Multi-sensory interior design

April 4th, 2011 9:13 am

Environments for Aging conference left me inspired and motivated to expend my knowledge in such areas as universal design, lighting for the aging eye as well as multi-sensory design. Chris Downey, Architecture for the Blind, Joyce Polhamus, SmithGroup, and Diana Kissil, SmithGroup talked knowledgeably on how crucial design that engages all senses (not just vision) is.

More than 6.5 million Americans over the age of 65 have vision impairments, a statistic slated to double by 2030. We know of at least four major diseases that will significantly contribute to this statistic. The numbers become even more real  when you hear a personal story of Chris Downey, and how his sudden loss of sight, impacted the way he thinks of and designs accessible architecture and interiors.

We, interior designers, spend a lot of time determining the visual appeal of interior spaces. Studies show that our society relies on what they see over 80% of the time, without engaging other senses, when experiences interior environments. Which begs a question, whether the spaces we spend so much time designing, overstimulate our sense of sight and partially numb the other four senses?

Vision lost or impairment has a tremendous impact on a human life. It reduces his/her ability to experience the world the most convenient way . It also increases the risk of falls, depression, medication poisoning. It causes difficulty doing basic daily activities and decreases orientation and sense of balance. How do we then design spaces that provide enough support and comfort for everyone, not just those who can see?

Vision impairment and challenges

(image downloaded from, shows a white undermount sink contrasting against a dark solid surface countertop)

While designing for seniors, it is crucial to recognize the difficulties an aging eye experience with adjusting to low color and light contrast, low luminance and glare. These should be major considerations in material and finish selection process.

Vision loss and challenges

Our bodies naturally overcompensate for a function that is not fully functional. Our senses work the same way. If you suddenly loose sight, the other senses strengthen their ability to keep you functioning at the higher level possible. Your sense of touch, smell and hearing become the new way of experiencing life. Designers and architects have a responsibility to provide interior solutions that support those senses bringing independence and convenience to all space users.

(image downloaded from, shows a Northern Hardwoods handrail)

Simple design features like hand rails are often being overlooked. The spacing being the handle and the bracket is important to keep one’s knuckles safe and scratch-free as they walk along it. A change of material at corners is appreciated, as it communicates end of wall, turn, obstacle. Columns in the walk path are definitely not desired, and unless have hand rails going around it providing continuous support, they can actually be hazardous.

(image downloaded from, shows a custom carpet pattern)

Change of flooring material helps tremendously with determining when spaces start and stop. Especially cane users can pick up on the sound and feel of those surfaces and prepare themselves accordingly.

Change of ceiling height has been proven to help provide auditory clues for legally blind.  The way sound travels, bounces off surfaces, whether it is masked, or free to bounce around, all assist with reading a space better, and using it accordingly.

(image downloaded from, shows a circular path)

Smell, too, can be a big way finding element, which brings directional stability, helps with orientation. Whether it’s the smell of baking cookies, home-cooked meal, or the smell of flowers and nature, these settle clues are critical for someone, who can not rely on the directional sign to find their way.

There is more that designers can do when thinking about well functioning interior spaces. Visual appeal is an important component, but not the only one, by any means.



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