Best practice guidelines for the design, production and presentation of vacuum formed tactile maps



This guide to design, production and presentation of vacuum formed tactile maps has evolved from the preparation of more than 180 tactile maps in close collaboration with a total of 88 visually impaired people aged between four and eighty years old. The principles and methods set out here are relevant to the design of a range of vacuum formed tactile maps, from simple route plans to complex contour maps of large tracts of countryside. The emphasis is on the use of manual methods of map making for a limited number of rather than on production of great numbers of maps on a commercial basis. The following guidelines set out an approach to tactile map design and production that will enable anyone to prepare raised graphics that can be understood by, and meet the needs of, visually impaired people. The most important design principles are highlighted in bold print, and keywords for quick reference are highlighted in bold italics.

Guidance for the preparation of tactile maps is available from several sources. Unfortunately, advice is mostly weighted towards design, and production techniques are largely ignored. Design information is usually not aimed at specific production methods and the emphasis is more often on diagram design rather than map design. There is rarely any reference to involvement of visually impaired map users in the process. In addition, there are no generally accepted guidelines on the presentation of tactile maps and graphics, despite a long-standing recognition of the need. Presentation includes sheet layout, key design and ‘how to read’ information specific to each image.

The basic principle of tactile map design is to present an extremely simple version of a visual image. However, there are probably as many approaches to tactile map design as there are designers and some fail to adhere to that principle. I n addition, designs often fail to include sufficient spacing between symbols with the result that readers are unable to feel each part of a representation clearly. It is likely that better tactile maps could be supplied if basic theoretical information underlying design, production and tactile reading were more readily available. It is not suggested that detailed physiological and technical documents are needed, just a broad outline of why something works well.

Several authors have published guidelines for tactile map and graphics design. Hinton [1] offers an overview of the design, production and use of vacuum formed biological diagrams. His book contains many illustrations and is useful as a starting point. Gilbert’s [2] step by step guide to reading tactile maps also includes valuable design suggestions, aimed at ‘swell paper’ maps, but it is no longer available. Edman’s [3] comprehensive work gives valuable advice, and should be consulted by every tactile map designer. It builds on the work of several researchers and suggests how a range of different maps and graphics might be produced. This book is probably the best available source of general practical guidance. The RNIB’s [4] guide to designing tactile images sets out a general approach to designing tactile diagrams for ‘swell paper’ and Theissen’s [5] advice for creating computer generated graphics for ‘swell paper’ also offers useful information.

American Printing House for the Blind (APH) [6] has also published guidelines for designing tactile graphics. They do not refer to any particular reproduction technology and the advice offered seems more appropriate for ‘swell paper’ reproduction than for vacuum formed versions. Some contradictory information is given regarding spacing and it is not made clear whether suggested distances are relevant to master diagrams or the finished products. In addition, in common with all previously published guidelines, the theoretical underpinnings of good tactile graphics design are not included.

None of those publications suggests that visually impaired people might participate in the design process. Edman [7] argues that ‘it is up to us, the producers of relief maps and pictures in different parts of the world, to give visually impaired people all possible material that can be of help to them’. What she doesn’t suggest is that the producers should first find out what those people really want [8]. Many visually impaired people have little experience of tactile maps and may not know what they want [9]. However, even if they cannot suggest the form of different symbols, visually impaired people are able to work with a designer to choose possible symbols from a range of materials and can discuss map content, so that finished maps suit their needs.