We sat down for a conversation with Jude Pullen, a friend of Propellerfish and a Designer who was part of the BBC Program Big Life Fix which aimed to create life-changing solutions for people desperately in need.  Overcoming social isolation amongst the blind was the tall order facing Jude and his team on the program as they attempted to answer the question: How do we re-design a school playground for the blind?  

Their specific design target was Josh, an 8-year-old boy who was born blind but attended a regular school with a regular playground.  He attends class like a regular kid and eats lunch like a regular kid but come playtime, Josh sits on a bench by himself, unable to join his friends.  The vast expanse of the outdoor playground proves too much to navigate on his own. 

You can watch the full video of how the team came to a solution at the bottom of the page but we thought it would be interesting to focus on how Jude and his team went about designing the playground to become a more inclusive place.


Augmenting the person vs augmenting the environment

For Jude’s team, a natural first approach might have been to solve the problem specifically from the perspective of a blind child.  After all, it makes sense that to re-design a process that excluded a specific group, you should focus your approach solely on solving for the excluded group.  From there, you might turn to something that could augment the abilities of the blind individual, giving them some of the abilities or experiences of a sighted person.  Jude and the team explored this opportunity by creating things that gave Josh greater awareness of his surroundings, bringing his experience closer in line to that of a sighted person.  Initial ideas ranged from using GPS tracking, infrared technology similar to that used on the moon landing and even exploring re-wiring the brain to ‘feel’ vision.  Ultimately, the team opted not to augment Josh as an individual but instead to augment Josh’s environment.


Here’s why:

1. Helping Josh didn’t scale beyond Josh

Even though the main purpose of the BBC program was to help Josh, any solutions created bespoke for Josh would have to be designed and built again for the next blind child.  If the solution had been a personal device that Josh wore during playtime and another blind child enrolled at the school 5 years later, the new blind student would be in the same situation as Josh – not exactly progress.


2. Altering Josh’s experience allowed Josh to better participate in sighted children’s experience but didn’t allow sighted children to participate in Josh’s experience

Generally, social isolation is overcome in two ways: reaching out to others or having others reach out to you.  A design that augments Josh and allows him to better reach out to others might work well enough as a solution to his playtime problem but the best solutions to social isolation will work in both directions: allow Josh to enter the world of his sighted friends and allow Josh’s friends to enter his world.  Both groups will gain a better understanding of what it’s like to walk a mile in the other’s shoes.


3. You can’t fix non-inclusive design with more non-inclusive design

Inclusive Design allows everyone to use something easily, safely and with dignity.  Augmenting only Josh would ignore the principle of inclusive design yet again by ensuring that only a single individual was able to participate in the newly designed experience.  In much the same way that many of the world’s toughest problems are not solved by doing the exact opposite of what causes the problems, non-inclusive design should not be corrected with further non-inclusive design. Hate and intolerance will never be conquered with more hate and intolerance.  Biases will never be overcome by creating more biases. Inclusive Design reminds us that we can and should strive to create a world that is better for everyone by designing for everyone.


What Jude’s solution looked like

In the end, Jude and the team created a network of tactile paving roads which played sounds at either end, so over time, Josh was able to build up an ‘audio navigation map’ of where key features lay, based on roads having different sounds assigned to them.  While Josh relied on these sounds and tiles for navigation, his classmates were able to play alongside him by jumping on the tiles together as different combinations in unison created different sounds (like special key combos in video games).  Gamifying Josh’s new navigation tool allowed everyone on the playground to share in the experience – not as a special needs installation but as something fun for everyone. As a result, Josh finally left the bench to not only play like his friends but also with his friends.

Jude Pullen is a Friend of Propellerfish and Technologist and Prototyping Expert who has spent a decade working with some of the world’s most innovative companies and startups including Dyson and LEGO.  You can find more of Jude’s BBC work here: http://www.judepullen.com/bbc-big-life-fix/ and if you’d like to learn more about this specific project you can watch the BBC video below.

By Colin Siu

Colin is a Strategist at Propellerfish London. In his time at Propellerfish, he has developed growth opportunities for organizations across the consumer goods, technology and energy industries. Originally from Canada, Colin has worked in over 10 countries and spent time in both our London and Singapore offices.