For the millions of people who live with disabilities, the built environment can be an intimidating place. They not only have to live with corporeal limitations, but they also have to navigate ubran boundaries, too. That is why the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision” exhibition is encouraging visitors to touch, smell, hear, taste, and of course see what the built environment may soon be able to do for its inhabitants. On display from April 13th through October 28th of 2018, “The Senses” is a multisensory exhibition that levels the playing field, forcing everyone to receive information from materials, technology, and spaces regardless of their physical abilities.

Comprised of over 40 tactile objects, and with an audio description to match each piece of written and video content, “The Senses” is organized around things like materials, appetites, information, expressions, the shaping of sound, cognition, entertainment, and inclusive environments. The work in the exhibit comes from over 65 contemporary designers and could easily enhance the lives of millions of people. How often can we say that about a designer’s work? Unfortunately, not as often as we should.

As one article put it, the disproportionate focus on appearance in the built environment has created buildings that are “numb to other senses” and an “ocularcentric architecture (which) cultivates alienation.” “The Senses” displays a collection of numerous impactful ideas, but to get a better idea of how transformative they can be to people around the would, we can focus on the ones meant to help people with hearing, cognitive, and visual impairments.

For the five percent of the world (about 466 million people) that lives with some form of hearing disability, Andy Thomas’ “Visual Sounds of the Amazon” exhibit, which uses particle effects animation to visualize the sounds of birds, could add a new level to the human experience. Also on display is an audiovisual collaboration between Superunion and the London Symphony Orchestra, which visualizes the conducting gestures of its Musical Director, Sir Simon Rattle, during the performance. Using animated films and digital images, every swoop of the arm, twist of the wrist, and stab of the baton is made cystal clear, giving those who cannot hear the sense of how emotional the music must be. Then there’s the “Tactile Orchestra,” an exhibit by Studio Roos Meerman and KunstLAB Arnhemt that translates sounds from string instruments onto a synthetic fur surface that visitors can feel.

"Visual Sounds of the Amazon" - Andy Thomas Stravinsky Poster - London Symphony Orchestra "Tactile Orchestra" - Studio Roos Meerman and KunstLAB Arnhem

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 50 million people in the world live with some form of dementia. Although some might not associate dementia with other common disabilities like hearing or visual impairment, it can still cause individuals to lose certain sensorial abilities. HEWI’s contribution to the exhibition, the “Dementia Care Bathroom,” uses color to place a visual emphasis on grab bars, handles, bottoms, and objects. The redness of each object stands out from the neutral colors that adorn the rest of the space, giving people with dementia the nudge or reminder they need to use the bathroom safely. The idea of this “nudge” can also be found in the “Ode Scent Player” by Ben Davies and Lizzie Ostrom from Rodd Design, by which the smells of different foods can be diffused across a space. The smells stimulate the appetites of individuals living with dementia, reminding them that it is time to eat.

Dementia Care Bathroom - HEWI "Ode Scent Player” - Ben Davies and Lizzie Ostrom

Since this exhibition promotes an understanding of design that goes beyond the visual realm, it also displays works that would be useful to the 253 million people worldwide who are living with vision impairment. Using technologies like tactile lettering, textured ink, and 3D printing, designers can now navigate people through spaces or cities solely by touch, making building diagrams and city maps accessible even to those who are visually impaired. Mark Cavagnero Associates and Chris Downey’s “Tactile Architectural Drawing” uses embossed printing to allow visitors to feel the divisions of space within a plan and get a better sense of direction within a building. Downey, who lives with visual impairment himself, is a full-time architect — a fact that in and of itself shows that design can truly go beyond vision.

"Tactile Architectural Drawing" - Mark Cavagnero Associates and Chris Downey