Designing for the Blind

Retro-Fitting Means Poor Design

lower half view of person in black pants and black shoes holding a white cane pointed outward on a masonry plaza
Detectable Surface Texture. George Doyle/Getty Images

Designing for the blind and visually impaired is an example of accessible design. Architects who embrace universal design understand that the needs of the blind client are the same for all people — orienting a building to provide optimal light and ventilation has been advocated by ancient Roman architects and more modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Federal legislation like the ADA has increased awareness of function in architecture; the professional designer will create beauty with the form taken.

Key Takeaways

  • Architects can design with texture, sound, heat, and smell to define spaces and functions.
  • Tactile cues, such as differences in floor textures and changes in temperature, provide landmarks for persons who cannot see.
  • Universal design refers to design that meets the needs of all people, thus making spaces accessible to all.

"Great architecture for the blind and visually impaired is just like any other great architecture, only better," says San Francisco architect Chris Downey, AIA. "It looks and works the same while offering a richer and better involvement of all senses." Downey was a practicing architect when a brain tumor took his sight in 2008. With firsthand knowledge, he established Architecture for the Blind and became an expert consultant for other designers.

Likewise, when architect Jaime Silva lost his eyesight to congenital glaucoma, he gained a deeper perspective on how to design for the disabled. Today the Philippine-based architect consults with engineers and other architects to manage projects and promote universal design.

Is Universal Design for the Blind?

Universal design is a "big tent" term, encompassing more familiar methods such as accessibility and "barrier-free" design. If design is universal — meaning a design for everyone — it is, by definition, accessible. In the built environment, accessibility means designed spaces that meet the needs of people with a wide range of abilities, including those who are blind or who have limited vision and associated cognitive difficulties.

If the goal is universal design, everyone will be accommodated.

A blind person before taking a ride in the latest version of Google's self-driving car outside the GoogleX labs in Mountain View, CA.
Accessibility and Self-Driving Cars. Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

A Continuum of Abilities

Functional vision includes two areas: (1) visual acuity, or the corrected used of central vision to see details such as facial features or alphanumeric symbols; and (2) the field of vision, or the extent and capacity to identify objects peripheral to or around the central vision. In addition, depth perception and contrast sensitivity can be associated vision problems.

Vision abilities vary widely. Vision impairment is a catch-all term that includes people with any visual deficit that cannot be corrected by wearing glasses of contact lenses. Visual impairments have a continuum of identifiers specific to the laws of specific countries. In the United States low vision and partially sighted are general terms for a continuum of functionality that may vary from week to week or even hour to hour.

Legal blindness is not necessarily the same as total blindness. Legally blind in the U.S. is defined by corrected central vision being less than 20/200 in the better eye and/or the field of vision being limited to 20 degrees or less. That is, having only one eye does not make a person blind. Totally blind is generally the inability to use light, although the perception of light and dark may or may not exist. "People are said to have light perception if they can detect light and determine from which direction the light is coming," explains the American Printing House for the Blind (APH).

Another type of blindness is called cortical visual impairment (CVI), which is a neurological disorder, pointing out that vision is a process involving the eye and the brain.

Colors, Illumination, Textures, Heat, Sound, and Balance

What do blind people see? Many people who are legally blind actually have some vision. Bright colors, wall murals, and changes in illumination can help persons whose vision is limited. Incorporating entryways and vestibules into all architectural design helps eyes adapt to illumination changes. Tactile cues, including different floor and sidewalk textures as well as changes in heat and sound, can provide landmarks for persons who cannot see. A distinctive façade may help distinguish the location of a home without having to count and keep track.

Sound is an important directive for people without visual cues. Technology can be built within the walls of a home just like it's built into smart phones — all you have to do is ask a question, and the built-in intelligent personal assistant can orient the occupant. Aspects of a smart house will be most useful for people with disabilities.

Other physical details should be common to all universal design. Handrails for balance should be incorporated into the design of buildings.

And that's the thing — architects should incorporate details into the design and not try to retro-fit for someone's limitations. Like all good accessible design, universality begins with the design. Designing with the blind in mind embraces the movement toward universal design.

Communicating Ideas

Communication and presentation are important skills of the architect. Visually impaired architects must be even more creative in getting across their ideas. Computers have become the great equalizer for professionals with disabilities of any kind, although tactile graphic toys like Wikki Stix have long been used by people of all ages.

Visually impaired architects will be useful to any organization or individual desiring to focus on inclusivity. With no prejudice to the way things look visually — sometimes called aesthetics — the blind architect will choose the most functional detail or material first. The way it looks? What is called "eye candy" can come later.

Finally, the Low Vision Design Program of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) has established guidelines for residential design and recommendations for public accommodation. Their 80-page evidence-based PDF document Design Guidelines for the Visual Environment was issued in May 2015 and is filled with useful information.


  • American Foundation for the Blind. Key Definitions of Statistical Terms.
  • Blindness Basics. American Printing House for the Blind.
  • Downey, Chris. Design with the blind in mind. TED Talk, October 2013.
  • Downey, Chris. Profile. Architecture for the Blind.
  • Goben, Jan. Architect is visionary for the blind.
  • McGray, Douglas. Design Within Reach: A blind architect relearns his craft. The Atlantic, October 2010