand the processes that goes on within the design industry. It aims to make design accessible and engaging to new audiences, showcasing the works of both emerging and established designers, tackling design challenges and the future of design, be inclusive, representative and cross-disciplinary, championing process, experimentation and exploring the in-between and collaborative nature of design.

Accessing Design

2019’s theme ‘Accessing Design’ aims to give a voice to the many diverse communities within Sydney, asking designers to broaden their definitions of design and to expand the dialogue between creative practice, access and inclusivity. Accessing Design looks at various concerns including geography, race, gender, and socioeconomic issues. Accessing Design asks the design community to question and contemplate their creative practice:

  • Who are they designing for and how can audiences access this?
  • What is the role of design in creating a more accessible world? How can we all be more open and inclusive with our approach to design?


Founded in London in 2004 by two best friends ‘Mills’ and ‘Sinx’ based on the culture of family and company a.k.a. ‘fampany’ as well as a sense of community and just being real. ustwo is widely recognised as a leading design, technology, games, and venture company and has progressively evolved into a company that does more meaningful work. As a team, they are aligned, and on a path, to make a bigger impact on the world than they’ve ever seen and done before.


Wayfindr is an award-winning social tech non-profit creating a benchmark for digital way finding on mobile devices. They want to empower vision impaired people to overcome isolation through audio-based navigation. Formed in 2015 and based in London, they created the world’s first internationally-approved standard for accessible audio navigation.

When the Sydney office of digital agency ustwo got hold of the theme of the 2019 Sydney Design Festival (SDF) they did what any good design firm would do, they essentially tore it to shreds. During a brainstorming session they unpacked the theme – Accessing Design (see box). They looked at it in as many different ways as they could imagine and they pulled it apart and put it back together again.

The result of this was a honed brief, one that was about community and inclusive design. In a sense this was not a surprise when you consider ustwo’s history (see box) of inclusive digital design. The next step was to push it to the extreme (user). As Rebecca Lourey said in the Festival presentation “Every design decision that we make has the potential to include or exclude its users. It’s our responsibility as designers to create products and experiences that are inclusive. Looking to the average does not produce cutting edge innovations. Instead we should be looking to the extremes” She then went on to quote designer and lawyer Elise Roy “…what gets forgotten is that people with disabilities are great examples of extreme users. They experience the world in such a different way. And they’re a gold mine for helping us to think differently.” (Roy also has a hearing impairment.)

ustwo then came up with a number of different ideas that they felt had potential for development. In the end they settled on using their digital strengths to apply community inclusive design to a place—an art gallery. And their extreme user? The vision impaired. The term vision impaired covers a vast range of disabilities from needing reading glasses, to having selective blindness (colour, face, etc) through to being completely visionless, which in turn could be from birth or ‘acquired’ later in life. This range of ‘users’ will have a considerable range of experiences of sight from considerable and contemporary, that is that they can see with limited impairment, right through to minimal and historical, that is, they have had sight in the past but not now, to never having seen at all.

The brief set for the team led by Nina Drakalovic and Rebecca Lourey was: How to make an art gallery more accessible to the blind (people with a severe to complete vision impairment).

As Rebecca says, “… going to an art gallery or a museum is mostly a visual experience. Sure, there are artworks or exhibits that rely on your sense of hearing or sense of touch. But most of the time, it’s stimulating your eyes. What about people, who are vision impaired, where do they sit in all of this? An opportunity space was becoming clearer. How might we improve museum accessibility for people living with vision impairments?”

As any sighted person who visits galleries would know there are frequently tools available that add an audio experience to exhibitions, however, on the whole they assume a sighted viewer. The ustwo team did find that there were options available that offered tactile or audio tours for the visually impaired but very few galleries offered these services and when they did the tours often had to be booked months in advance. Interestingly they found that it was often the smaller galleries that were accommodating of the sight impaired.

With much of art being largely visual ustwo needed to ask some very basic questions; do people with vision impairment go to galleries and museums? Is that something that they regularly participate in? There are two responses to this. The first is that any application developed in an art gallery context is translatable to a number of other contexts such as, for example, history and science museums, or for that matter historical ruins. In fact, during the course of their research they met a woman who had recently had a truly memorable tour of the Colosseum in Rome accompanied by her mother who provided a rich and detailed commentary. Secondly, ustwo research found that the significantly vision impaired do want to go to art galleries and museums, they want the cultural experience as much as their sighted friends. ustwo found that this wasn’t a new issue, that particular problems had previously been identified and solutions proposed. The solutions so far, apparently seem inadequate. Perhaps, they thought, it is only now that the technology capable of providing elegant, practical and adaptable solutions is finally available.

The challenges posed by the brief can be broken down into two parts. The first is one of autonomy. Research indicated a common desire among the vison impaired to be able to visit art galleries and museums on their own if they chose and not be dependent on a guide. As it happens ustwo have some experience with this problem, they developed Wayfindr (see box) an audio wayfinding tech for public transport systems, such as the London Underground. However, galleries bring significant problems to such tech with changing arrangements of rooms which in turn may vary in size and shape. Open spaces with irregularly arranged and fragile items like sculptures are challenging environments for which to create instructions that allow for sufficiently non-restricted freedom of movement.

The other challenge is how do you render the visual experience into a form that is not visual, using some of the other senses, in a way that is meaningful and as rich an experience as the original? The obvious contenders are touch, smell and sound. Touch might be possible for some sculpture—the more robust ones—but for most artworks or exhibits not really an option. (Museums do sometimes create deliberately tactile exhibits for everyone to interact with, however, ustwo wanted to look beyond these kinds of works.)

Leaving aside any issues to do with the chemicals that produce aromas and their impact on artworks for a moment, the tech exists to release scents quite specifically, in response to proximity to designated objects—we have come a long way from the ‘odorama’ of John Waters’ 1982 film Polyester.

Sound on the other hand allows for the creation of aural works that relate to individual works and can be triggered as people approach. Obviously sight impaired people do not necessarily need to be standing in front of artworks to experience them non-visually in the same way that sighted people need to in order to see the works.

Questions remain, of course, how do you interpret colour using other non-visual means in a way that has broadly consistent interpretation? For example, what does the colour red sound like? Does the interpretation actually need to be broadly consistent at all? And as the artists who created the original works will more than likely not be involved in the reinterpretation of their work, does this reinterpretation become a new work in itself?

The core of the tech behind such work, ustwo being who they are, would be beacons that trigger responses in an app on a hand-held device. (A somewhat primitive version of this can be seen in the wifi driven app ‘The O’ at MONA.) The range of tech available and that could contribute to creating experiences is considerable and often quite affordable. However, even in these early stages it has become apparent that not everything will (need to) be solved by digital tech.

By the time of the presentation on the 7th of March 2019. The project had been running for two weeks. In addition to the research ustwo had developed very short sound-based prototype, which, though only a few seconds long already hinted at the potential of the project. There is a huge amount more work to do, of course. They need to test and co-develop with more people and are actively looking for participants with vision impairments to work with them.

This project is not about creating one product. As Rebecca says, ‘I don’t want anyone to confuse inclusive design with the creation of a one­size­fits­all product. Inclusive design means considering ways in which diverse products and tools can open up opportunities for everyone to participate in an experience. We’re not saying that this product is going to magically make all galleries and museums spaces inclusive. … We also really need to consider conflicting disabilities. How might we make this product something that someone, say, who is vision impaired but also hearing impaired, be able to enjoy?’

ustwo are acutely aware of other constraints too, like money. How might they make this product something that’s accessible to smaller galleries that don’t necessarily have the funding to commission, for example, soundscapes from a sound designer.

They are also aware of their current limitations. Rebecca again, ‘We’re experts in product. But we are not experts in this problem space. And that’s why we want to continue this conversation with anyone and everyone who is interested. If you work in the arts, we want to hear from you. Our current vision for this product is a tool for curators and artists to open up a dialogue to see ways in which their work can be translated into sound or a tactile experience, in order to be accessed by a greater audience.’

It is worth remembering, thoughtful and clever design of products for the extreme user frequently result in products that enhance us all.