The power of a symbol

altered accessibility signA year ago I wrote a post, Guerrilla Art is Changing Perceptions of Agency for the Disabled, about two New York artists, Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren, who started a culture-jamming project of modifying public ‘disabled accessible’ signs. Their aim was to make the person-in-a-wheelchair symbol more energetic by changing the angle of movement, and adding a sense of agency to the figure. They wanted to counter the message of passivity embedded in the traditional accessibility symbol.

Their work caught the attention of New York city officials, and the new symbol soon became recognized in New York city.


updated disabled symbolFast-forward a year, and Governor Cuomo recently signed an updated accessibility icon into New York state law. (See press release.) The new official symbol of accessibility for New York state features a much more active and engaged image, and it very closely follows the original guerrilla art design. After the artists placed the symbol in the public domain, it was turned into official signage by Conrad Lumm and Katrina Otuonye for SmartSign, and is being distributed by MyParkingSign on a mostly donation or discount basis to encourage implementation of this important revision as fast as possible. (See MyParkingSign’s accessibility campaign.)

As Conrad Lumm says, “Ambient messaging about people with disabilities has the potential to stifle job prospects and quality of life, so the Accessible Icon designed by Hendren and Glenney is an important corrective. We look forward to rolling out (and donating) indoor wayfinding signage that includes the Accessible Icon, too. It makes us unspeakably proud that New York state is making this switch, and we hope more states follow.”

What I love about this story is not just that disabled people in New York have a better public symbol, but that the movement towards this change came from the grassroots. Culture-jamming and guerrilla art can be defined as the people talking back to a culture whose messages and images are largely corporate- or institutionally-driven. That two artists took it upon themselves to say, “Here is a better way to symbolize this particular sector of our society,” and that their idea was seen and acted upon by those with the power and resources to move the change into law, and distribute it statewide, is truly inspiring.

Now it’s time for Oregon to update its disabled signage!



Guerrilla art is changing perceptions of agency for the disabled

guerrilla art handicap stickerIt started out as a piece of guerrilla art, and now it’s changing official handicapped accessible signs.

Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren started to “modify” existing symbols of accessibility to change public perception about disability several years ago. After the project gained the attention of New York officials the revised symbol is becoming officially recognized within the city.

“Initially, Glenney and Hendren’s aim was to generate conversation. Though the ISA symbol had generally been a huge boon to disabled individuals over the years, it’s easy to see how the symbol itself was less than ideal. Compared to the bathroom sign stick figures we’re used to, the one on the ISA looks frail and immobile–more an outgrowth of the chair it’s sitting in than its own distinct entity. … the goal [of the new symbol] was to show a more humanized depiction of the disabled. That meant reorienting the visual focus of the symbol from the chair to the person, and replacing the rigid, static representation with something more dynamic and active.”

old and new accessible iconsRead the full story at »

And more about the Accessible Icon Project »

The Disciplines of User Experience Design

The deeper I go into user experience design, the more I realize how broad the topic is, and also how difficult it can be to explain to someone for whom the idea or term is new. I appreciate Thomas Gläser‘s Venn diagram of the discipline and how it relates to many other disciplines. On various sites where the diagram has been posted commenters are quick to point out what’s missing, e.g. why doesn’t sound design overlap with interaction design?  But, as Mark Wilson points out on,

…to critique a piece like this is to ungratefully overlook its utility: Don’t see this as the only road map for the entire UX design industry, but a postulation as to why it’s so darned complicated to nail good UX. To think anyone could be an expert in each of these circles is sheer absurdity. Scratch that: To think any designer could be an expert in each of these circles is sheer absurdity, but to recognize that every end user is an expert in each of these circles is highly important. As humans and end users, we might not know what makes an experience right, but we certainly know when it’s wrong.


It’s comforting to have Jakob Nielsen in the world

Siemens website carouselThe latest Nielsen Alertbox posting inspired me to write. It’s Auto-Forwarding Carousels and Accordions Annoy Users and Reduce Visibility and it makes no bones about the uselessness of what at first glance seems like a good idea. Auto-forwaring carousels have become standard issue on websites where the urge is to “tell our story” but the client has a hard time condensing that story down to a few words. So a carousel is set up where the story is told over several slides, each typically featuring a large photo or graphic with a short paragraph of text. But the fear (on the part of the client and the designer) is that most users will not ever see beyond the first slide in the carousel, so the carousel is programmed to automatically rotate through the slides.

To the client and to the designer, copywriter, programmer, and others who have worked on the site, all seems fine because we’ve been knee-deep in developing the content for months and the carousel slides are familiar to us. But what about the new visitor? I know the frustration of having a carousel slide on a new-to-me site disappear before I’ve finished reading the contents, and the fumbling to find my way back (Where’s the navigation? At the bottom? Top right? Under the text?).

I have designed rotating carousels on many a website, often at the request of clients who have come to expect them. But I wonder if they are a fad that will pass. Maybe by 2014 or 2015 we’ll look back on carousels and wonder why we tried to cram so much into our home pages.

Oh, and I also love Nielsen’s comment about “content-free content”. Of the tagline on the Siemens website, “Rewarding.Life.Style.” he says, “This is content-free content to at least 99% of humans outside Siemens’ marketing department.” So true!

This is one of the reasons I like to perform a focus group on a website after it has been built but before it is launched to the public. Real-world users catch the BS-y things that can easily slip into a website during the design and build, and they’ll call you on it.

As I always say, your website is not for you, it’s for your audiences, and making sure their needs are met is highest priority.