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  • Sophia P

Thoughts on inclusive design

(Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash)

I've been working on a project that's made me think a lot about how most things in the world aren't really designed inclusively. While that trend is changing (thankfully), there's still a long way to go.


During graduate school, one of the most eye opening and interesting conversations I had at a conference on sanitation was with Barbara Penner, architectural historian, who authored, Bathroom , which documents the evolution of the modern bathroom and its sociocultural history. We had a brief but fascinating conversation about how most modern (post World War II) design standards for sizing things like height of toilets, sinks, etc. in the U.S. were based on American soldiers (predominantly white, male, relatively young, and able-bodied), which are still

used in many design standards to this day. While this is not surprising, it validated my sense that as a petite female Asian woman that the world literally was not designed for me. (I often find myself jumping in grocery stores to reach products on the top shelf unless there is a store employee or kind taller stranger nearby.)


While it's understandable that not every single product, service, or system can be customized for each person, there are definitely certain 'basic services' that should be designed to be as inclusive as possible, e.g., public restrooms, public transit, public spaces... you'll notice a trend here. When something is meant to be for the public that should include as broad a swath of the population as possible.


What does this look like in practice? This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but just some things that come to mind from personal experience and resources that I've found helpful:

  1. Thinking about multiple categories of end users from the beginning, while this sounds very simple and intuitive, as someone who studied engineering, it is very easy to get caught up in the technical design of something, who clever or slick it can be, without focusing on the experience of the user, which is why it's been so wonderful to see the increasingly widespread adoption of human-centered design practices popularized by companies like IDEO.

  2. Dedicating enough resources for meaningful community engagement (Arnstein's ladder of participation is a helpful frame of reference), not because it checks a requirements box, but because it's integral to reaching goals for more equitable outcomes and improving services.

    1. Some practical ways to do this involve making sure that content is available in multiple languages that reflect local demographics and accessible for people with vision or hearing impairment.

    2. Spreading messages through multiple platforms both "traditional" mediums like print or radio and digital mediums like websites, social media, and other applications.

    3. Scheduling public participation meetings during times when people can make them outside of typical working hours and providing childcare. (There are many more considerations, but these are the first few that come to mind.)

  3. Dropping assumptions based solely on your own experiences and being curious rather than trying to assert "expert" viewpoints. This one is tricky because particularly for physical infrastructure, there are minimum safety requirements that are required, which the general public may not be aware of, but there can still be a balance with encouraging non-expert contributions especially during the planning phase of projects. Everyone's mind works differently and to get "out of the box thinking" you have to step out of the box, but asking children how they would solve a problem reveals how important being open-minded is to solving problems, which is one of the main reasons that we design anything.

A few resources that I've been reading about inclusive design practices, which also include recommendations for other resources (meta moment resource list linking to other resource lists :o) ):

I'm new to this topic and am still learning so if anyone has any recommended resources on this topic, please share in the comments!


(Sidenote: I was going to write about community gardens, and then as so happens, that somehow led me down the path of inclusivity, and well, here we are.)





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