By Maureen A. Duffy, M.S., CVRT

Erin Schambureck head shot

Erin Schambureck, MFA, is a Registered Interior Designer and commercial interior design practitioner who works with clients in the healthcare, senior living, education, and corporate sectors.

Most recently, she has served on the faculty in the Department of Design at Texas Tech University, where she conducted research on the impact of interior design components on persons with vision impairments. Currently, Erin is a member of the National Institute of Building Sciences Low Vision Design Committee.

Erin is also the creator of Design for Sight, a website that educates design professionals about the impact the built environment can have on the independence of persons who have low vision. Says Erin, “Design for Sight takes a two-step approach: first, identify the vision-related problems in the built environment; second, develop best practices of low vision design for interior spaces.”

She received her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Design Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where her master’s thesis focused on appropriate building design principles and interior spaces related to low vision. Erin used the results of her thesis research as the foundation for the Design for Sight website.

Maureen Duffy: Hello Erin. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us about your work. To begin, can you tell us more about how the Design for Sight website came to be? I understand that your father is an optometrist. Did that have anything to do with your interest in low vision design?

Erin Schamburek: Yes, and my sister’s an optician, so it does run in the family. About seven or eight years ago, I was practicing interior design at a small firm in Rochester, Minnesota. My dad works at the Mayo Clinic there, and the ophthalmology department that he’s part of was starting discussions about renovating the office and clinic space on their floor. They wanted to know if there was any supporting information that could provide renovation recommendations related to low vision.

I said, “I don’t know. Let me look into that.” So I started looking for any documentation materials. This was 2009, so the RP-28-07 was available. It wasn’t new then, but it wasn’t yet on my radar.

[Editor’s note: in 2007, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) published ANSI/IES-RP-28-07, titled Lighting and the Visual Environment for Senior Living, which recommended lighting recommendations for older persons. In 2016, the publication, now titled Lighting and the Visual Environment for Seniors and the Low Vision Population (RP-28-16), was expanded to new areas of interest, including offices, hospitality, healthcare, commercial, and places of assembly.]

I hadn’t designed spaces specifically for people who were visually impaired or had low vision, but I started looking for resources and information. I found that the RP-28-07 was one of the few documents that was geared toward residential environments. There wasn’t a lot available that we could find for commercial or public environments.

As a designer, what I always say is, “Well, what’s the design problem and how can I create a solution?” And we came up with some recommendations that the ophthalmology department brought to the architects working on the project. Some of the recommendations were incorporated but I think there’s still work to be done.

About that time, my father was approached to be a part of the National Institute of Building Sciences Low Vision Design Committee. They had a kickoff workshop in 2010 and he said, “Hey, my daughter is an interior designer and she’s really interested in this as well. Can we come along?” So I got in with a little nepotism and luck.

I was one of the few interior designers to join that group amongst mechanical and electrical engineers, architects, and lighting designers, and so I approached the issues from an interior design and wayfinding perspective. Being part of that workshop really sparked my interest in low vision design, especially hearing first-hand accounts of low vision user experiences and interacting with the authors of RP-28-07.

But also around that time, I was a product of the recession. I lost my interior design job in 2009 because my company was downsizing. As a result, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had always wanted to teach and so I chose, at that point, to go to graduate school – and I made “Designing for the Visually Impaired” my MFA thesis project.

From a practice standpoint, I wanted to find resources – or create a resource – to address commercial and public design for visually impaired people that would also be accessible to lay people with vision loss and their family members. I also wanted to reach designers, architects, and facility managers and provide examples of how the environments they design and manage have an impact on the low vision users of those spaces.

MD: I like Design for Sight very much. I think the information you cover is helpful to our readers and their families, and is also applicable to professionals who work in agencies for people who are blind and visually impaired. You identify a number of important environmental factors and explain them well in language that everyone can understand.

The first factor you describe is what you call luminance contrast. What I like is that you’ve also created several additional concepts that further define it for your audience: silhouette, sparkler, and whitewash. It’s difficult to simplify a complex environmental concept and I think you did it very well.

luminance contrast graphic

Examples of luminance contrast. Left to right: silhouette, sparkler, whitewash.
Source: Design for Sight

ES: I wanted to try to make the concept relatable to someone who might not know what “luminance contrast” means. Also, I wanted to create a system and graphic icons that were easy to remember.

“Luminance contrast” is another term for “glare,” while “silhouette,” “sparkler,” and “whitewash” describe different levels of brightness and how they contrast with each other. We can’t just call them all glare. There are different types of glare and they’re caused by different situations in the environment. Each type of glare requires a different design solution, so it’s important to be specific.

Silhouette refers to a large area source of light. It’s that window at the end of the hall or that bright light behind the person you’re talking to. What happens is that you can’t identify the person’s facial features because there’s too much contrast between their face and the bright background. It might not seem like a safety issue, but you might be embarrassed if you can’t recognize that person because of that face/bright background contrast. In a place that’s unfamiliar or not heavily populated, it could be a safety concern if the person with low vision can’t read the other person’s facial features or describe them, either because there’s not enough light on their face or there’s too much light in the background. That’s silhouette.

Sparkler refers to that car-headlight-on-the-road scenario where you get blinded by those oncoming headlights and can’t see a thing. That’s any kind of “small point” source glare. It happens frequently in any place where we’re using accent lighting for artwork or just adding a little sparkle to the space. Also, when we talk about lighting, we talk about the layers of light. You want ambient [i.e., overall or general room] light, you want task light, and you want accent light. If the accent light is not done well, or if it’s not shielded from the viewer, it could be a common source of glare, especially if it’s reflecting off a piece of art, or glass, or display case, or if it’s not directed away from the viewer. That’s sparkler.

Whitewash refers to additional light on the object that causes insufficient contrast. Where we see this all the time is with a projection screen or a TV screen. It is also called “veiling luminance” and is very common in many environments. The windows are open, you’re trying to see what’s on the TV, and you can’t because there’s too much sunlight spreading across that surface. If you close the shutters or drapes, you’re good to go. Now you’ve got enough contrast on that TV screen or projection screen. Also, signage can be a big problem. If there is too much “veiling luminance” on signage, with not enough shadow or contrast, then it can create problems reading that signage. That’s whitewash.

MD: The second factor you describe is what you call value contrast. Once again, you’ve created some additional, and very interesting, concepts that further describe it for your audience: ghost, camouflage, mirror mirror, deception, mood lighting, and detectable warning. I like these categories!

value contrast graphic

Examples of value contrast. Left to right: ghost, camouflage, mirror mirror, deception,
mood lighting, detectable warning. Source: Design for Sight

ES: My example of ghost is an all-white bathroom. It’s the white grab bars, the white toilet, the white walls, the white floor, and the white sink. You can’t find the fixture because there’s no contrast with the surroundings. It becomes “ghosted out.”

Camouflage is that sense of pattern on pattern on pattern: a patterned chair on a patterned carpet in a room with patterned walls. There isn’t enough value contrast between the furnishings and the flooring to be able to identify where that chair is. It’s also going to be difficult to locate the armrest and sit in that chair.

Mirror mirror is about reflection in the room or space that lowers the contrast. We don’t know where we’re headed because we’re distracted or confused by the reflected images in a shiny surface. That’s when you can’t find the door in the wall of glass. It’s unidentifiable. There needs to be more contrast around the door, perhaps etching or patterning, to identify the door and the room exit.

Mood lighting is related to lighting, but it also involves contrast. Our visual acuity is based on a combination of the contrast of materials in the room or space and the level of light. If there isn’t enough contrast and there isn’t enough light, it’s going to be very difficult to navigate and see objects in that space, such as tables, chairs, and the server cart in a dark restaurant.

Deception, on the other hand, is almost the opposite of “mood lighting.” A good example is shadows on a level floor created by a window mullion [i.e., a bar between the panes of glass in a window]. These shadow patterns are repetitive and also change throughout the day. For the human eye, these shadows can also be visual cues that suggest the repetitive nature of steps and stairs. In that situation, a person might be anticipating some kind of level change, which could cause them to lose their footing, trip, and even fall.

Detectable warning relates to level changes, too. If there is a lack of detectable warning at any kind of level change, such as at the top and bottom of a ramp, that can be a major safety hazard. Another example is if the flooring material and flooring color change halfway down a ramp. That is a serious potential hazard because the flooring surface has already changed, there’s already a downward slope, and color change can signify a level change.

So if that happens, the person is not going to anticipate it until they’re halfway down the slope and they are likely to lose their footing, trip, and fall. A detectable warning could be an edge strip, additional lighting at that space, or texture change – some way to denote that something might be happening here, something has changed. That “warning” will allow the person to slow down, take a minute, assess what’s happening, and move on.

MD: Taking a minute can be all that people need sometimes – or even just a space that will allow someone to step off the main foot traffic area and have time to assess and adjust. Some people have developed their own ways to take a minute, such as stepping aside to tie a shoelace, for example. What they’re really doing is buying a little time to let their eyes adjust and evaluate their surroundings.

MD: The third factor you describe is what you call object placement, which you further describe with the concepts kissable signage and open waters. Again, I like your very descriptive categories! I also read that wayfinding was an interest of yours as it relates to interior design, so I’m interested to hear what you have to say about this as a design professional.

object placement graphic

Examples of object placement.
Left to right: kissable signage, open waters.
Source: Design for Sight

ES: From the standpoint of an orientation and mobility instructor, they are trying to teach the visually impaired person how to read the cues that are provided in the building, or to be able to navigate in a familiar or unfamiliar space. I think it’s my job as a designer to support those efforts for visually impaired persons.

Kissable signage is actually credited to a colleague of mine on the National Institute of Building Sciences Low Vision Design Committee. It’s the idea that overhead wayfinding signage is not helpful to the visually impaired person. They’re typically looking down or straight ahead, trying not to trip or walk into something. Their focus is “down here,” not overhead. Plus overhead signage is too far away to read. So any kind of overhead wayfinding signage needs to be repeated at eye level, close at hand, clearly contrasting with the wall surface, with lettering that contrasts with the background color of the sign. If I can get close enough to kiss it, I can see it!

Many designers say, “Oh great! We’ll have overhead wayfinding signage so that if someone can see it from a distance they’ll be able to plan their route accordingly.” But that’s not always helpful. And it’s rare that the signage plan is coordinated with the lighting plan.

When I talk about open waters, I think about a big atrium space with a reception desk at the far side of the space. Someone with low vision probably isn’t going to be able to see that desk at the far side. But if you’ve got nicely contrasted, obvious architectural features, you can direct someone to that information desk or to the elevator bank, rather than expecting them to cross this giant open water, this field of nothingness, and hope they haven’t veered off course when they get to the other side. Otherwise, what a visually impaired person will likely do will be to walk the perimeter until they find what they’re looking for.

Another important factor in object placement that isn’t on my website is building layout; in particular, consistent building layout from floor to floor. Many of us have been to that building where the bathrooms swap location from floor to floor; for example, on odd-numbered floors, the men’s room is on the west and the women’s room is on the east, and then on even-numbered floors, the women’s room is on the west and the men’s room is on the east. And it alternates like that from floor to floor. So if you lose track of what floor you’re on, you’re in for a potentially embarrassing situation!

MD: And the final factor you describe is luminance placement, or lighting placement, which you describe with the concepts transition zone, checkerboard, and shadow land. Professionally, I’ve very interested in effective lighting for low vision, so this factor interested me quite a lot.

luminance placement graphic

Examples of luminance placement. Left to right: transition zone,
checkerboard, shadow land. Source: Design for Sight

ES: Luminance placement is about the placement of the lighting. As designers, we want to make sure that we are incorporating the lighting design and that we’re considering lighting quality, and not just lighting quantity, when we’re designing for vision loss.

Transition zone is an important concept here. It takes longer to adapt from interior to exterior light levels, whether it’s a bright exterior during the day, walking into a dim interior, or a bright interior at night, walking into a dim exterior. Allowing for flexible lighting is part of that transition zone. Can I change the interior light levels to better help someone’s eyes accommodate as they move into the building?

Creating a transition zone also means having a place for seating right near the door, somewhere a person can step aside and wait for someone or allow themselves time to adapt. That can make a huge difference in a person’s comfort going forward into that building.

Transition zones also happen at elevator lobbies. You’ll often see an elevator lobby that’s set off from a very bright main atrium. But when you move into the elevator lobby, there’s mood lighting, along with shiny elevator doors. The person goes into the elevator and it’s super dark – a dark tiny hole. There aren’t usually any lighted elevator buttons or buttons with good contrast, it’s difficult to find the correct floor number, and the person can only hope that someone will help them find the button they need.

Checkerboard is similar to deception, in that they both involve window mullions [i.e., bars between the panes of glass in a window]. With checkerboard, we’re talking about how those shadows from window mullions change throughout the day or play with the flooring pattern as the sun moves. That can create some confusion.

It’s that hallway you enter at 9:00 AM, when the sun is coming from one direction and there are not many shadows. You could probably navigate that space fairly easily. At the end of the day, however, the sun has moved to a different position, there are many different shadow patterns, and that same hallway looks completely different. It’s even difficult to tell if you’re in the same location. It’s disconcerting how different the space feels. It can also be difficult to interpret the flooring surface.

Shadow land is about inconsistent lighting placement. On the website, I discuss a clinic space I evaluated. Without getting too technical, the clinic had done a lighting upgrade and changed their fluorescent hallway lighting from standard fluorescent tubes (a 2 foot x 4 foot lighted hallway area) to slightly shorter, brighter fluorescents (a 2 foot x 2 foot brighter hallway area). The result was that the upgrade increased the intensity of the fluorescent light while making the area of brightness smaller, so the “spread” of light across the hallway or down each hallway decreased.

The result was areas of more intense light and more shadow as a person walked down the hallway, creating a sense of what I call “shadow land.” If there is signage within that shadowed area, the person’s eyes are going to adapt to the brightest spot along that hallway; therefore, when the person moves into that shadowed area, it’s more and more difficult to read a sign, find the right doorway, or locate the exit.

MD: I think your Appendix is extremely useful, too. I especially like the section in which you provide guidelines on how to evaluate the visual environment.

ES: The Appendix is a bit more technical, but I do want to point people to some of the resources I found on glare indices, luminance mapping, contrast and wayfinding, evaluating the visual environment, resources, and my references.

MD: Erin, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I’ve very much enjoyed learning more about your important work. We thank you for your support of VisionAware and for your personal and professional commitment to blind and visually impaired persons everywhere.