On the Spotlight: Tactile Studio
and the Design for all engagement
Tactile Studio is a brilliant example of how we can combine business growth with socially conscious aspects. Tactile Studio has joined The Place two years ago when the Parisian headquarter decided it was time to develop a German-based branch. And the activities since then are in full swing:Tactile Studio is a passionate team of designers, ergonomist, 3D model makers, graphic designers crafting tactile and interactive objects to make Arts accessible to all, including blind and visually impaired people.
We’ve sat down with Alexandra & Romane, the women in charge of Tactile’s development in Germany to better understand what is at stake around the topic of accessibility.
How did you two joined Tactile Studio?
Alexandra: Tactile was born in 2009 in France and is present in Germany for almost 2,5 years now. I joined in the adventure to start up the business in Germany and to create the German branch . About a year ago, the company’s activities almost doubled, and that’s when Romane joined in the action. My studies didn’t predestine me for this (I attended a Business School), but I did run some social projects on the side and I always wished to find a job where I can combine social projects and business.
Romane: I originally come from the field of Art Studies/ Cultural and social project Management so for me to embark in this project felt like a natural continuum.
How does Tactile Studio, as team, develop the projects?
We rely on in-house experience and the strong skills of the team (Model making, Graphic Design) to understand how the visually impaired, as well and other visitors are understanding the tactile objects. For example perspective drawings are not something that can be easily grasped for a visually impaired audience. Perspective is per se something that is designed by seers for seers. There are so many art pieces based on this. The whole idea behind our approach is to find another way to explain and render them.
Every single project is personalized down to the very last detail, because naturally there are a lot of parameters to be taken into consideration. But one of the most common denominator in tactile design is always the orientation plan: and that is to make sure everyone is able to familiarize themselves with the space they’re in. Providing an orientation map is essential, but the cultural places have to go further and plan also to give other objects and knowledge to interact with in an accessible way When developing a new project, we also have to keep in mind the layout offered by the museum, as well as the scenographic concept, to make sure we propose objects that seamlessly fit in the plan.
You’ve been working with renowned institutions like the Louis Vuitton Foundation or the Louvre Abu Dhabi. What was/ is the most original tactile experience you’ve developed till now?
One of the most original project we developed in Germany was certainly the Technical Museum of Berlin, because of the tactile path that was designed to explain the printing techniques in use since the 15th Century. It was definitely a challenge, since it’s already complicated to render it in simple words and effects for a visually-abled person. In the end, what’s been done has allowed visually impaired people to have a better understanding and access to these fascinating techniques.
Tactile Studio is one of the European leaders in the field of accessibility to arts-related content . Is it a growing area?
Yes! Especially in Germany considering inclusion and accessibility are part of Museums regulations. It’s still up for interpretation though: for instance, the most basic prop is designing paths for wheelchairs. But accessibility is so much more than that! For example, a newcomer in Berlin needs to have access to information in a way that would be understood by them. This can also be included in the “accessibility” conversation.
For sure, nowadays, museums have more and more tactile objects, easy to read transcriptions, audio guides, interactive initiatives for hard-of-hearing & visually-impaired visitors.
But what we are trying to do is thinking about a larger strategy on how to structure things, so that we can creates cohesive paths for a larger percentage of the public. It’s more than just having tactile building plan (like emergency exits or room plans): It’s about giving access to the content of the room itself, which creates so much more value for the audience.
Were you able to check for yourselves how people were reacting to the tactile projects in cultural institutions you worked with?
We’ve done many in-house tests. For example, last summer we tested a prototype for the Frankfurt Filmmuseum. The test was conducted for different situations: for sighted children, for people who can read Braille, for an audience that can read pyramidal letters (big letters in relief) but not the braille Tactile objects can be understood in so many different ways: a person who’s born blind developed a sense of touch that probably a person who had become blind doesn’t have. The latter might understand an explanation around colors a little better than the former.
This Design for all concept is there to encompass all the parameters and the various needs of a such a diverse audience.
Does it have a measurable impact on the attendance rate?
It’s difficult to measure what percentage of the attendance rate is due to the installation of tactile platforms. But with the word of mouth, a new population is introduced to the museum and this naturally brings a positive impact on the whole institution.
Besides, it allows all types of visitors to have a different experience of the museum itself. It’s a completely new way of explaining what is exposed behind a glass window, or behind a descriptive text. And by performing these explanations in an easy and intuitive way, we invite people to go beyond the usual “do not touch” restriction.
What would encourage cultural institutions to go even further on the accessibility topic?
First of all, all the cultural institutions need to understand that is this is a real need.
Some told us “we haven’t encountered any situation with an impaired visitor so far”, “I don’t think I have this need right now” or “this is just going to cost money”.
But the point is that Design for all is by definition meant to help us all, and it’s not only addressing an impaired audience.
Then, the question of budget is a serious limit.
When it comes to budget planning, there is a part of the total that goes into improving accessibility. This is where the institution’s management have to make impactful choices. In parallel, all the stakeholders need to be aware of what Design for all consist of. We represent the middle point between all these stakeholders, that of course have different interests in mind: curators want to protect the art pieces, while architects and scenographers want to keep the visitor’s path beautiful and accessible. We’re the ones bridging the gaps and bringing all of them to make compromises.
You’ve said it: it’s boils down to more awareness. How do you educate the professionals of this field to be more aware?
Besides our main design activity, we also offer consulting services:
We go on-site and advise on the changes these professionals could do to make their space a bit more accessible; we meet them during conferences; we visit the future curators; we go talk to Museology students to make them more sensitive about accessibility topics. We’ve once asked one group of student to draw a tactile plan of the botanical garden present in their university: A challenging task but an educational one, as it allowed them to realize how difficult, yet important, this is.
Do you have the feeling that you’re fostering a new career path actually?
We see it differently. I would say that Design for all is a transversal topic. Something that goes across all kinds of studies: Architecture, Exhibition Scenography, Art Curation.
We could extend this paradigm to so many different areas. Websites are everywhere but most of Web designs are not thoughtful enough about accessibility (size of font, contrast, audio that could be triggers, readable pdfs).
What would you say definitely set you apart from your competitors?
There is lots of work done by associations as well, who are also shaking up this topic at their level.
What sets us apart is that we actually make beautiful objects. It would be a pity to have something that is purely practical in the middle of beautiful art pieces. We’re thinking of these new objects as a sensory extension of the exhibition itself.
What’s in the making right now?
So, now we have an atelier & the headquarter office in Paris. We have also expanded to England & Canada and we’re planning to have a second producing atelier in Europe (we only have one in Paris so far)
In the meantime, we at the German branch are focusing on new exciting projects happening here: for example an upcoming joint project at Bauhaus Museum.
We’re talking a lot about scalability in the startup ecosystem at the moment.
How do you think this could be apply to the value proposition of Tactile Studio?
What we’re selling is per se very customized. Nonetheless, there are certainly parts of the work that could be automatized in the future. We could think about orientation plans: Uploading a file on the website and have a tactile plan delivered. We’re definitely thinking about this type of service but this would involve very standardized objects only. It would also require a very strong expertise and experience in inclusive design behind.
It’s another type of challenge to design an Art Piece because they’re always unique. Plus, it has to fit with the design of the exhibition space as well. This is one of our strongest unique selling points.