The following post covers the research topic for my 4th year BID thesis project. The project was sponsored by the Ingenium Foundation, an overseeing body for three museums in the Ottawa area. The job for me and my team was to create accessible furniture for the newly built Canadian Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) which officially opened its doors in November, 2017.
Brief & Constraints
The brief appeared simple enough (how hard is furniture design?), which is usually the case before project constraints are seriously considered. And were there constraints!
1. The furniture had to be inclusive: people with mobility devices (wheelchairs, canes, etc…) should be able to sit in proximity to everybody else.
2. The furniture had to have specific dimensions: the museum hosts adults and children who require a specific seating and backrest height.
3. The furniture had to be lightweight: The space is expected to be cleared for events.
4., The furniture has to withstand abuse: Toddlers are known to vomit and urinate unexpectedly.
5. The furniture must accommodate people with disabilities: Physical disabilities, particularly low-vision users.
6. The furniture must not have moving parts.
7. The furniture must have a hidden and tamper-proof ganging system for training.
8. The furniture must be unique but stylistically match the museum’s interior theme.
9. The furniture must not have sharp edges.
10. The furniture layout must encourage social interaction.
I will attempt to condense 8 months of design research as concisely as possible for our mutual sanity.
As with any design research project, site visits are a crucial first step to understanding the testing environment and its main user group. At this time it is easier for the designer to notice glaring problems, areas for improvement and define the greater scope of the project through client interviews.
After its massive overhaul (see above) the museum needed furniture for a large, empty, circular space (highlighted in grey below) at the crossroads of its galleries.
What we noticed immediately was the dark room lighting and the the room’s poor acoustics. Without any sound dampening materials (carpet and ceiling deflectors), it became very obvious that conversation in this room would only work in very close proximity.
As part of a group of 5 motivated designers, my job was to ensure that whatever furniture we proposed could be set up in a logical way to ensure easy access for mobility device users (specifically wheelchairs and wheelchair-to-seat-transfer scenarios) and in comfortable view of the two large projection screens in the room.
I became the project’s designated space planner - something I never thought I’d ever do. Space planning is difficult because an empty room can be organized with furniture in a limitless variety of configurations. What made this project even more challenging was that the room was a giant circle; there were no corners to logically build from. We also didn’t have any furniture to use (furniture design was not allowed for the first 6 months of the project as this time was designated for research only*).
What I had to create was a floating furniture plan that provided wheelchair access for its users without blocking foot traffic between galleries and ensured that a socially optimal distance between benches existed.
Through careful consideration, site visits, pedestrian foot traffic analysis and empathy testing…
…I eventually arrived at this layout:
*The syllabus and course structure had to be followed by all class design groups, including ours. It came as no surprise that some of the workflow, at times, was backwards.
Primary seat backing dimensions were lifted directly from Bodyspace by Stephen Pheasant and Christine M. Haslegrave. The contour reportedly showed the lowest number of complaints in a 1988 study by Grandjean et al. The curve is meant to reduce lumbar spine loading and cartilage deformation.
My colour palette was decided based on the museum’s interior environment. I set out to create modern furniture that was stylistically inoffensive for the HUB use. In doing so, the furniture could take on roles (if needed) in other areas of the museum.
Following the course structure and syllabus, the total allocated time for furniture design was 10 days. The bench and armrests were sketched, modeled, evaluated with Finite Element Analysis (FEA) and rendered for presentation in just over a week.
High Fidelity Model
The support staff strike coincided with our end of year preparations in March and lasted 21 days. This prevented anybody from accessing the wood or metal shops (conveniently, the OC Transpo Union honored the strike by terminating all bus service on campus).
1:1 scale models were changed to 3:4 scale in response.