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How do birth blind people imagine the shape of water when hearing it?

Water is falling onto the hot plate, it hisses. How do birth blind people imagine the shape of water when hearing it?

Written by Alena Halmes

“Augen zu. Eine unsichtbare Designsprache» / «Eyes shut. An invisible design language» is a research about blindness which concludes in a multisensorial drinking experience.

Complete darkness surrounded me. I was sitting in a restaurant in Basel, which offers a blind dinner experience. The lack of visual impression made my focus switch. Sound, temperature and texture of fork, knife, glass, plate and table were suddenly at the center of my attention. Being a designer, I started to wonder how blind people think about all the objects, them being designed for the visible world. Or, in other words: What is beautiful if you can not see?

This was the moment I felt that I couldn’t wait to start researching.

I was eager to meet blind people and learn about how their perception of objects differs from my perception. Also, what criteria would they use to assess the beauty of an object? Starting the project, I conducted a field study with six participants. Three of them were seeing, one was completely blind and two strongly visually impaired. (One of them could detect strong contrasts and therefore bright color and extremely bright or dark fields. Another could see through a hole of 1 cm on one eye, as she described it.) They were invited to select three objects, they really like (leisure, work and kitchen) which served as the interview’s basis. I added three randomly selected objects and let them judge and explain all of those six.

As the visually impaired and the blind participants had to feel the objects with their hands, they perceived them in a more fragmental way. When their hands followed their own path over the object, they gained impressions which they put together like a puzzle. They can’t perceive it all at one glance, so they spend more time exploring the object. Their impressions were more detailed, which enabled them to detect tiny irregularities. Another interesting observation I made was the importance of sounds. During the interview they used sounds actively (snapping with the finger against the object) to distinguish between materials, sizes or wall thickness. (They told me it was a strategy they often use.) All those observations made me think about how I could experiment with the flow over the object or the acoustics of objects later in the project.

But what about beauty? The participants, whether seeing or not, liked organic shapes, fine and smooth textures, and rather warm objects. Additionally (to the sensorial perception), all of them talked about memories of people, moments or places, functionality, quality, even they raised the question of how and by whom the object was manufactured. I find it remarkable that the people without sight sometimes imagined their objects in different states. In other words, they describe how they perceive the object not only at the present time, but also how it could have been used in the past and how it could be used in the future. One participant for example, imagined his glass bowl being filled with salad and the sound it creates when the wooden spoon touches the glass. This was a vital moment in the project. It made me realise that beauty can be perceived purely in our minds. However, this triggered a new question: Is it easier to imagine something when there is no visual stimulus?

When I asked about the images coming to their minds when hearing the word beautiful, they tended to describe a beautiful moment instead of a beautiful object. It seems to be the “déformation professionelle” of a trained product designer wanting the object to be at the center of attention. However, I learned that it was more about moments and memories. The object can be a means to an end or be somewhere in the background.

Never could I have imagined how interesting it is to learn about perceptions of blind people and the difficulties they face. Additionally to the field study, I met a woman who lost her sight when she was 40 years old. When telling me about her visual memories, she said: “I have to imagine pictures I want to keep in mind actively, otherwise I lose them.” But sometimes she doesn’t like it too much when seeing people describe every visual impression precisely. Sometimes, she prefers to not know exactly. “The missing visual picture makes it possible to imagine things around me in different versions. This has something magical.” When we left the café, where I had led her to, she said: “You have chosen a really beautiful place.”

Many of the blind people I met practiced a hobby, using their hands or ears actively. I think, creating or interacting with objects or music, is a way to keep the connection to the world. Next to music and ceramics, I got to know a strongly visually impaired woman (the one who can see through a hole of 1 cm on the left eye) following the practice of stone carving. It was stunning to see the complex forms she created with her restricted sight. “You know, with my hands I perceive stronger emotions of the forms I carve.”, she described her work.

There were so many topics I could have imagined going on further. It still struck me when I thought about how the blind used sounds to perceive an object. So, I started to experiment with acoustics... How do birth blind people imagine movement and form, when hearing a sound? I conducted interviews with four birth blind people and asked them how they imagine the movement and the shape of water when hearing sounds like “water hissing on a hot plate”, “water tap turned on maximum” or “boiling water”. I chose water, because this is something which can hardly be touched.

The results varied. One participant described exactly the same forms and movement eyes would see. Another participant: “When there is a bubbling sound, there is a bubbling sound. I don’t have an image to add to that.” The third and fourth dared to make descriptions (with some doubt whether they are right) which differed from the picture of water seeing people perceive. Their way to describe was rather unusual: “The river flows differently, depending on how the stones underneath are located.”

Taking the different answers into account, I concluded: It depends on the personal interest in the visual picture. The participant, who described the way a seeing person would, stated, he was really interested in technology and talks a lot about movements with his siblings: “I learned about the existence of a swirl, feeling my boat in the bathtub turning in circles, when getting close to the drain.” So, if they are curious, they can find ways to learn about the visual impressions seeing people have. The question is whether they want that or not. Therefore, I think it depends on their personality. What I am really wondering about is: Do they have a different understanding of the composition of the world’s elements in mind? How is it to imagine a river, if you have never seen one?

I used the descriptions of the third and fourth participant as a source of inspiration in order to create a new form of language. As their manner of describing was unusual, they also generated new forms in my mind and let me design this series of five drinking glasses. Each of them is inspired by a certain sound of water described by a birth blind person. My job as a designer was to adapt those descriptions into new forms and shapes.

This is how the multisensorial drinking experience came into being. Their forms are fully perceivable with the hands, as the glasses are for everyone, with and without sight. Designing the shapes, I emphasized the acoustics and the haptic aspects. The glasses can be held in the hand in many ways and invite to play and explore.

I’m really thankful for all the exciting talks and the opportunity to have met so many admirable people. And I think I have given something in return, as the perception of the blind made it possible to leave purely functional design behind and start moving into the direction of integrating the aesthetics of the non-visual into the design.

«Augen zu. Eine unsichtbare Designsprache» is a functional prototype. Currently, I am collaborating with a design studio creating new eating experience events. This event got postponed but I’m looking forward to sharing my further development with you.

I’m really interested in your thoughts, questions and discussions, so you are really welcome to contact me:

Linkedin: Alena Halmes / Instagram: halename / Email:

Photography: André Hönicke, Raphaëlle Wettstein and Alena Halmes

Thank you Alena for sharing this research with us!

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