Highly Commended 2023

Monash Sensory Science

Rossjohn Laboratory / Swinburne Interaction Design Lab

Monash Sensory Science is a world-first multisensory design strategy engaging scientists and people living with blindness and low vision.

Monash Sensory Science is a world-first, multisensory design strategy engaging one of Australia’s leading biomedicine institutes through multisensory design, co-creation, STEM exhibition and outreach for blind, low vision and diverse-needs communities. Leveraging the lived experience of a legally blind artist/designer, the program has empowered scientists to communicate cutting edge biomedical discovery through creative multisensory exhibitions for diverse needs audiences. Together with Swinburne University designers, Monash Sensory Science enables diverse engagement, through visual and tactile design, novel technologies, interactions and experiences, audio design and sonification and through multisensory science books. The initiative has achieved national and international recognition.

Design Brief:

“Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are.” Jose Saramego. Currently in Australia, levels of blindness and low vision amongst the population exceed 450,000. Recognizing the need to make the biomedical science of infection, vaccination and immunity more inclusive, Australian ARC Laureate Professor Jamie Rossjohn initiated a design brief to communicate cutting-edge biomedicine, to people living with blindness, low vision and diverse needs.

The brief aimed to:

  1. Communicate complex concepts of infection and immunity to a blind, low vision and diverse-needs audience,
  2. Deliver numerous topics within immunology through public exhibitions,
  3. Co-create exhibition content with scientists, leveraging the lived experience of a legally blind artist/designer,
  4. Design for audiences of all ages (from 3 to 100) and of all science literacies.

This was to be achieved through the implementation of a multisensory design-strategy and residency program.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

Phase 1. Program Inception

In response a multisensory design strategy was formed. This centred on a residency program employing a legally blind artist/designer, Dr Erica Tandori. A talented artist and oil painter, Erica lost her vision at the aged 23 from Stargardt’s disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration.

To gain a holistic overview of the laboratory, Erica first engaged the scientists in interviews to understand the salient outputs of their research. Next the scientists were engaged in co-creation workshops exploring tactile art-making, universal and inclusive design. This effort developed a wide range of tactile posters and artworks culminating in an inaugural exhibition staged in May 2018 attended by over 100 people.

Phase 2. Multisensory Exploration

Next an interaction design phase was employed exploring interaction and novel display technologies including sensors, Arduinos, LED displays, projection mappings, music and data sonifications of protein structures and immunology data. This work engaged the Swinburne IxD Lab and received funding from Creative Victoria. It was presented at the United Nations Symposium titled AI for Good in Geneva 2020.

During COVID lockdowns exhibitions shifted to online presentations. Co-creation activities developed a gallery of Journal front cover artworks. Dr Tandori published front covers for some of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals including Nature Immunology, Nature Cancer and the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Phase 3. Multisensory Science Books

In response to COVID, a travelling exhibition concept was developed in the form of interactive multisensory science books. In this phase, scientists were invited to write about their research topics forming a narrative for tactile art and design. Large scale text, voiceover and braille labels were accompanied by electronic music works and data sonifications. Together with Swinburne IxD lab, innovative bookstands were developed housing webcams and Mac Mini computers to optically scan pages and fiducial markers for interaction.

Design Excellence

The project has satisfied fundamental criteria for good design including functionality, accessibility, aesthetics, safety, quality and sustainability throughout its continued exhibition program and related events delivering highly accessible and enriching engagement, promoting biomedicine discourse to underrepresented blind, low vision and diverse needs audiences of all ages and science literacies. The program has developed a highly original aesthetic, evident in the multisensory exhibits themselves, engaging visual, tactile, auditory and olfactory senses, depicting proteins, molecules, cells, viruses and their interactions throughout the human body.

All artefacts, interactions, experiences and engagement with vulnerable and diverse needs audiences, involved careful consideration of safety from venue location, event design, artefact design and the recruitment and training of volunteer exhibition staff. World-leading researchers and scientists actively co-created works with award winning low vision, multisensory, interaction and industrial designers, each with many years of experience. Mediating artefacts were created using sustainable materials including food, clay, paper and other found objects.

The program exemplifies holistic, high-quality fit for purpose user experiences in both its exhibitions and creation of new works for blind, low vision and diverse needs audiences. Monash Sensory Science demonstrates sustainable benefits across the organisational structure of a world-class biomedicine laboratory, enriching scientific staff, employing resident designers and through the provision of disability internships.

The program continues to grow and sets a new benchmark for design excellence in Victoria as evidenced in 10 professional exhibitions, three International exhibitions, 2 Nature covers and 3 top tier immunology journal covers, 2 funded National Science Week Exhibitions and numerous other presentations, including the International Protein Society and the International Sonification Workshop. The program was also a finalist for the International Berlin “Falling Walls” Awards.

Design Innovation

The program addresses the problem of underrepresentation of people with disability in science technology, engineering and maths (STEM), including them directly in STEM discourse, creating events and artefacts communicating biomedicine, providing opportunities to engage in the creation of these events and artefacts and employing them within internships and through education in tertiary courses post event. It achieves this through the implementation of a multisensory design strategy, staging major exhibitions, touring roving exhibitions, engagements through digital media, video, audio, text and content delivery through music, sonification and computer-based interactions.

The program is unique and ground-breaking. Although other exhibitions have been staged by NASA and Wonderdome (UK) exploring STEM through tactile Astronomy and braille star constellations for blind and low vision audiences, Monash Sensory Science is the first program to adopt a truly comprehensive multisensory design approach and product. It is also the first program to develop multisensory exhibitions of biomedicine for people living with blindness, low vision and diverse needs.

Ground-breaking innovation is also demonstrated by the interactive multisensory science books. Within their pages, structures are expressed across multiple sensory modes. The role of music, audio and sonification provide a spectacular soundscape describing the myriads of cells at work.

The program has engaged participant groups to ascertain individual needs from Vision Australia, Statewide Vision Resources (Donvale) and the Lion’s Eye Institute (Perth). Monash Sensory Science leveraged the lived experience of a legally blind artist/designer at all stages of the program’s formation and implementation. The program has also collaborated extensively with the Swinburne IxD Lab, specialists in user-centred design and designing for blind, low vision and vulnerable groups (dementia). The program has made presentations to disability and user-centred design forums and groups both nationally and internationally.

Design Impact

Monash Sensory Science has made significant positive social impacts. Most importantly it has sought to bring blindness, low vision and diverse needs groups recognition and understanding through designing specifically for their needs. What the participating designers, scientists and researchers have all discovered through their involvement, is that multisensory design also engages sighted people and those living without disabilities extremely well. In the midst of experiencing an exhibition, understanding and empathy is shared amongst all. As the barriers that exist between vision-based information and blind and low vision people are removed, so too are the social barriers and fears that exist across society.

Through the annual exhibition program and co-creation activities, the multisensory design strategy has greatly strengthened the culture of the Laboratory, improving relationships between staff, creating new opportunities for collaboration, fostering strategic planning and thinking outside of science, building new connections, developing exhibits for scientific publication and conferences, publishing journal front covers, creating recommendations and media promotion opportunities at national and international level. The program has offered opportunities for people living with disabilities to work at a world leading biomedicine laboratory hosting over a dozen paid disability internships. These opportunities have led to entry into PhDs and higher degrees and to full-time employment opportunities both external to and within the lab itself.

Next year the program aims to exhibit at one of the UK’s most prestigious universities and launch a new generation of low-cost multisensory science books using Raspberry Pi computers. Through this initiative Monash Sensory Science hopes to disseminate multisensory science books right across the globe. The unique nature and position of the program, its achievements and international recognition contribute to the reputation and status of Victoria’s design and creative culture.

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