Designing for the visually impaired

Design Studio Architects have recently selected ‘Vista’ as its charity of the year, and thus our most recent blog has been inspired by this.

Currently almost two million UK residents live with sight loss, equating to approximately 1 in 30 people. Disturbingly these figures are set to rise, for example by 2020 the number will rise to 2,250,000 and by 2050 records will double to 4 million. The underlying causes being, an ageing population and an increasing number of obesity and diabetes diagnoses. Despite these high statistics there is little evidence of architectural firms or individuals in the UK specializing in designing for the visually impaired. As a firm we feel it imperative that architects start to focus on these issues, and have thus started evaluating cost effective solutions to meet these growing needs.

If you imagine being blind, perhaps you imagine total darkness. But for a large majority of people this is not always the case, instead they see varying shades of light and shadowing. Chris Downey, an architect who lost his sight aged 45, considers light a “poetic part of architecture that brings space to life”. Already Downey and a small minority of American architects have started to create large healthcare, transportation and residential schemes focused equivocally on benefiting blind people. Now we need to consider how to make this possible within the UK.

TESTFIGURE 1: Conceptual image of light bright life to a space 

A logical layout is one of the most important aspects of designing a building suited to the needs of visually impaired people, many of whom use their memory to navigate around a building. By keeping the design logical and simple independent navigation can be made significantly easier.  An example of this would be locating toilets near a dining area or main reception area. Additionally it is important for spaces to incorporate as few obstructions as possible but to also ‘break up’ large areas seen as intimidating to people who struggle to see ‘landmarks’ within a space. To solve this difficulty we could make spaces seem more manageable by using partitioning and furniture to establish clear pathways and rectangular areas. Creating tactile pathways can also help people maintain direction, for example, a ‘red carpet’ or ‘yellow brick road’ leading directly to the reception desk is an enormous aid to visually impaired people.


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Figure 2: ‘yellow brick road’ leading to the building’s functions

Lighting is an equally important aspect of designing buildings for people with sight difficulties as they require on average three times the amount of light required by the sighted population.Therefore it is considered beneficial to have brighter lighting at building entrances to enable eye adjustment from the bright outdoors to the artificial indoor lighting. Additionally the quality of lighting is of equal importance to the quantity. It is imperative that general room lighting is evenly distributed, and glare free with all fittings covered by diffusers.  Similarly natural daylight should be diffused so it doesn’t cause direct or indirect glare. Ways in which we could do this include utilizing external awnings, vertical blinds, and window tinting.Alternatively to aid visually impaired people,emphasis on the room’s function, or destination with supplementary lighting such as spot lighting could be utilized. However it must also be remembered that placing light fittings at or below eye level would present a direct glare inhibiting vision.

The use of contrast is also considered important when designing for visually impaired people. Luminance contrast is preferred to colour contrast as it offers light/dark variances that are picked up more easily by people with low vision. In effect this aids people to locate important aspects of a building such as doorways, signs, handrails and most importantly hazards such as edges of steps. Subsequently contrasting textures can also be helpful, with tactile ground surface indicators commonly seen on
the edges of railway platforms.Furthermore when choosing materials for flooring a slip resistant matt is a preferred choice compared to highly reflective surfaces or ‘busy’ colourful floor patterns which disorient people with low vision.

It has been suggested the internal acoustics of a building should be considered when designing for visually impaired people. When negotiating a building, people with low vision gain important information from the environmental sounds around them. For example they are able to orientate themselves by using the sound of their cane as it makes contact with surfaces. Intrusive levels of background noise however can make interaction with others and orientation more difficult. Buildings with sound-reflective surfaces may require sound dampeners like carpets, curtains, and ceiling tiles to reduce noise levels. Care must be taken however, not to completely ‘deaden’ the sound within a building with the over-use of sound dampeners. Therefore buildings should contain a balance between sound-reflecting and sound-absorbing surfaces.

Design Studio Architects intend to spend the next 12 months gaining more knowledge of all the key issues that visually impaired people deal with on a daily basis. We aim and look forward to working alongside Vista in improving people’s lives through cost effective solutions incorporated in our design process.