Aaron McPeake


 Haptic Tiles and the City

“What started out as a massive attempt to create accessible road crossings in the 1990s, is now disintegrating.”

I am a PhD alumnus from Chelsea College of Arts and I am formerly a designer. There has been a lot of discussion in this conference about the environment, about the social and political impact of space. Twentieth century Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman referred to ‘stigma’ as being an environmental insult. In my case it’s to do with vision loss and the permanent consequences that separation from the acutely visual realm brings.

On this spatial note, I would like to talk about some specific objects; they are quite big and you might have come across them as, in fact, they are pretty much everywhere. In the UK we have a vocabulary of ‘six’ haptic tiles that we can walk on in the street. But the six words designating tiles within this vocabulary actually represent five distinct objects, which is to say that one tile is duplicated with two different names. Now why have they suggested there are six? It struck me that it may be due to some kind of financial gain for certain players in the industry. I will take you through these ‘signposts’ found on our streets.

Firstly, there are the ‘bubbles’: the inline bubble is a warning relating to a road and the offset bubbles are for roundabouts; then we have the pathway (this is the one that has the ‘two for one’ names) where the direction of travel is from bottom to top; then there are the elevation warnings and cycle warnings, which makes six.

However, no one knows how to lay them… or if they do, they do it deliberately wrong. The direction of travel, the offset pathway, the lozenge – I’ve only seen it laid correctly once! What we end up with is fifty 30cm-long pathways (as each tile is only 30cm long), which is a challenge to lay.

Credit: Aaron McPeake

This (see above) is particularly fun, because it’s a ‘pathway’ ‘warning’ (suggesting you should stop or be aware of change) and then another ‘pathway’ (inviting you to continue as usual!).

Credit: Aaron McPeake

This one (see above) might not look that tricky but you can see in the corner, there is only one crossing in the United Kingdom that goes on a diagonal and that is on Oxford Circus. However, if you try to cross a crossroads on the diagonal, with or without the white stick or dog, you are going to find out that it is a very tricky business.

Credit: Aaron McPeake

This is a cycle lane and an elevation change warning, but in this case – as with so many! – it has been incorrectly laid.

Credit: Aaron McPeake

This (see above) is my favourite because we have a pathway that has been laid in the right direction, not the wrong one, but you might have a stick or a dog to guide you round the first post and then you are in place to directly walk into the next one!

In France, certainly in Paris, they have just one tile, a vocabulary of one, which is to say – something’s up here in the UK. The Parisian system seems to work very well; it is cheap because you only have one item, this also means that you do not have the problem of people being illiterate in the vocabulary, so it works much better. This begs the question of why decisions have been made as they have about street accessibility in the UK. Another example of this that has been creeping in, but that maybe you might not be aware of, is that underneath pelican crossing buttons, there used to be a cone-shaped nodule that would spin when safe to cross. These are becoming less and less frequent at the same time as the sound on crossings is also being switched off because of residents complaining about the noise. What started out as a massive attempt to create accessible road crossings in the 1990s, is now disintegrating.

Aaron McPeake worked for many years as a lighting designer for Opera, Ballet and Theatre, but McPeake lost much of his vision due to an auto-immune illness. However, this has helped inform his artwork, and methods of practice. He was awarded PhD (2012) from Chelsea College of Art and Design, which examined adventitious vision loss, and its impact on visual artists and their practices. McPeake works with many different media and materials and has exhibited both nationally and internationally. Most of his work is interactive in nature.