Last semester the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences asked NC State graphic designer seniors in my special topics studio to take on a complex problem. One of their key exhibitions—the Acrocanthosaurus Exhibition—was not an autism friendly space. The result: An 8 week project in which seniors leveraged technology to lower barriers.

Take a look below to see the design brief and the resulting student work. To read more about the project, visit the NC State College of Design site.

The Design Brief:

Working with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Office of Accessibility and Inclusion, develop an assistive tool to transform the central dinosaur exhibition at the museum into an autism-friendly experience. This new assistive tool (phone, tablet-based, physical artifact or other embedded technology) should customize the exhibition to better serve the needs of young adults on the Autism spectrum (specific personas to be determined in collaboration with the Office of Accessibility and Inclusion).

The intent here is not to create what can easily be developed by off-the-shelf technology, but rather to design prototypes that challenge what it means to enter a space of tangible artifacts as a visitor with impairments. How can technology personalize the space to meet the needs of each user, thus creating a welcoming, inclusive environment? How can technology augment and enrich individual experiences? How can such an experience tap into current cultural shifts to encourage participation, collaboration or co-creation between users?

The Results:

Sound Imaginings, Designers: Lisa Callister, Mallory Schultz, Monica Ampolini, Nicole Robertshaw

Imprint, Designers: Kasey Poliachik, Morgan McDonnell, Tyler Hayes. © NC STATE.

Sleuth Tooth, Designers: Matt Kubota, Blair Torres, Aubrie Phillips

In Time, Designers: Brandon Edwards, Maris Hall, Megan Fowler

Colossal Callings, Designers: Amanda Pearlswig, Sarah Hardison, Jonathan Debruhl

Pause Pods: Maddie Bone, Morgan McNeill and Mackenzie Robinson. Pause Pods interject quiet, reflective spaces into busy zones throughout the museum. The companion sensory map responds to user traffic and environmental factors to guide visitors to Pause Pods and help visitors avoid stimuli that they find upsetting. Video not included here to protect privacy of participants.

The Process

Project Outcomes

NC State Impact

  • Built empathy in students while equipping them with user-centered research methods that enabled them
    to effectively harness technology to lower barriers for individuals with disabilities
  • Created a dialogue between NC State students and local stakeholders engaged in supporting accessibility
  • Established a model for collaborative studio projects that generate new knowledge and then disseminate that knowledge via in-person presentations and online content
  • Introduced students to a variety of technologies useful for prototyping and testing assistive devices


Wider Impact

  • Identified common pain points to be addressed by the NCMNS in future exhibitions.
  • NCMNS has already implemented one of the prototypes: the sensory map and is exploring the implementation of bone conduction technology to create alternative soundscapes.
  • Established best practices for designing inclusive museum spaces across the country.


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