Generally speaking, graphic designers do not have to adhere to governmental regulations, but environmental graphic designers with projects in public spaces must obey many rules.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s initiated a new social awareness promoting equal rights to all. The disabled are a large minority group in the United States; approximately twenty percent of Americans have one or more diagnosed psycho-physical disabilities. The federal government drafted the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, mandating physical accessibility to public and federally funded places for people in wheelchairs, or with visual or hearing impairments to create safe, easy, accommodating environments. In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established the first guideline standards for building and local codes for environmental graphic designers and architects. Since then the original regulations have been rewritten and, to some, made more complex and restrictive. In 2003 the rules were revised. And in 2006 the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) published an ADA White Paper Update to clarify existing rules; these included guidelines and recommendations on “Typography for the Blind,” “Position of Text and Braille on Signs” and “Innovation,” a discussion of the wayfinding needs of the blind and visually impaired. Consequences for non-compliance are dire; if guidelines are not met, a civil lawsuit could force changes or removal of a project.
We spoke with environmental graphic designers about how they deal with such serious limitations and still produce esthetically satisfying solutions.CA
: How does a design firm approach this kind of project?Roger Whitehouse, Whitehouse & Company, New York, NY
: (Whitehouse developed the wayfinding system for the Lighthouse International headquarters in New York City.) This was a fantastic opportunity to work with the users because none of us had any clue about how blind or visually impaired people find their way around, what kind of information they need and how they process that information. What I learned was incredible and totally contrary to those things I intuited were needed. Most environmental graphic design projects are for clients whose only interest is staying within the law. There is not much interest in accessibility, although some genuine attention has been put into public transit systems and special situations like the Lighthouse. (See public RFPs for transit systems, etc.) We do as much research as possible, then design, test and evaluate. I am not suggesting that public design is a profit center, however it should be considered almost a professional requirement. Designers should understand the entire range of their audience and be able to design for them. Inevitably, but not always, what works best for people with disabilities works better for everybody.
Lighthouse International, New York: (left) Combination visual and tactile maps of individual floors are located in the same place on each floor adjacent to the elevators; (right) Maps in the lobby are placed at a height that allow use by individuals in wheelchairs. Their location allows the reception guard to explain the map and guide a vision-impaired user's finger to an appropriate location. Interaction between sighted and vision-impaired users is an important aspect of the design by Whitehouse & Company.
CA: What are the creative opportunities discovered in designing for the disabled?
Dominic Borgia, Two Twelve Associates, New York, NY: The real challenge is in working within the restrictions; environmental design is about finding creative ways to enhance accessibility. Designers are by nature problem solvers and we are interested in creating access for all people in various environments. This is a new frontier and technology has provided us with the chance to explore unique devices. For example, for the blind, “Talking Signs” is a remote Infrared Audible Signage System in a handheld transmitter/receiver that scans the environment and provides a signal and audible wayfinding system similar to a GPS system. It is costly, but the potential for making this system accessible to many people is tremendous. Only about ten percent of the blind read Braille; tactile (raised letters) are the way of the future. Perhaps a system will be invented that allows the blind to use signs more efficiently.
At the Atlanta Federal Center, Two Twelve implemented a simple and effective wayfinding strategy that creates clear destinations and pathways.
CA: What problems do designers face in complying with ADA rules?
Borgia: At the present time, there are no nationally or universally accepted guidelines, there is no consistency, no single federal ADA agency—California even has its own guidelines. Originally designers found interesting ways of incorporating Braille technology, like our signage systems for the Atlanta Federal Center and the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square in New York City. What can be done today is tightly regulated, we are told where the sign goes, as well as how the colors, Braille and tactile letters work.
Coco Raynes, Coco Raynes Associates, Boston, MA: (In 1989 Raynes Associates patented the Raynes Rail, the Braille and Audio Information System. A bright yellow version has been installed at Terminal 2C of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The Rail is combined with a tactile and visual map with photo sensors to activate audio instructions in three languages. It has been used in museums in France and Colombia to explain the exhibits and direct movement.) All of our work includes people with different disabilities; the blind, those in wheelchairs or with impaired mobility. Designers must learn the rules and go beyond them, to see beyond the clichés.