How losing my sight in my 40s made me a better designer for people of all ages
TAONR: From our In-Common research we found it was people who were younger and in mid age who said they had more difficulties reading small print, loud environments, getting in and out of chairs, picking up heavy objects than the people who we tested who were older. This was surprising and shows that we need to think differently around cognitive, sensory and physical tensions and age. Yet we still fall into the trap of lumping all the physiological and cognitive 'decline' narratives into the 'old' camp. It would be great to get your thoughts on how designing for 'old' actually helps us design for all.
Jacqui Smith: In our 40s we are hardly in the old camp, yet you are right, poor vision is very much relegated to old age. I lost the sight in my left eye when I was 44 and over the past 5 years I’ve learned so much about how environments can help or hinder people with any degree of sight loss. Deterioration in any of the senses can be horribly disorientating, affecting your ability to make sense of the world around you and has a profound effect on your confidence and sense of independence. Whilst it was my sight that I lost, I get more easily overwhelmed by noise these days and certain situations make me incredibly anxious. Determined not to let my comfort zone shrink, I keep on going, but there have been many times when I am away from home where I have felt that if a space had been designed differently it would have helped me as well as many, many others. By relegating declining senses as an ‘older person thing’, what is designed often ends looking ‘remedial’, or looking special and not in a good way. Good lighting, colour contrast and acoustically optimised environments which support sensory decline is good design for all and should not be as you say, lumped into the old camp narrative. Inclusive design is great design.
TAONR: Can you share some examples of how your eyesight has affected you?
Jacqui Smith: Through my own sight loss experience I’ve noticed a number of things and situations that stop me in my tracks. Losing the sight in one eye means that I no longer see in 3D; my vision is monocular rather than binocular. This makes a huge difference to how I judge depth and distance. The first thing I noticed when in hospital after surgery was when I poured myself a glass of water, I completely missed! My lovely nurse smiled and said, “Don’t worry my love, everyone does that.” At the time I wasn’t sure why everyone would do that. but once I understood that my depth perception was off, I realised why it would be harder for me to judge where the water jug needed to be to reach the glass.
TAONR: Can design help you?
Jacqui Smith: The answer is yes and no. The brain needs to get used to reassessing distance, it needs to re-learn and that only comes with repeating these tasks but design can of course help if the designers listen to what we have to say. For instance, getting on and off trains is a big one for me as distances from the train to the platform varies hugely, so I’ve learned to step off sideways so as not to jar my knee when thinking the platform was closer than it was or experience that momentary sense of falling if it was further away. But it isn’t just me who find it unnerving getting on and off trains — young children do, families with young children, people with dogs, people with limited movement — the list is big and wide. We have all just accepted the status quo, the fears of getting on and off trains. I would like to think that design could help.
"I can now talk about sensory decline from a position of experience and authority. This has brought me closer to the people I am designing for."
TAONR: How has your experience changed the way you design?
Jacqui Smith: I view interiors from the perspective of a person with impaired senses. I am forever conscious of colour contrast and lighting. And, as someone who has developed a heightened sensitivity to noise, I pay considerable time thinking about the acoustics in the spaces I design for. This is especially true in the residential homes I design for. I can now talk about sensory decline from a position of experience and authority. This has brought me closer to the people I am designing for. I don’t need to shout about it, I just apply the principles within the design, ensuring that rooms are well lit but flexibly, so people can adjust to suit needs, that handles are easy to use but still aesthetically appealing, glare is minimised and noise transfer considered. We need to design spaces which support people as they get older and enable them to live as independently as possible. This has to be good for everyone.
TAONR: As designers what can we learn from people who are older and how do you feel this knowledge can inform our decision making?
Jacqui Smith: So much! Some new technology can be over designed. Take mobile phones. My mother recently changed her phone to a simple smart phone yet it comes with many apps that she does not need. A simple conversation in the shop would have solved this and made the whole new phone experience less daunting. My 16 year old son spent a few minutes with her, deleting a lot of apps that Mum did not need. She now feels so much happier about her phone whereas before she referred to it as ‘very stressful’. That’s not right. Arguably the fact that her grandson can help her is great and adds another aspect to their relationship, but the point I am making is that so much new tech over complicates things and risks alienating people further making them feel left behind.
So this all goes back to designers carefully listening to people’s needs and meeting them in the simplest and most user friendly way possible. This then has to filter down to the chaps on the shop floor who can tailor the tech to suit the needs of the customer right in front of them.
You can find out more about Jacqui's company, HomeSmith here.
"It all goes back to designers carefully listening to people’s needs and meeting them in the simplest and most user friendly way possible."