“Universal design is a level we all aim to achieve,” Jonas Liugaila, one of the founders of branding and service design agency Critical, says.
The design strategist believes it’s wise to separate three visions in the international discourse – accessible, inclusive and universal design: “If inclusive design focuses on those with special needs, the highest level does not exclude any group of our society”. In today’s context, we still can’t avoid discussing the first two steps. Therefore, back in 2019, the organisation “Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022” invited Critical to create a cultural accessibility guide meant for events and institutions. The guide aims at rethinking one’s surroundings and opening oneself to new audiences.

The Accessibility Guide has been renewed in  2021, and an English version is on its way. The guide is free to use for all cultural organisations, event programmers and curators in Lithuania and other countries; its crucial purpose is to make culture more accessible for everyone, young and old, local and visiting, especially those that have special needs. The first to install the sign system on its website and premises was the Kaunas City Chamber Theatre; Kaunas 2022 is the runner-up. More institutions are hoped to follow as the potential users of the guide discover its benefits.
On the same topic, the local cultural community in Kaunas has already had the chance to meet Alex Dobaño, the consultant of the international network “Design for All” and the founder of Barcelona-based design studio Avanti-Avanti. During his time in Lithuania, the designer shared his knowledge and understanding of why it’s essential for a city to become friendly for both residents and visitors and what every cultural institution or even a single enthusiast can do about it.
Getting back to Liugaila, the design strategist remembers he had already noticed the will to see perspectives not always popular but important and much needed of Kaunas 2022 before the institution pitched the agency to create the Accessibility Guide. “It was a pleasure to see there’s an initiative we can associate ourselves with and to make ourselves visible not only in the commercial design word but also in the sociocultural context – design, indeed, is a product that would not exist without a foreign problem or a request, if you please; so, even though I have thought about the issues of accessibility and universal design as a value, our design machine would not stat before Kaunas 2022 approached us, and a problem became a task.” The design strategist is glad that his team was totally up for the project; the professionals did not need an additional briefing on why a guide like this is necessary.
The creative biography of Alex Dobaño has an impressive inscription of working with Sagrada Familia, the iconic church in Barcelona, Spain. His agency created a signage system and directions for this architectural gem: “We based the complete success of the project on real data. We obtained the information thanks to users and internal staff surveys, capacity measurement systems, and many hours of observation. In the case of the Sagrada Familia, after implementing our wayfinding system, control over the flow of the routes has been gained. Now the people who go to the Basilica for a strict tourist interest know where to locate the important places for the visit and easily find the services, the store and the exit. Before the implementation, people were easily lost, and hence the spaces became overcrowded. We have reversed the average time of stay in the Basilica from 1h20 to 45 minutes. We released capacity, improved the user experience and increased ticket sales.”
The Catalan design professional also adds that “from the perspective of citizen diversity and narrative wayfinding, Avanti Studio brings to urbanism a complementary logic in the planning of more legible, healthy and inclusive cities for all.”
Critical began its work by analysing the analogues around the world. Then, they conducted a series of interviews and surveys with people with additional and special needs, which opened a wholle new world for the creative team. “It became clear that a lot of people in our society have to plan their cultural activities and time out thoroughly; they cannot improvise as they have to make sure they can actually get into a building; assure the content is suitable is for them, and so forth; we also received some particular advice – for example, white text in a black background is better for those with a disability of visibility than vice versa.“
Liugaila believes that the experience gained while working on the Accessibility Guide has already earned points for the agency in other fields of its work. “Of course, we still have to be sorry that not all of our commercial clients believe in universal design; not all of them see the value of investing more in, say, packaging that would be more comfortable for a bigger part of our society – in fact, I have never received a brief like this during my design career,” Liugaila states. The designer adds that what he learned while working with Kaunas 2022 is that “inclusion” is not the right word to use. “People have not to be pushed away to begin with, not secluded; therefore, we omitted the word “inclusion” from our other projects.”
“Our contact with the public through surveys or focus groups is constant. In our methodology, we introduce the diversity of users from the beginning of the design process; the user has a leading role throughout the project”,  Alex Dobaño agrees with his Lithuanian colleague.
Let’s see how the Kaunas City Chamber City Theatre did on implementing the guide. “I am first and foremost very thankful for the institution that decided to take the path unknown and install the system on both the webpage and the theatre. It’s impossible to see if a decision works until somebody does it first – also, it’s a challenge for the institution, as it has to critically evaluate its premises, which can lead to not so pleasant recognitions,” Liugaila says.  The icons on the website can be generated by a free-for-all tool.
Alex Dobaño and his colleagues have already left a  creative footprint in Kaunas, too. They worked on expanding the possibilities of Sugihara house in Žaliakalnis and adapting its outdoor exhibition to the “design for all” principles. “I think our intervention there was a great success.  The weather can limit the full success somehow; however, there are better times of the year, good preventive communication and displaying the museum’s narrative on digital channels can open a conversation with the museum’s potential audience and encourage physical visits. Today the digital sphere and the physics of communication have merged; it is an opportunity for universal and inclusive communication. Regarding space, we recommend some universal design improvements both in the architectural and communicational environment. I must say that the museum has an asset of great value, the value of the stories it tells based on the importance of solidarity, love and social justice. They are all current issues, aren’t they?“
In fact, the values Dobaño mentioned above are no less important than they were 80 years ago when Sugihara issued visas for life for Jewish refugees in this very building to save them from the Holocaust.
More information about the Cultural Accessibility Guide and the free-for-all signage system can be found at  www.prieinamumas.lt.