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Sight loss is more common than you think

I am an interior designer.  I am also an interior designer with a visual impairment.  In November 2012 I permanently lost the sight in my left eye due to an attack of acute closed angle glaucoma.  Determined to combine my personal understanding of sight loss with my profession I am now working with Thomas Pocklington Trust, a charity which is committed to increasing awareness and understanding of the needs of people with sight loss, to promote their best practice design guidelines to other interior designers.

More and more designers are being asked to work on care homes and communal living spaces.  Well-designed spaces with carefully thought through lighting reduce the risk of accidents, promote safety, independence and so improve quality of life.  This series of blogs refers to design in residential and nursing homes, extra care and mainstream housing developments, and many of the recommendations are relevant to adaptations to private residences and will be useful for people caring for a relative with a visual impairment.

I think most of us appreciate that vision deteriorates with age.  Even without an eye condition, from the age of 40 most people will notice a decline in the ability to focus and the need for more light to carry out normal everyday tasks.  A Medical Research Council study estimated that 1 in 8 people aged 75 and over will suffer from severe sight loss, increasing to 1 in 3 of the over 90s.  Degrees of sight loss vary and relatively few people have no vision at all.  How people cope with sight loss will depend on the nature of their condition, their age and also how quickly they lost their sight.  Progressive conditions allow the brain to adjust gradually whilst trauma resulting in immediate sight loss will unsurprisingly mean that the person will take longer to adapt.  The main challenge I have encountered has been the lack of depth perception.  2D vision makes it very hard to judge distances and the brain has to re-learn.  Steps can be a problem where there is no contrast on the nosing and judging how deep the step is can prove challenging.  Good design will assist people in the simple tasks of navigating steps and help maximise a person’s functional vision.  Flexible design will ensure that they can adjust their surroundings to suit their particular eye condition. 

This is the first in a series of blogs focusing on design for people with sight loss.  The series covers the key principles for designing for people with sight loss, colour contrast, lighting, designing hallways, stairs and landings, living areas, bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens.

The blogs are written by Jacqui Smith in conjunction with the publication of a new design guide for interior designers.  Jacqui lost the sight in her left eye in 2012.  ‘Homes and living spaces for people with sight loss – a guide for interior designers’, written by Jacqui Smith and Thomas Pocklington Trust will be published on 29th October 2014.  The guide will be available in hard copy and online at


Love doing nothing

Last night Natuzzi took centre stage at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London for the UK debut of their Re-vive range.  Supported by The Society of British Interior Design they treated us to the experience of the world's first performance recliner.  

In classic British reserved style these beautiful chairs remained un-sat on for the first part of the event.  There was much stroking of leather and admiring of the ergonomic technology but few ventured to kick back and properly put these stunning recliners to the test.  However as the Prosecco continued to flow and guest speaker Denise Lewis urged us all to try the range for ourselves, everyone became quite literally more comfortable about relaxing into what I can only describe as the most comfortable chair I have ever sat in.  Re-vive moves with the body, adjusting as you change position so as I curled up, rolled from side to side, the chair moved with me and this I guess is what makes it so uniquely comfortable.

Natuzzi's sales team struck the perfect balance; discretely on hand with information and clear enthusiasm for their product but also taking the time to really find out about their potential customer's business.  Benjamin took us through the range, the options on finish and size and got us thinking about where these chairs could sit within our current projects.  The good news is that Natuzzi now have a dedicated UK trade team so the charming Benjamin and his colleagues are available to help with orders.

Both Denise Lewis and Vanessa Brady, SBID President, commented on the importance of quiet time away from the distractions of phones and other people and Vanessa cited the importance that this me time plays in the creative process.  As David and I headed back to Sussex we were both considering whether a Linear King Re-vive in Pearl Grey could pass as a legitimate business expense.


Written by Jacqui


An eye for detail

One of the silver linings to losing the vision in my left eye has undoubtedly been getting to work with London based charity The Thomas Pocklington Trust.  They are a leading provider of care and housing support services for people with sight loss in the UK.  They also fund a programme of social and public health research and development projects in conjunction with centres such as the Dementia Services Development Centre at Stirling University and research teams at Kingston University. 

I met their Research Director, Sarah back in March when I delivered a talk at the Bournemouth Care Show on the importance of good interior design in care homes.  Despite repeatedly bashing the microphone with my nose when I leaned in to speak, which I felt took the polish off my presentation (the one eye thing means that I only see in 2D so have poor depth perception), Sarah introduced herself after the seminar.  At this point she was unaware of my own experience but we got chatting about the importance of good interior design for the blind and partially sighted. To say that losing half my sight has opened my eyes to the importance of good design for the elderly may sound like a poor attempt at a pun, but it has.  Up until last November I had paid due consideration to proper lighting and use of contrast when designing care home interiors for the elderly, but only since becoming monocular can I really understand the profound impact overlooking this can have for the visually challenged. 

The prevalence of sight loss increases with age.  Recent research suggests that serious sight loss affects one in eight people over the age of 70 and one in three over the age of 90.  However less serous visual impairments can also seriously affect day to day living and the large majority of those over the age of sixty could benefit from better lighting in the home.  Few people with sight loss are totally blind.  Most have some residual vision and appropriate design can help to maximise their functional vision.  If you are caring for an elderly relative or know someone who has suffered with vision loss, here are a few considerations that could make a huge difference to their day to day living:

  • Improve lighting: Maximise natural light wherever possible; low sills and unfussy window treatments.  Good lighting is key; under cabinet lighting in kitchens and well lit stairs so that the treads can be easily seen.  Cupboards and wardrobes should be internally lit and all light sources should be shaded to avoid glare.  Dimmable lighting will allow light levels to be adjusted to suit the user’s needs.
  • Use colour and contrast: Paint door surrounds in a clear contrasting colour from the adjacent wall to clearly define the doorway.  Contrast should be used on handles, knobs and appliances; pale coloured light switches on a dark wall will be easier to find.  Garden decking steps can prove hazardous since those without the ability to see in 3D cannot distinguish between the steps; the horizontal lines just blend into each other.  I know this!  When considering flooring, a change in colour between two types, even if it's the same material, can give the impression that there is a step and pattern can be confusing.
  • Avoid clutter: Ensure that there is plenty of space and a logical layout for routes both in the home and in the garden.  Shelves overloaded at head height and plants overhanging in the garden can be disorientating.

Those bright yellow paint lines on the nosings of the steps at train stations may not look that pretty but they certainly have a role to play. 


Written by Jacqui


Budding interior design talent in Sussex

You know that feeling when you agree to take something on, plan it as much as possible, look forward it...........yet still don’t really know what to expect?  Well this year at the Lindfield Arts Festival we ran some workshops for children where they got the chance to plan their ideal bedroom and create their own mood board.  Our young designers ranged in age from 5 to 13 yet what they all had in common was an unbridled confidence in what they did and did not like.  Unbound by concerns about what is and is not “in” they designed from their hearts, quickly finding lights they loved, rummaging through fabrics for inspiration and going mad with bold colours.  I have said before that interior design to me is about creating environments that make you smile, spaces you want to spend time in and that make your day to day use of them a joy.  Without exception all the designs reflected the personalities of the child and made them smile!  I absolutely loved the day and was knocked sideways by the amount of talent I saw – as were some of the parents!


Be faithful to your intuitive sense

I often get asked how I come up with designs or what the latest trends are.  I have never been a slave to trends. Interior design to me is more about designing spaces for people to love and enjoy living in.  Surely a home that works for you is so much more important than one that reflects the latest trends. I have always wondered whether my answer to this question has been inadequate; people expect me to impart some magic formula but honestly, I design with first and foremost the needs of the client in mind and when it comes to creativity, I go with my gut as to what I feel works best within the realms of the brief.

My London Design Week itinerary included a seminar at Chelsea Harbour. Part of the Conversations in Design series, the title of the seminar was New Directions in Interior Design with a panel comprising Tricia Guild, Robin Levien and Neisha Crosland. The session kicked off with the question, "Are trends important?” Whilst I would say that all three of these people are in themselves key influencers of trends in the industry, their down to earth and quite humble responses really struck a chord with me. The theme was very much, be aware of trends but plough your own furrow and work from your heart. Yes, I get that! They all agreed that themes are “globally in the air” and cited examples of designers opposite sides of the world coming up with spookily similar ideas. Source of inspiration was the focus of the next question. Tricia Guild felt that this was hard to pinpoint as creative people are always collecting. She cited a visit to Darjeeling where she was struck by the coolness of a soft jade green, the inspiration behind the pale jade colourway in the new collections. The trip was a few years ago so that seed of an idea was not translated into a scheme until recently. It "just feels right for now", she explained.  Expanding on this Tricia Guild explained that designers need to “be faithful to their intuitive sense, be porous to influences but defend and fight for what you believe in”. Neisha Crosland and Robin Levien agreed that creativity is a journey, a meandering process where you are never quite sure where you will end up. I have heard a number of designers talk on various subjects but this seminar really struck a chord with me and made me even more determined to be faithful to my intuitive sense.


Written by Jacqui