People stare at my Seeing Eye dog and me sometimes. Who can blame them? We’re an unusual pair! But as long as they’re watching, I want to look good.
So when I heard that the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University was looking for projects to help people with disabilities, I suggested they have their undergraduates try to come up with some easy way we blind folks could identify the color of our clothing. Right now I put a safety pin in the tag of anything I own that is black, and a paper clip on anything white. I wear other colors, too, and I memorize what color those other things are by the feel of the clothing.
My proposal got a thumbs-up, and one of the students agreed to write a guest post to explain what the design experience has been like from his point of view.
by Nadhipat “Ebay” Vaniyapun
My name is Ebay and I am one of the engineering students at Northwestern University working to create a color identification system for Beth. Design Thinking and Communication is a required class for engineering students, and I believe that it is required for a very good reason. There is no other class that gives you real design experience while putting the fruit of your hard work back into helping the community.
I actually chose to study at Northwestern partly to take this class. I went to Concord Academy in Massachusetts and did a number of engineering projects in high school, including a custom physical therapy walker for a toddler who has cerebral palsy. Our walker had the same functionality as a commercial walker, but it can be disassembled, it’s adjustable for his growth, and it includes a board for him to play with his toys. It was really something to see a little kid being able to walk and play without falling over, and to realize that he didn’t have that kind of freedom until we made that therapy walker for him. You could say I was hooked from the get-go.
I admit I didn’t know much about blindness before starting this project. The last time I had any real contact with someone who was blind was probably when I was around 8 years old living in Bangkok, Thailand. I visited what could be called a nursing home for the blind as part of a school service trip. Everyone there was blind from birth and could read Braille. They got most of their income from crafts, giving lectures and receiving donations. I didn’t see their wardrobe, but I remember that the speaker wore plain, dark colored clothes while the kids wore something with mismatched colors.
With that vague recollection in mind, I couldn’t quite connect the dots with this project prompt until I met Beth for the first time. I just didn’t expect her to have a large wardrobe of clothing that wouldn’t go well together. I didn’t expect patterns or a lot of colors. I was also completely unaware that there were so many people who went blind later in life, and that not all of them read Braille. I just never thought blind people might put this much thought into the clothing they wear.
This project is very different from my high school projects where I worked with tools I was used to and could easily imagine how I’d solve the problem. I guess I do miss using lots and lots of power tools a little. Fabric is not a very common engineering material, and all of us on our team even learned how to sew in order to speed up the mock up process. You also really have to use your head to make the color identification system as intuitive as possible, knowing that the user’s perception and priorities are different from you. Even if you pretended to be blind, you wouldn’t be able to pick up small details from touch or know what features of the clothing a blind person would use to pick it out from the rest.
Working with Beth has been a pleasure. There were even times when we felt uncomfortable ourselves asking difficult questions but she had no problem answering us. Thanks to that, we got a lot of unexpected data and are now incorporating everything we learned into our designs. Two things that still get me every time we visit her is how dark her room is and how many articles of clothing she can identify quickly through touch. I’m sure we wouldn’t be able to do the same without lighting.
We’ve gotten close as a group through this project. We usually meet twice a week, have a team dinner on one of the days and occasionally hang out even when it’s not about class. Every time we visit Beth, we also eat together at the restaurants in the area. I know my team a lot better now not only as colleagues, but also as friends. I have enjoyed everything I’ve done so far, and I have no doubt that we will deliver an excellent prototype.
Other Design Thinking and Communication classes at Northwestern are working on different projects to help people with disabilities, and all 50 teams will present their completed projects on Saturday afternoon, March 16. Awards for design and communication will be announced that day, too.