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Unlimited by Design

For the Museum Access Consortium


Rebecca McGinnis

I wanted to get started by telling you a little bit about MAC, and some of
you may not be familiar with us. The Museum Access Consortium was formed nearly two years ago now to really as a kind of mutual network of mutual support. It’s a group that consists of museum professionals in many different areas of museum work from museums - all sorts of different museums - around the New York metro area and also members and representatives of the disability communities.

So it’s a nice group that’s constantly growing and we hope to have more members by you know organizing more get-togethers like this. And we’re always happy to have more people involved, so sign-up and tell us who you are if you’re not already on our list. We also have a list serve an email group, too, which is on the information that you probably already picked up. I just wanted to read you the MAC mission, so you kind of have an idea of what we’re about.

The Museum Access Consortium strives to enable people with disabilities to access cultural facilities of all types. We define accessibility broadly to include architectural, physical, communication, attitudinal and other forms of access. We take as a basic tenant that increasing accessibility for people with disabilities increases accessibility for everyone and universal design of course is all about that very thing.

You know that we are going to be discussing universal design and hearing a lot about it in a moment from our guest but just to give you a brief definition of universal design. Universal design is designed by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, as the design product and environment to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design. So it’s really about thinking inclusively and thinking about everyone’s needs from the start rather than fixing something that’s been done inaccessibly to start with and we will hear more about that.

We’re very excited to welcome Bruce Hannah today, who is the Exhibit Designer and Curator of the Exhibit Unlimited by Design, which was at the Cooper Hewitt in 1999. Bruce Hannah has graduated from Pratt with a degree in industrial design and has begun his career collaborating on several award winning sitting groups for Knoll. In 1992, he was named the first designer in residence at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum by the Industrial Design Society of America. He was awarded the “bronze apple” by the New York Chapter for IDSA for the First National Design Conference on Universal Design.

In 1998, Bruce received the National Design Educational Award for the IDSA and in 2000 he was awarded the Federal Design Achievement Award for the Exhibition Unlimited by Design at the National Design Museum, which we will hear about today. So I want to welcome Bruce and we’re very, very happy to have him here today to share with us the principals of universal design, how they were applied at the Cooper Hewitt, and then we can then talk about how we can translate that to our own institutions. Thank you.

Bruce Hannah

This exhibit got started obviously a long time before it got done, I mean
we’re all exhibit designers or some of you are so you know that you work on things for years and years. There was a dream of Diane Pilgrim who was the Director of the Cooper Hewitt for years and years and years. And that’s why it was at this nice museum. It also coincidentally opened the month that the renovation was finished in the museum where it had been made more accessible. It was written up in a lot of magazines all over the world, people got turned on by it, these are pictures of the Technology Review, which was did a review of the show, it’s the MIT Journal there also a thing called Domestic Bliss, which is all about universal design and I think it was in House and Garden. So it was spanned lots of different publications.

This is WE Magazine, and this is the DK Design Journal that’s published in Japan. We started off with a plan for the exhibit, which was very difficult to do in the Cooper Hewitt, which I’m sure you’ve all been there, it’s a house and it’s not like having a big space and being able to divide it up. So what we tried to do, we had to come up with a way, the way this exhibit was going to work. And it basically is planned as a day in your life. You wake up and you look at mail or whatever, we didn’t have a bed, we had a computer. You then go to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of coffee, you then go to your bathroom and you take a bath. When you leave your house, you might walk through your garden. You then would go possibly past a playground on the way to work and on your way to work to have to way find your way to work and so we had way-finding navigation as part
of that and when you got to work your going to sit down at a computer.

So those were the basic areas that we designed in. The other thing we tried to do is redefine the term design. Design means a lot of things to a lot of people and some of my favorite photographs I have are like, there’s a design motel right off the Northway which I always find very interesting and I love when I pass a store that says, “good design”. I’m always suspect immediately when they say that. So what we tried to do is we took the word design and we broke it down into demographics, economics, senses, intuition, generations and navigation.

The other thing we did was we developed these graphic icons that appeared with the products and the services and things in the exhibit that we felt that particular product service or whatever achieved. So the first one is demographics and the designer should study demographics, they should know who their audience is, they should know where they come from, they should know that in China red means go. In some places green means go here but red means something else, some place else. They should know that about their audience.

The second was economics and that is part of the universal credo that it should be an expensive at least, it shouldn’t be an expensive adaptation of something. Then there are five senses; I happen to think there are six or seven. There’s one that I’m sure all museum designers deal with which is kinesthetic where the space in which people occupy. And then my favorite the seventh sense is common sense, which we all throw out the window as soon as we start designing anything. The next symbol is intuition. Things should be intuitive; nobody can program a VCR I don’t care who you are. You know just things aren’t intuitive and design really needs to be intuitive and easily understood.

The last two are generations, chicken and the egg, which one came first, designers think the egg came first and you know everybody else thinks the chicken came first. Then there’s navigation, the “n” stands for navigation, people have to navigate wherever they go. Generations in universal design means that some one whose eight years old or eighty years old should be able to experience the same thing. Children become sort of operable at eight years of age. The first thing is home office its kind of where we wake up in the morning. What we tried to do in the design and I’ll talk about it now. One of the things we came up with was that curative like to write a lot of words and if you write a lot of words and you have small spaces to that occupy the signage and everything else, you have to start to use like you know ten point type which no one can read.

So what you have to do as designers, you can slam the curators you have to say, “we have to use twenty-six point type and up, immediately they’ll become your friend because they have to write less. Actually, Donald Albrecht at the Cooper Hewitt, we did an experiment, we all came to the conclusion that after thirty words no one reads anymore, anyway. So at the end of thirty words in a particular piece of signage, we inserted, “if you’ve gotten this far, go to the front desk and get your ten dollars”. No one collected the ten dollars.

The other thing we did was put the signage up front instead of in the back, you can see those rails, that’s the signage, it was designed to be at chair height. It has very little to say on it. The curatorial part of me kept saying, keep it simple and write less. The other thing was that we used large graphics and one of the reasons we developed these graphics with two different illustrators was that when we started doing this everybody, people have done exhibits about what they call universal design which ended up being all about hearing aides and crutches and chairs.

No one who wears a hearing aide or uses a crutch or is in a chair really likes them. No matter what you do, you know they’re not lovely things. So what we focused on was products that were about vision for everyone, hearing for everyone, access for everyone. Instead of very specific devices and this is all about devices of remote controls and things like that. They were inexpensive and well designed and so the graphics were trying to tell that story in a very simple way that you could see the big print. I get to my favorite product here; oh it’s not there ok.

We are already in the kitchen. Kitchen was designed to be interactive; one of the things most museums are always terrified of is making interactive things, because they always break all the time. We design this in such a way that we actually use the utensils to describe the three ways you use a kitchen, use the things in the kitchen, you push pull, you squeeze and you twist. And when they broke, we just replaced one. We kept replacing the pieces that broke. We did that throughout the exhibit in the accessible parts. And then we had big graphics that explained what we were talking about. So there was a graphic image and a written image and the product I would have liked to have had sound.

We do use a reign’s reel a little bit, but it was so expensive, it’s like fifteen hundred dollars a foot or something, a little ridiculous. I like to show this set of slides, this is one of the things that come up in museum discussions.
When we first got the illustrations back, all of the hands were white, it was a very little detail, but you know illustrators tend to make everybody’s hands white and there are different colors in the world which is also an important
issue. Everyone knows about Oxo, whenever I speak to the industrial design industry, I say you know this is a simple idea, make a handle softer and bigger and people will buy your product even though it is four times as expensive as the product they are now using.

It literally is four times as expensive for the product they were using. We had a mini/maxi kitchen; this kitchen was specifically designed for the exhibit by the Rhode Island School of Design. The fellow who designed it and led the design, Mark Harrison, was responsible for designing the Cuisinart. When he designed the Cuisinart, it was designed specifically for a group of elderly people who had arthritis, which is why everybody loved it by the way, because you could turn it on, it didn’t have switches or anything it just had an on/off switch if you needed it. This kitchen, they did lots of studies, found out that the comfort zone in the kitchen exists from about twenty inches to sixty inches. And that these are the two slides of the difference in the kitchen use. Again all of the graphics, I know you’re seeing it in the slides there very large, they were at floor level most of them, so anybody could see them. You could walk into them literally, they were not behind glass or anything, they were hung like images that you see in clothing stores.

Does anyone want to guess how many, the one on your left is the spaghetti dinner in a standard kitchen and the one on the right is the spaghetti dinner in the Rizzdee kitchen. This is what design can do for you. That was the question asked everyone when we interviewed people and video taped people about make spaghetti dinners. Because everyone eats about forty-five or fifty percent of what you eat is spaghetti dinners, you know that pasta dinners. In college it’s like eighty-five percent. Well I’ll tell you, the one on your right is four hundred separate steps to make spaghetti and a salad. The one on your right is a hundred steps. This is the mini and maxi kitchen, the maxi kitchen is the one that Martha Stewart would want, the one on your right is the one that everyone actually needs. Again the icons in the illustrations were meant to be happy icons they were not meant to be icons that made things difficult.

This is the bath. We used a lot of contrasting colors, lights and darks, of blue in this particular situation. This is a bathroom that was designed by Jean Franco Zaky, it goes up and down and moves in and out and slides along and it’s a marvelous bathroom and everyone should have one in their house. The sink actually adjusts up and down. Do any of you have children, you obviously have children, right you know. Aren’t you always terrified that the six year old is going to fall off that stool, just move the sink down. Again the type is large, the messages are simple, they are about, on one side of this exhibit, we have existing products on the other side was the mediform conceptual bath.

And so we were balancing between reality and fantasy here. There are a whole series of products that were featured in a lot of them were proto-types. This happens to be a proto-type scale. which brings the weight information right up to your face which you know people really don’t want that by the way. You want to be able to lie; I did not gain three pounds, no ok. Because here you can’t lie. And the fact that there are new products on the market, Medident Toothpaste actually works better. We would not only had the Medident, we had how it worked and why it worked as part of the graphic. This is the whole series of faucets in the bathroom.

We’re now in the garden, again, consistently reinforcing the fact that older people and younger people are going to use the garden and it should be a nice experience for everyone and we talked about it in the garden. We talked about raised beds, we talked about reach and we talked about leverage. But again, it was inviting people to touch these tools and again the curators were terrified or is it the registrars that wear the white gloves, are there any registrars here, do you have your white gloves with you? It always drove me nuts because we had boxes of these things because we knew they were going to get stolen and broken and everything else. And every single time they replaced it, they would take the thing out of the box, I mean you can go to Home Depot and buy this stuff you know, and you know they put on their white gloves and then attach it to the wall and it’s going to last about five minutes. Very simple graphic explanations of what we were talking about, extending reach.

One of my favorite gardening tools looks like some medieval, you know, sword, but what it was was about increasing leverage on the arm. These are chairs that were designed by Georgia Institute of Technology for a garden project that they did and there was the student work throughout the exhibit also. This is the area of play. We actually built a playground in the museum, which again, it not only drove the curators crazy, it drove security crazy and it drove the lawyers crazy, so we were really happy. We padded the floor and this exhibit was up during the winter on the Upper East Side and it was packed. You know that had to actually have like a nanny limit every day.

The information about the product was right on the product all the red dots are signage to tell you about why and if this is good and why it works etc. etc. It was about inviting people to not only play on the playground but to learn about the playground. This is an inclusive little play area; everybody with wheels can get gas. But I’m not talking enough about graphics, what I’m talking about here though is in some ways about graphics and about design and everything. This really is an attitude adjustment because most playgrounds are still about gymnastics, but Grandma takes the baby to the playground and Grandma can’t go on the jungle gym, but she can play gas station.

There’s a whole series of these kinds of playthings. If anybody owns one of these things, they’re collectors items now, Sony Micro-Sony, they probably were too easy to use because they had color codes buttons instead of black on black. I never figured out why all VCR’s are black on black buttons, I love these things, you know. The red button you know turns it off, the green button turns it on and there’s one for loud, it’s very simple, I’d love to have a VCR that looks like that. But this was again, intended for children to play at, they were invited to play with these toys, because they are toys and it was designed the height of the six year old to stand on it; although parents did stand on it.

This is a ball wall; this is one of my favorite things. We collected all the balls that actually were happy, that you could catch, that didn’t hurt you. That you could throw and grab and everything. And there’s a whole bunch of them on the market. We lost lots of balls to the people when we stole them, even on the Upper East Side. Buy wiggly gigglys’; they’re fun.

Navigation, when we first got this cartoon back, there was a man running on top of the earth and we said you know women go to work too. The graphics for this can send all those kinds of messages I mean you know that women go to work, that men aren’t the only guys. This is Roger Whitehouse’s graphics for the lighthouse, it includes not only the universal symbol but it also includes the word men, it’s written in Braille and as you approach it, it says, “men”. There’s lots of ways to get this message. I always love it, actually it took me a while to figure out which bathroom was the men and women here, did you notice that, I mean the design is so good that I can’t read it. I actually have a Bang and Olefsen Bio Center that has been on for about twenty years because it is so well designed, I can’t find the off button.

There’s a lot of stuff that we consider good design and you go into design
stores, you go to Bang and Olefsen, you go, “oh my God look at this wow, you know, then but how do I turn it off and how do I turn it on.” And I think as critics of the spaces your in you have to be very harsh, you have to start and say, “what’s wrong with, you know, making different colored symbols for in different shape symbols?”

This is BMW dashboard, it was one of the first with global positioning thing on it, we like that a lot. This is the one area that we actually did everything we wanted to do, we had a reigns reel that talked to you, it had Braille on the bottom, we had a visual explanation of the object and we had the object and we had a written explanation of what we were talking about. And we felt if we could’ve done this throughout the whole exhibit, it was truly accessible. We weren’t able to because of funding and stuff like that. But it would be great to be able to have all of that, all of the time at every exhibit.

This is a whole series of products, there actually designed by a student of mine, my favorite ones, I get to those, are the shoes. This was when global positioning was just starting this is like six or seven years ago. She’s now Director of Design for Giorgio Armani and she’s made to do all the stores. When she designed these, these actually had little arrows on them to tell you which way to go. If they ever go into production, they’re only going to tell you where the next Giorgio Armani store is obviously.

Handles, women whose you know lever handles are symbol of accessibility. But the woman is holding a dog and you know the paper bag or plastic bag from the Korean grocery store, accessibility isn’t about, you know, a small group of people, it’s about everybody all of the time. We had lots of handles, we had the nine hundred dollar Phillips Stark one. We had the six dollar one you can buy from the catalogue that goes on your regular door handle.

There are lots of solutions to all of these problems, there not just, you know, one solution. And again we tried to explain graphically, why this is good, you know, not only in words, but graphically. Computers, as we get sucked into them yet again, you can tell the dating of this exhibit by the fact that the computers are all there are not flat screens here. But this was a computer room, we actually had five computer programs running all the time, which was probably the most difficult thing to do in it; was to keep the computers up and running all the time. But IBM gave us the computers and the support which was great. Does anyone want to venture a guess, there are a number of them, I’ll show you the computers, but we had six or seven different adjustable chairs because adjustable chairs are much better than non-adjustable chairs. And we had desks that moved up and down, both by electronics and by handles.

Of the five programs, there’s one this is the chairs that goes up and down and the desk that go up and down. The other thing on your right hand slide, one of things that we discovered about designing inaccessible exhibit, was that it was all about the details; it really wasn’t about the big concept. It was about making all the details work, it really didn’t matter what was there, as long as the details worked. And so in each of the exhibit areas we tried to include little things that made peoples lives easier or better or safer. Like a plug that you could actually pull out of the wall. What I always love it, they tell you don’t pull on the cord but what do you’ve got to pull on? You know. Alright so this was the favorite thing, by the way, of adults and children, it was a game that you kind of played against the duck. The duck played a series of notes on the computer and then you had to play it back and we wore out lots of those keyboards and that was great fun.

The exhibit also had this computer chair, which I’ll get to; these were the graphics for it that you could lay down the computer followed you; which is really what everybody wants. It was designed for someone with a spinal injury. This was, this is some of my favorite graphics, this is about the air-on chair. And the air-on chair comes in small, medium and large and when I talked to Bill Stump about it, he said “Yeah I walked into Gap store one day and I realized I could by the same t-shirt for myself, my wife and my grandson. Why can’t I buy a chair that comes in sizes?”

This is an enormous; see change in how people actually view what design is all about. Bill Stump has been designing chairs for thirty years. Bill is the one with the big smile on his face and the other guy is his partner. They both have smiles on their faces because they sell ten thousand of these chairs a week. They can’t make them fast enough, by the way. And they are one of the most expensive chairs on the market, so in some ways money doesn’t have much to do with comfort. But Bill designed, this is a very short story, Bill designed Argon chair in 1973, the Argon chair pretended to be an ergonomic chair. It came in thirty different models, from a secretarial chair to an executive chair with a high back. That wasn’t ergonomics, that’s where it started though; that was about status and what somebody did. The chair when you weren’t sitting in it was telling someone what you did, not necessarily who you were, but what you did.

And Bill in the eighties designed a chair; called the Equa chair which tried to do what the air-on chair did fifteen years later or twelve years later. Which was become an equal chair, everyone sits in the same chair. It took him almost thirty years to figure out that chairs should come in small, medium and large and if that’s one thing you could leave with today, think about when you’re designing something, that people come small, medium and large. I mean that’s a very simple idea. Thank you.


Bruce Hannah’s presentation was sponsored by the Museum Access Consortium, a collective of museums and cultural institutions in the New York City Metropolitan area working towards improving accessibility. This presentation took place at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on January 16, 2002; Mr. Hannah would like to acknowledge the following people; Diane Pilgrim, former Director of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, the Smithsonian Institution for the Vision and Determination to see the show become a reality. The exhibition design team worked on the 1999 Exhibition of Unlimited By Design at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum Smithsonian Institution, they include Tanya Von Colt, Architect, Donald Albrecht, Project Director, George Covington, Curator, Tim Casinda, Illustrator, Ward Schmaker, Illustrator, Jen Roose, Graphics. We
would like thank Edward Steinfeld and the Idea Center University of Buffalo.

This production of this film was made possible through Arts and Cultural Initiatives at the Smeal Learning Center at the National Center for Disability Services. To obtain additional copies of this video or for further information about arts and cultural initiatives or the Museum Access Consortium, or other programs of the National Center for Disability Services contact Fran Prezant, Division Director Research and Training Institute (516) 465-1601 or Pearl Rosen, Coordinator of Arts and Cultural Programs (516) 465-1606 at the National Center for Disability Services. This is the video of the Exhibition Unlimited By Design and is available by contacting Alex Bitterman, Idea Center University of Buffalo, Hayes Hall 3435 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14214-3087.