Lee spearheads new course focused on accessibility in graphic design

By Kari Dickinson and Sofie Schachter

When Taekyeon Lee was in graduate school, he suffered a retinal detachment and had to endure multiple eye surgeries that required a two-month-long, face-down recovery.

“The experience changed my personal and professional life forever,” he says. “I learned to appreciate the difficult experience and find a silver lining in a dark cloud.”

Fortunately, Lee recovered from his ordeal, but he was left with a new understanding of the importance of accessibility in design. Now an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Art Department, his creative work and research focus on transforming graphic design — traditionally a visual medium — into one that also engages the sense of touch.

Examples of work of Taekyeom Lee
Lee’s innovative designs merge visual and tactile experiences. The remarkable “type embosser” (bottom) he created through 3D printing produces raised alphabetical or Braille letters without ink. (images courtesy of Taekyeom Lee)

He recently won an award from Design Incubation for his project, Tangible Graphic Design, which he initiated as a master of fine arts candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Visual communication design focuses on creating impeccably beautiful images and text for print and screens,” he says. “Tactile experience enables more engaging visual communication and even makes it accessible for people with vision problems.”

Lee is also spearheading a new UW–Madison course, Graphic Design for Accessibility, which will run for the first time as a Special Topics course this fall.

He is also proposing conference presentations and working on grant proposals to share his approach to design research and education.

Lee credits his colleague Yeohyun Ahn, an assistant professor in the Art Department, for being his mentor in developing the course proposal.

The course is one of the first of its kind at UW–Madison that focuses on designing for people with low vision or vision impairment. It will introduce students to designing for accessibility and inclusion using visual design research, design thinking, and digital fabrication. Students will engage in both individual and group projects where they learn how to design with Braille, for instance, and create more accessible packaging.

When designing for people who are vision impaired or have a disability, “the first step is empathy,” says Lee. He adds that as students build empathy, they can recognize and find the problems users may experience — and then take steps to solve them.

And ultimately, says Lee, that’s what graphic design is all about.

“I think design is problem solving,” he explains. “We prioritize vision above any other senses, but most people experience vision problems at a certain point in time.”

He hopes that students will come out of the course understanding the importance and impact of designing for accessibility and inclusion.

“Design should be for everyone,” he says. “Our goal is to increase visual accessibility, and increase awareness about vision accessibility among young designers.”

Taekyeom Lee working with students
Taekyeom Lee works with students in a graphic design class.

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