by Lee Armfield Cannon
“My earliest memories are not of people or places but of color, shape and light.”
Ann Elkington has spent her career as a photographer, industrial designer and a teacher of design. Her photography skills have served the National Building Museum, the Soldiers’ Home, Sidwell Friends School, the British School of Washington and the S&R Foundation at Evermay, among others. Her industrial design work appears in the Metro system on uniforms and the iconic signage.
Her latest contribution to the world of industrial design, though, is not a pylon marking the Metro entrance, or a map or a uniform. It is not a product you assemble or boot up or plug in. It’s a toy, and as toys go, it’s pretty simple. It’s a cube.
Yet the ChromaCube® is revolutionary in its simplicity and versatility. It is a block of clear acrylic with a thin plate of colored acrylic molded to one end. The result is a cube that is transparent when viewed from four directions, but is a rich color when viewed from the remaining two. Shine a light through a ChromaCube® and you see a brilliantly-colored glow. Put a pile of ChromaCubes® together – ranging in size from one-and-a-quarter inches to two inches per side – and you have a rainbow of reflected light and ambient glow.
Elkington trained under the famed Victor Papanek, who advocated for designers to address ecological problems and help disadvantaged people through their work. She used that training to solve a puzzle that crossed from the industrial design world and into the social realm: Almost no toys on the market are designed with the child on the autism spectrum in mind. And very few toys appeal specifically to their interests and particular sensory needs.
This need for a plaything to fill that gap in the market inspired Elkington while she was teaching graduate students at the Industrial Design Department at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, during the 2012-2013 academic year, under the directorship of industrial designer David Ringholz.
Elkington and another design professor organized a challenge for their students. Each had to create a toy for children aged five to ten years. The toy had to incorporate color and light, be durable, be suitable for inside and outside use, and allow for solitary or group play.
Elkington entered the challenge as well. She drew on her own background as an industrial designer and photographer, and her love of the interplay between light and colors. She found inspiration in an experience in Europe, years before.
While visiting Switzerland, Elkington toured a small cathedral at the same time as a group of young school children on the autism spectrum. During the tour, the angle of the sun flooded the cathedral floor with colored light from the stained-glass windows. The children began playing with the light, trying to dip their hands into it and scoop it up from the floor. They stroked the lit-up patches and lost themselves in their delight, until the light shifted and the colors disappeared.
For Elkington, it was an epiphany. She realized that people on the autism spectrum might respond even more strongly to color and light than non-autistic people. The experience in the cathedral rose to the surface when Elkington began brainstorming for her design challenge entry.
“While I didn’t set out to specifically design for the autism spectrum, the Cubes’ design led me in that direction,” Elkington said.
She worked with the talents and interests of her fellow Iowa State faculty – a former chair of photography, a professor who specialized in computers and light, and an expert in plastics manufacturing. With their help, Elkington designed and fabricated the first ChromaCubes® from squares of acrylic, to which she added color plates to attract the eye and a silky, sanded texture to make them pleasing to the touch and smudge-resistant. To make them safe and suitable as toys for young children, she sliced off and sanded the sharp edges of the cubes.
The idea was simple, but the results were compelling. At the end of the design challenge, Elkington and her students presented their projects to other grad students and faculty from the university’s Colleges of Design and Engineering.
“It was very hard to stop the faculty from playing with them long enough for me to make my presentation,” said Elkington.
Since the first ChromaCubes® were cut in Iowa, Elkington has tested them with children on the autism spectrum, elderly dementia patients at The Washington Home and elementary school kids. Others who’ve ordered ChromaCubes® have sent back stories of enthralled children and adults, and success in using the cubes in therapeutic and non-therapeutic settings alike. A New York shelter for women escaping abuse uses ChromaCubes® to help the women relax as they share their stories and begin the process of recovery.
At the end of her year in Iowa, Elkington returned to her native DC and to Forest Hills where she had reared her children (both of whom are now designers in their own right). It was here that she spent nine years as a photographer and designer for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority and almost six years as a photographer and instructor for the National Building Museum. And she’s spent 20 years as a freelance photographer. Although she is back home and happy to be weathering the smaller blizzards this area offers, Elkington still helps organize the Iowa Design Conference she co-founded at Iowa State University. The purpose of the conference, she says, is “to examine the role of design education and designers, establishing that design must go beyond creating cooler-looking objects.”
However, the ChromaCubes® project remains foremost in Ann Elkington’s mind since her return from Iowa. Last July, she launched a ChromaCubes® Kickstarter campaign.
Although ChromaCubes® attracted the support of 46 backers from all over the world, the dollar amount fell short and the funding attempt was unsuccessful. Not to be deterred, Elkington is gearing up for a second run on Kickstarter or another crowd-funding platform, aiming for an early spring launch.