Does it matter what it means?

Alastair Somerville
2 min readJan 6, 2017

I saw this tweet yesterday about a long-time worker at Crayola, the crayon making company, who admitted, on retirement, he was colour blind.

The brilliance of this is how it didn’t matter. He made colourful crayons for children for years.

Capacity becoming impairment

The tweet reminded me of a design problem around meaning and personalisation.

In wayfinding projects, there comes a point where people want to define specific meanings to symbols and colours. And that’s fine.

Where things can go wrong is when the design is deployed and staff demand that users only use the design in way they recognise.

Thus, say for example with colour blindness, it’s entirely possible for a colour blind person to navigate a place with badly formatted signs as they use their experience and capacities to judge what is meant. That skill and capacity is internal and successful.

When a staff member tells that person to follow the green arrows to the red building, then the capacity is destroyed. The inability of the person to tell green from red is made both externally public and it becomes an impairment not a capacity.

The person is forced into a meaning making system that they cannot use and made to feel that it is their failure.

Their skills are unrecognised. Their impairments highlighted.

Socially. Publicly.

Personal meaning, private meanings?

Yesterday, an old tweet was being retweeted about this article on ergonomics and averages.

It’s a good article as it points out what the US Air Force realised decades ago.

The average is useless.

Personalisation – in their terms buttons and elasticated straps – was the solution for pilots.

You don’t make the person aware that they don’t fit by insisting on a one-size uniform and cockpit.

You offer flexibility and choices to adjust things to meet personal capacities that are respectful and private.

The impairment is only made real because of the design’s insistence of one way of thinking, doing or meaning.

Yet it does not need to be.

However beautiful and clever your design is to you, don’t insist that others have to use it in the specific way you think.

Be open, be flexible, be diverse.

Recognise how people use many physical and cognitive methods to perceive and make meaning. Don’t make them change the way they live just for the moments of use of your product.

Respect the ways people live their lives.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX