What sort of things went through your mind when you bought your last car?
Or when you fitted a new kitchen? Or bought some new shoes? Of course, you will have considered their function but more than likely you will also have taken into account other things such as the make or colour of the car, how fabulous your kitchen might look or what others might think of your shoes. For some, function is their main priority; as long as the car gets them from A to B, the kitchen has space to cook a meal and the shoes are comfortable. For many, however. form plays just as an important part as function.
In the book by Donald Norman “Emotional Design: Why we Love (or Hate) Everyday Things”, Norman- a cognitive scientist- describes how engagement with a product is much more than just what it can do for us on a functional level. He talks about the relationship between emotion and utility, alongside the influences of aesthetics on the products we engage with.
Ugly can often render itself unusable; I can think of many things in my life I wouldn’t consider having in my home, or wearing, because I perceive it to be ugly, unattractive or Just Not Me. Yet how often do we see one-size-fits-all environments that have been designed for people who are less physically able? The blue anti-slip flooring in a level access shower with floor to ceiling square white tiles and grab rails attached to every available wall? Imposing ramps with tubular steel rails up to a person’s front door? Equipment that did not match the colour of a person’s bathroom (not so common now, but back in the day when avocado green bathrooms were à la mode a white raised toilet seat stood out like a sore thumb).
This is something that I’ve been interested in for many years and decided to research for my master’s degree dissertation. The results showed an overwhelming feeling that appearance of assistive equipment and adaptations does matter. Be this because the user doesn’t want their disability to stand out, or because they want to be able to celebrate it and be individual - I always remember the participant who wanted a leopard print wheelchair. Thankfully wetrooms have become more common place and so bathrooms are now being designed in a more inclusive way and grabrails can be less obtrusive and part of a funky design. Sleek toilets that would not be amiss in an upmarket hotel.
We still have a long way to go but let it all be our mission for accessible spaces to also be beautiful spaces. As Donald Norman says “Attractive things work better… when you wash and wax a car, it drives better, doesn’t it? Or at least feels like it does….”