Interview with Simon Kinneir: The Leaven Range
In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, based on the principle of full inclusion of all people in society. In reality, however, performing everyday tasks without assistance still poses a challenge, for example, for blind and visually impaired people, in a world geared to the needs of the sighted. To help overcome these everyday barriers, designers develop products and services aimed at making the lives of those concerned easier and helping them to achieve more independence.
In the final year of his studies at the Royal College of Art in London, Simon Kinneir focussed on the problems of visually impaired people when using everyday products. The resulting series of kitchen items now includes nine prototypes that are not only practical, but also a pleasure to use and intended to increase the users’ independence. We asked the product designer questions about the concept and idea of his study project.
How did you come up with the idea to design kitchen products for visually impaired people?
I am partially sighted in one eye which fuels an interest to use my practice as a designer to improve situations which commonly rely on full sight; whether that is using your phone, understanding signage or making a cup of tea. Self-confidence in the kitchen proved an important chance to maintain people’s self-sufficiency and wellbeing.
These kitchen products stemmed from researching with people the point of transition into their sight worsening. I discussed people’s experience of daily life: considering tasks in each room of the house – which senses they used and how. I also spent a day simulating total blindness to appreciate what I had learned.
What is the difference between the development of products for blind and visually impaired people and for people who are not limited in their sight? What has to be taken into account by designers?
In terms of difference it is key to understand that sensory conditions and a lot of physical conditions are variable: coming and going with for example time of day or environment; so in equal measures a solution must still appeal to people’s taste as well as be usable. I would empower designers to give credit to the creativity and capability of people to adapt, and that being inclusive can be tasteful. Specific to the demands of partial sight, I think, consistency should be taken into account, and in terms of products I would take advantage of communicative cues materially (for example changes in temperature, texture or sound) and environmentally (for example natural contrast). These products aim to reassure people during a task beyond relying on ‘watching what you’re doing’ by amplifying sensory feedback inherent in the task, or giving passive tactile pointers.
What major challenges and problems did you face?
One challenge in the research stage is time – finding people and meeting several times. But it always pays off after bringing people on board and holding out for that gem of insight. In the production of The Leaven Range the major challenge was getting the counter weight for the jug right; thanks goes to my brother.
Which product in this series is your favourite?
Three products are ‘active’ – responsive to the task – the jug, the mug, and the saucepan-lid. Whilst it is more sculptural than ergonomic the jug is my favourite as it is geometric, has a graceful behaviour (tipping forward), which communicates the design intent most clearly.
How can designers help to make the everyday challenges of blind and visually impaired people easier?
People primarily should be comfortable – able to do things independently in the same environment as other people – without it being overt. As people are adaptive, a challenge means that the environment or product is not being adaptive. Therefore check whether your ideas of sight related challenges and priorities are accurate or based on assumptions. If there are guidelines, understand why they exist as much as what they say: have the confidence to be creative. Take note during your everyday – moments when you experience symptoms of sight loss – for example finding something in the dark, having taken your glasses off, or working at very high magnification. Specifically: contrast is useful, being able to access text and information independently is essential, and style is important.
You are working at the The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at London’s Royal College of Art. What is the current focus of your research?
I have just spent a year with my colleague Elizabeth Roberts carrying out research with youngsters with sight loss (aged 12 to 18 years) about low vision aids. This age group tend to use assistive products less and less during teenage years so there is a need to counteract that and maximise their useful vision during this important stage.