Chess for the Blind

Working with the American Foundation for the Blind has made me very aware of new innovations in products and technology for the visually impaired. That’s why when I saw this chess set designed for the blind, it caught my attention.

The chess set was created for a design competition sponsored by the Noguchi Museum. According to the official press release, “the Museum invited full-time students of design and architecture to redesign the classic chess set and board for the twenty-first century.”

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Designer Deborah Tan, one of the finalists, designed a set intended to be used by the visually impaired — The Braille Chess Set. The set, which is all white, uses textures and geometric shapes to distinguish the pieces and the opponent’s pieces. Each space on the grid is also indented to keep pieces from falling over and the location is noted in Braille on the edge of the space.

Ms. Tan used the following criteria to design her Braille chess set:

  • Emphasize the game in terms of tactility – Iconography has little meaning to blind players, therefore the chess pieces should communicate their purpose.
  • Create a 3D landscape with landmarks to help players navigate their way through the board, as well as to visualize their moves.
  • Design with subtelty — physical form must not contradict or hinder the logical and strategical processes of the game.

Based on the schematics and photographs that I have seen of this board, it does seem that Ms. Tan accomplished her goals. What’s also remarkable is that while this chess set is intended for those with limited or no vision, it is also a visually beautiful work of art. Seeing this is very inspiring, as designing websites that are accessible is usually a challenge approached by what one can’t do. I think there is a lot of inspiration that anyone who designs products, websites, or applications can take from Ms. Tan’s work.

UPDATE, September 2010: In the four years since we’ve posted about this chess set, this article remains one of the most popular on our blog. In the intervening years, we have continued to hone our expertise in accessible interactive design and development for diverse clients such as The American Foundation for the Blind, Getting Hired and the FBI. If you’re in need of accessible interactive solutions, contact us.

Note: We have no information about purchasing Deobrah Tan’s chess set.
[Photo credit: Daniel Torrison, Flickr Creative Commons]

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