From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Temple Grandin was broadcast on 23rd October 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
The designing mind comes in many forms, seeing solutions to problems in a myriad ways. It’s certainly true with Temple Grandin, whose particular sensitivities helped change the design of many slaughterhouses.
Grandin was born into a wealthy land-owning family in 1947. Her initial lack of speech and her hypersensitivity to certain elements such as sound meant that she was diagnosed as brain-damaged at an early age. Her mother was having none of that and pushed her daughter through school and into different situations which, although uncomfortable, the mature Grandin now sees as key to her development. Awkward and with odd mannerisms, she was also highly intelligent with a special interest in animals, going on to study animal behaviour at university. On a personal level, animals helped her with her first design, when she noticed how a frightened cow was calmed when held between bars while being inoculated. She designed a version that did the same for herself, a squeeze box, that was made from two padded boards which she would lie between and which would gently squeeze her. It was as comforting as a welcome hug can be to a distressed child, and is still used by people living with all levels of autism.
Autism has a broad spectrum and in 1986 Grandin had the eloquence to write about her own experience in a book ‘Emergence: Labeled Autistic’ which was a breakthrough for those seeking to understand a condition that was often considered a mystery. Here was someone speaking from the inside, who could explain what the outside world felt like to her. She recognised that everyone perceived things in different ways and had different talents, and that people with autism tended to develop a strong affinity with one thing, often making them excellent at dissecting the detail in anything from artwork to technology.
She knew that she responded to visual stimulus and this helped her empathise with animals. It was this that made her appreciate how an abattoir would be a terrifying place for animals who had never before encountered its clutter of shapes, shadows and bright lights. So she designed a curving ramp with high sides which would gently lead the cattle into the brightly-lit slaughterhouse. It was so simple and yet it meant that cattle were less distressed as they were led to their final moments.
The design of abattoirs may sound abhorrent to many, and certainly Grandin was attacked for saying she cared for animals while enabling their deaths. But she explained, ‘We owe the animals respect’. Certainly we have become more sensitive in recent years to the living conditions of animals raised for food.
Temple Grandin remains an important figure not just in autism advocacy and animal behaviour but in reminding us that good design starts with understanding. Seeing things in a particular way is a gift and what some perceive as a disability can often shine a light on areas of life that might otherwise go unnoticed.