In 2008 when the Gallaudet University in Washington DC, a university dedicated to the education of the deaf and hard of hearing, realized that their buildings were falling short of the standards of design and innovation required for the deaf they called upon architect Hansel Bauman to rethink their campus design. Referred to as Deaf Space, the project began by understanding the experiences of the deaf and hard of hearing, in particular how they navigate through and occupy space.
American sign language is a visual language, often the cause of eye strain, an experience that Hansel took into consideration when designing the building, known as the Sorenson Language and Communication Center. What jumps up at you when you see photographs of the Center are large open spaces and lots of glass, intentionally designed to ensure ease of communication. The walls at Gallaudet are blue, ‘a good contrast to a range of skin tones’, the windows large, and lighting diffused so as to create as few shadows as possible. The chairs at Gallaudet are on wheels, the benches made out of wood to feel vibrations, and the air conditioners placed keeping in mind that hearing aids can be very sensitive to some sounds. To allow users of the building to be able to simultaneously walk and sign, all doors were made sliding, so conversation was not cut short and because the deaf and hard of hearing cannot hear footsteps, corners were rounded off.
Careful measures were made to understand the experiences of the deaf and hard of hearing. Hansel even published document titled Deaf Aesthetic Principles. A case study made by SmithGroup JJR, describes in detail the understanding that went into its design. While much has been said and documented of the user-centered approach adopted by the Deaf Project, its real value is that it was open to iteration. In an interview with Roman Mars of 99% invisible, Hansel admits that when the rounded corners, mentioned above, did not work as well as intended, and users continued to bump into each other, the team decided to try using glass corners instead. While understanding your users is important, the iterative design process, a continuous cycle of research, prototyping and testing, is essential to any innovation, more so in situations where you are designing and innovating for an experience that isn’t yours, a situation that is presumably more common than rare.