Finding a Way with Interior Design: Q&A with Julie Irish

June 17, 2017

When Julie Irish (Ph.D ’17, Interior Design) was asked to design a school for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) she made the surprising discovery that there was little design research on the topic. This was the motivation she needed to conduct her own research into how to design schools that are not only friendly for children with ASD, but help children with ASD develop a crucial life skill—wayfinding.

What is wayfinding and how do people use this skill?

“Wayfinding is the ability to find our way around. We all do it, consciously or unconsciously, especially when we need to find our way in a new or an unfamiliar environment. We use cues from the environment to help us find our way, maybe a sign, a graphic symbol or pictogram, or a landmark, something that stands out as memorable to us.”

What did you do to make wayfinding easier in your research? 

A photograph of a yellow painted door.

“In my research, I used several different wayfinding aids that had one thing in common – they all featured color. Many of the schools I visited were devoid of color or had the same color walls, floors, doors, etc. throughout. In a large school that makes it especially difficult to find your way around as everything looks the same. Adults with ASD have reported particular difficulty finding their way around when they were at school. The wayfinding aids I used were colored doors, colored shapes on the floor, and colored signs. The signs were a combination of text and pictograms, that is, pictures to support the text.” 


How can providing wayfinding aids in schools improve a child’s experience?

“I applied wayfinding aids along the corridors of an elementary school. The children with ASD who used the wayfinding aids were able to remember colors and shapes and signs along the route much more than children with ASD who did not use the wayfinding aids.  Clear wayfinding helps everybody, not just children with ASD!  Also, most children said they enjoyed their wayfinding experience which is important because if children enjoy an experience they are more likely to want to repeat it.”

How can parents and schools use your research to improve their children and students’ lives?

“What my research findings showed is that all the participants in the study, nine children with ASD aged 8-11, were able to find their way to a destination by themselves using the wayfinding aids. They were able to do this after I had shown them the way the first time and given them detailed wayfinding instruction. This is promising as the results indicate that parents and educators may be able to use wayfinding aids to teach wayfinding skills to children with ASD. This might help children with ASD feel less stress in an environment and may help them become more independent at wayfinding.” 

Learn more: Lost no more: Research finds that autistic children can learn navigation techniques (MinnPost)

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This fall, interior design juniors in Professor Abimbola Asojo’s IDES 3612 Lighting Design class were given the chance to shine in the Groovystuff Ambient Lighting Challenge.