Getting started with inclusive design

For designers who believe in inclusive design, but are unsure of where to begin.

An illustration that shows a close-up view of a sharply angled maze.

During my final year of university, we had to think about what we wanted to work on for our dissertation.

I wanted to explore what defines good design. But a conversation with my lecturer reframed my understanding of good design and opened up a new field of interest for me. He asked me, "What do you believe in? How do you define good?"

What followed was a year spent burrowing into readings and exploring ideas related to design for good. I delved into history, reading the ideas from key thinkers back in the 1960s. I listened to university professors and students about the current state of design education. I spoke to ground-up activists across causes, from environmentalism to Teochew culture preservation

What emerged was their shared journey, they were all working towards becoming a champion for a cause. Here are a few pieces of wisdom we can take away from their journeys, as we begin our own towards designing more inclusively.

1. No one is an inclusivity expert, start anywhere

It’s important to be honest with ourselves and understand that we can’t do everything, no matter how good our intentions are. Great diversity means that no one could possibly be an expert at everything. For me, this means two things:

a. You can't be 'bad' at inclusivity

b. Identify a cause to narrow down where to start

2. Designing one-for-one

Inclusive design isn’t about creating the one golden universal solution.

Sometime in the 1830s, a man named Adolphe Quetelet developed the notion of the Average Man. Quetelet borrowed from astronomy and sought to create a representative measurement of the human individual. His ideas were greatly influential, eventually becoming a cornerstone of the way we view ‘averages’ as a whole. 

But, this tendency to simplify groups of people might prevent us from recognising the diversity of the people that we design for.

Susan Goltsman, designer:

Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging.

Attempting to design-for-all eventually ends up in naught, where the average is nobody. Instead of distinct, large chunks, people often exist on a spectrum. In Mismatch, Kat Holmes suggests a shift away from human-centered design, toward human-led design. These nuances are key in the shift towards recognising diversity. Holmes describes this as 'designing one-for-one'.

3. Recognise that inclusive design deals with systemic problems

Inclusive design is not easy. It's really complicated and wicked. In the 1960s, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber termed complex, open-ended and ambiguous global issues as Wicked Problems. The duo were looking into issues surrounding urban planning when they theorised the wicked nature of persistent societal problems. Systemic issues, including social inequality and climate change, can be coined as Wicked Problems.

There are 10 rules, and number 8 states: Every wicked problem is a symptom of another, "higher level," problem. As designers, we often encounter situations where we are designing for things that are entrenched in wicked problems. For example, we could equip people with better financial knowledge through increased access to information, but we are unable to solve inequality. As designers, we are actors within a bigger frame, the state of the world and its institutions.

For instance, in organisations, wicked problems often present themselves as legacy technology and outmoded processes. Established businesses are sometimes plagued by low digital literacy in business leadership. Lola Oyelayo states that it’s crucial to consider how to nurture better digital transformation cultures within organisations. Similarly, how do we better cultivate inclusive design practices across large organisations?

To move towards sustainable change, we need to acknowledge the complexity and interconnectedness of problems. If we focus on solving singular symptoms, we might cause unintended consequences by only making change within what we immediately see.

4. Understand the organisational contexts you exist within

As a designer, it's important to understand the organisations that you function within. Understanding helps you to get closer to implementation and impact. Ask yourself:

Often, the most effective way to implement change is to find a champion with power. Having an advocate with authority helps to speed up the process of changing worldviews around designing for inclusion. Changing minds comes before changing designs.

However, seeking out such a person requires a ton of preparation and discomfort. Be prepared to justify yourself in the context of the businesses aims and objectives, and always ask yourself if it's worth it. Save your strength for truly meaningful opportunities. Inclusion takes time, and the time will come.

To start off, finding a group of fellow champions allows you to tap into a diverse pool of knowledge and experience. In turn, this will help you to build more confidence and to be more strategic in your efforts to push for inclusion.

Taking an example, in Singapore, a design student, Samuel, had noticed commuters often getting lost within train stations, particularly the elderly. His wayfinding project had been noticed by the Land Transport Authority, where he went on to work upon graduation.

Samuel describes how his journey of revamping the public transport signage system had started with first persuading his colleagues of the need for an overhaul.

Samuel Lim, author and designer:

I will only succeed if I can hear what I would have said come out from someone else in my team,” he says. “It turns out I’m not a designer. I’m more like a mindset changer.

5. Ensure the real value of your work by involving and understanding your users

To ensure that the work you're creating actually makes sense, consult your users. Conduct research on their needs, and gain understanding of their real context of use. But, be aware of the ecosystems they exist in. This will help to identify constraints and enablers for design. Even in inclusive work, the measurement of impact can also help you to assess success.

Instead of designing for them, facilitate ways for your users to contribute to your design process. Methods such as Participatory Design, where you design with others instead of designing for your users, can help better inform and validate your designs.

In a project with Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB), we sought to help figure out how to make libraries more inclusive. Through a partnership with The Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD), we ran a full-day workshop. The workshop was made up of a diverse team of people, including Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), caregivers, public servants, and designers.

The day featured a contextual inquiry where many participants gained new insights simply by walking around the library with the PWDs themselves. 

Senior Manager at Singapore's National Library Board:

I’ve spent the past few years conducting interviews and focus groups with various individuals and organisations to understand the needs of the PWD community. I’ve also attended many workshops and courses on accessibility. I came to this workshop thinking that I will not learn anything new but I was wrong. Walking through the library with the PWD was extremely insightful.

6. Approach with responsibility, not justice

Over time, I've found that I make a conscious effort to avoid talking about inclusive design as the correct thing-to-do. When people view inclusive design as a moral good, it causes more harm than good.

The 'saviour' mindset is harmful. Despite good intentions, it’s common for designers to fall into the 'saviour' mindset: groups of people are perceived as needing help, and they are categorised based on a single attribute. It's important that you don’t view people as one-dimensional figures.

You might push people further away. I have friends who have told me, "I don't really care about inclusive design, I don't think it’s a designer's responsibility." That's okay too. Forcing your own morals onto other people will not change them. Rather than convincing them, it's the right thing to do, start with helping them to understand the impact of exclusion.

Ultimately, even as designers, we're also just humans who are part of a larger society with systemic problems. People aren't bad for not prioritising inclusivity.

I think inclusive design is just about doing your best as a designer; creating solutions that make a previously excluded person’s day better in some way.

7. Set healthy boundaries between yourself and your cause

Recalling the conversations I had with art activists, they shared their struggles with mental health as they navigated their personal journey of being a champion for a cause. The same emotions that were the driver for them to start their journey, had also become their source of pain.

You might not be an activist, but inclusion is ongoing work, here are some ways to keep yourself in check:

Remember to set healthy boundaries between the cause and yourself as an individual. Even if it's something that you’re deeply connected to, too much attachment will inevitably result in suffering for yourself. 

If you're working in teams, setting realistic expectations also helps the team to sustain motivation. Unmet expectations can potentially backfire on all the work you've put in to try and show the value of inclusivity.

And as someone once said to me, "Use your courage to take care of yourself, too.” To end off, here are some questions that could help you to get started on your journey towards finding your cause, as an inclusive champion. 

Questions to ask yourself:

At its heart, inclusive design is about acknowledging and understanding other humans around us. That's the bulk of the work. All that's left is for you to start.

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