The Accommodating Aquarium

Accessible, interactive redesign of the penguin exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium.


South African Penguins. Image sources: Wikimedia &


The Georgia Aquarium is one of Atlanta’s busiest tourist attractions, but while visually stunning, some of the environmental design does not provide a practical and equal experience for all patrons. The penguin exhibit is particularly troublesome, with tight spots, limited accessibility, and wasted space. 

For this semester-long project in Advanced Universal Design, we proposed a solution to inaccessible design issues in a physical environment using technology. Rather than having patrons crawl into the penguin exhibit tunnel, we proposed using cameras and tablets to bring part of the exhibit out where everyone, of all abilities, can have access. In the process, we redirected focus to under-utilized areas in order to improve traffic flow.

The South African Penguin exhibit and crawlspace.


The research process for this project took place on-site at the Georgia Aquarium. The South African Penguins exhibit is in the Cold Water Quest gallery, curving around the outside of a somewhat cramped corner.

The area consists of a curved cement wall leading up to the exhibit, a queue line for guests to enter a tunnel to crawl beneath the exhibit and through the water tank, "pop up" tubes to see the penguins up close, and an exit tunnel at the other end of the curved hallway. The crawlspace is only about three feet tall, requiring adults to be on their hands and knees, making it difficult for many, and completely restricting any patron who uses a mobility device from participating.

Evaluation of the exhibit's universal design principles.

Our first step was to evaluate the exhibit against the principles of accessible and universal design. We identified barriers and made hypotheses about the issues that patrons would likely encounter. This helped to inform our research design.

With the permission of the Aquarium staff, we conducted observations and interviews of patrons visiting the exhibit. We acquired the proper legal releases and paperwork from each participant and collected qualitative and quantitative data about their experiences.

Design criteria to be met as determined by research and a sampling of survey results.


The next step was to analyze the responses and priorities of the patrons. The information gathered from interviews and observation helped to determine which design criteria was most important for meeting our goal of a more accessible exhibit.

We brainstormed a series of solutions, taking into consideration various constraints such as budget, misused and unused physical space, the needs of the animals living in the exhibit, traffic flow of patrons, and the priorities of the guests. With these design concepts in mind, we conducted another round of interviews and surveys, pitching various ideas and gathering feedback.

Mockups of proposed solution with better accessibility.


The design concept that gained the most positive response and that was most feasible according to all considered factors was the 360 Camera concept. We proposed that unobtrusive cameras be placed within the exhibit and be linked to touch screens mounted on an unused wall opposite the exhibit. This would allow for people of all levels of mobility to "look around" within the exhibit and get an up-close view of the penguins, as if they were popping up from the viewing tubes. The design also included the ability to take photos and videos to send to oneself and prevented the need to break up groups, such as when one adult must accompany a child into the crawl space while another stayed with a stroller. Additionally, the use of the opposing wall would help to alleviate traffic, giving interest and focus to an otherwise unused space.

Evaluation of proposed design's universal design principles.


Another round of interviewing and surveying took place to gain feedback on the new design concept, most of which was positive. We conducted a second evaluation against the principles of universal design, showing great improvement in the ratings there, as well. Finally, as our last step, we gave a full presentation of our research, analysis, and design to the staff and stakeholders at the Georgia Aquarium.