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Julia Nieman

Designing with autism in mind

CMU student’s proposal sparks discussions to improve signage for people with ASD

Contact: Dan Digmann


​The interior design class project was straightforward: Design an intergenerational facility that would connect older residents with younger children during the day.

Yet, there is no such thing as a simple assignment for Julia Nieman.

The Central Michigan University senior is using her project to trigger conversations that could improve the lives of people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

ASD is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States. Throughout the 1980s, autism was diagnosed in about one in 3,300 children in the U.S. Today the number is about one in 68. 

“It all comes down to improving people’s quality of life.”— Julia Nieman

To help people with autism find their way through public buildings, Nieman proposed creating a new signage system that incorporates the Picture Exchange Communication System. PECS was developed to help learners of all ages who have various cognitive, physical and communication challenges.

Nieman said creating this wayfinding signage would open the doors for more extensive application of PECS than originally intended. She said it traditionally is used with pictures and images on flashcards in schools and in communication therapy.

People who have challenges can communicate by pointing to the image that best describes what they are looking for or are trying to say. Nieman proposes using the same types of images in wayfinding signs to help these people increase their independence.

"I just think this makes so much sense," said Nieman, of Lewiston, Michigan. "This universal signage has immediate application to individuals with ASD but also will be beneficial to aging adults."

This type of project demonstrates how interior design goes beyond picking different colors to paint the walls of a room, Nieman said. She explained that this profession is more about pulling together all the elements of the nonstructural environment — such as furniture, colors, decorations, natural light, signage, electrical, mechanical systems, wayfinding and flooring — to create the most functional environments.

"It all comes down to improving people's quality of life," Nieman said.

Finding her way to the top

Nieman has turned the class assignment into her honors program capstone project and has presented her research at an Interior Design Educators Council conference in Chicago. She received encouraging feedback from industry professionals there, and she also is working with a Grand Rapids signage company to create mock-ups. 

"There are copyright issues that need to be worked through, but we hope as a result of the informed dialogue that is occurring between Julia, the organization that developed PECS and the signage company, that a more universal signage system will be available in the future," said Jeanneane Wood-Nartker, the CMU interior design professor serving as Nieman's capstone advisor.

Wood-Nartker teaches the class that sparked Nieman's vision for signage to help people living with ASD. She immediately loved the idea.

"I wondered, 'Why aren't we incorporating this into signage everywhere?'" Wood-Nartker said. "Any building could be more easily navigated if we would incorporate a familiar system of reading into our current signage systems."

Attention brought to this topic can increase interest in conducting research to help develop solutions, Wood-Nartker said. 

"When people have an understanding of the prevalence of ASD in this country, and in this world, then we can bring the best minds together to create a diverse, win-win solution for all," she said. "No one person, industry or corporation is going to solve this problem. It will be solved best as a broader community. Together."


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