Enabling a journey but not being the journey

I’m talking at an event on designing sensory places and architecting wellbeing this week. It’s free so come along if there’s tickets still available.

This post is about the design process for making maps in museums for accessibility. It’s about trying to balance enabling new experiences whilst supporting core needs. To guide and to leave alone. The problem of supporting independence.

A place

Start by defining the shape of the space. People need to know the limits of both the physical and, in embodied terms, the cognitive space.

Edges matter.

An entrance matters

A welcome

Every journey has a start point. Celebrate and inform the start with a Welcome.

It is actually very difficult to know why a person has decided to come to a museum so the welcome desk is a way of exploring what the visitor wants to do and might love to do.

Design for diversity

A map cannot show all possible journeys so the accessibility of a place is defined by the depth of these conversations. Hopes and possibilities shared and laid out.

A relief, a rest and a gift

The next items are part of a core design concept for museum wayfinding. This is generally defined as:

  • See
  • Wee
  • Tea
  • Spree
  • Flee

Definitely show the key resources that enable care and comfort: where the toilets are, where the cafe is, where the gift shop is (as well as roughly where the exhibits are and where the exits are).

These things, like the basic shape and limits of the place, anchor the person in the place and enable them to explore by providing knowledge that supports their human needs.

A space to explore

We’re just finishing a new map. It’s got quite a lot of space.

That’s deliberate.

There is twofold problem in accessible information (both in physical terms for tactile maps or cognitive terms).

The more information you put in the map is the information that must be read and understood prior to actually going around the exhibits.

This can both use a lot of time and a lot of cognitive capacity. The visitor is caught up reciprocating to your desire to inform them. The museum has a strong position of privilege in this. The visitor loses their own time, their own journey.

When visiting a new place, especially a museum, there is going to be a lot of new information. The more you frontload that, the more likely the visitor will be overwhelmed before they even step into the galleries.

Our current view is to not provide too much detail on galleries and artefacts as a) it creates this early weight problem and b) it actually removes the key human experience of making journey of exploration.

People visit museums for many reasons. Give them space to make the journeys they hoped for or to discover the journey they hadn’t imagined.

The above image is the map we just delivered to Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It comes with visual & tactile graphics plus Braille and large font.

Designing for gaps

In conclusion, this is about the design of gaps.

The design of service journeys and user experiences where the designer does not try to control the journey or experience.

Enable the visitors capability and capacity to make the journey but leave them to discover what has meaning to themselves.

Provide gaps and provide staff to talk to.

Accessible information cannot meet the needs of all visitors at all times but it can provide a basic structure that enables people to feel comfortable in a new space and ask questions that truly support their personal needs for the best experience that they define for themselves.



Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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Alastair Somerville

Alastair Somerville


Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX