Design for the senses

When we talk about accessible interpretation, we perhaps immediately think of a lonely cast Braille plate screwed to a castle wall, or a large print guide tucked away under a ticketing desk. If we think of accessible interpretation as something special and extra, then it’s easy to dismiss it as a minority requirement.

What if we forget the idea of accessible interpretation for a moment and think instead about designing for our senses?

We experience everything through our senses. We may process information through our intellect, our memories and our prejudices, but we get the raw materials from looking, touching, smelling and many other senses.

How many senses are there? Depending on who you talk to, there are between 9 and 21 recognised senses. Apart from the big five, we also have, among others, the senses of balance, of heat and cold, of pain, and proprioception, the sense of awareness of our own body.

We are sight dominated creatures. Sight is how most of us get our raw information about our world. But we shouldn’t discount other senses. Senses like smell have routes into other parts of our brains, and trigger different responses. Smell is well known as a memory stimulant: memories can be triggered by a smell even before our cognitive processes have recognised what that smell is.

Designing interpretation, or any experience, should be about designing to satisfy our senses as much as our intellect. Designing accessible interpretation shouldn’t be a separate discipline. We should start with the philosophy that all our interpretation will be accessible. Including people with sensory disabilities as partners in developing interpretation can lead to new and exciting ways to create interpretation that benefits many more people in its potential audience.