Blog Insights
Inclusive Design Means Creating Solutions With Your Audience

This post was written by Acacia Betancourt, a DC-area Creative Director, and former Forum One staff member.

In recent years, the term “inclusive design” has become more broadly used in the design industry. This year, companies like ours have made commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and are finding ways to make their work more equitable and inclusive. The mission-driven work we do at Forum One requires us to recognize that what we create has the power to impact people and communities in very real ways. Because of this, we feel a deep responsibility to wield that power carefully and commit to helping our clients serve their most  “impacted audiences”—the people our solutions will affect most deeply—in the best ways possible. As a design team, we have been exploring what it means to design inclusively and how to incorporate inclusivity into our process. 

What is inclusive design? 

Let’s first define what we mean when we say  “inclusive design.” There are many definitions, but at its most basic level, to design inclusively is to design with and not just for your audience. Inclusive design is about ensuring that the people most impacted by what you create have the opportunity to shape and influence the solutions alongside you. Designing inclusively means working directly with the community you’re trying to help, whether it’s school teachers, people who are homeless, or patients in a hospital, and centering them in your process.

Often agencies like ours, and  institutions, organizations, companies, and governments, are creating solutions on behalf of communities or groups of people to which they themselves do not belong. Your most impacted audiences may come from a different racial or economic background than you. They may live in a different country, belong to a different culture, be at a different stage of life, have a disability, or identify as a different gender than you. These are often the same people whose voices are excluded in society, and who typically do not get a say in what gets created for them. How can you create an effective solution for someone else unless you directly ask them what they need and allow them to offer their own solutions? Their lived experiences are the most valuable design tool you have and including them in your process will yield the most effective solution.

Let’s explore an example. Say you are tasked with creating a website for your organization to help new mothers get the resources they need to help their babies thrive. Many of these moms—your impacted audience—are women of color, and they live in low income communities. However, your project team is mostly men and mostly white and no one on your team grew up in a low income community. Your team’s lived experience is very different from what the moms have experienced. The people on your team may have the skills and expertise to create a beautiful, useful website, but not the lived experience to create one that is tailored to this audience. Without getting ideas directly from these moms about what kind of website would best fit their needs, you run the risk of creating something that misses the mark and is not as useful or usable as they need it to be. 

Your team could try to understand and speculate about what the mothers might need. You could try to empathize with what they are experiencing. You could do research on what other similar websites with similar resources have done. You could conduct user research, hold workshops with project stakeholders, do audience interviews or surveys, or do usability testing. But the most surefire way to create the best solution for these mothers is make them your co-creators. They know what they need. Let them be the designers of their own solutions. Encourage your team to follow their lead and guide them along the way, then execute their ideas. This is inclusive design. Including members of your most impacted audience in the design process is the best way to ensure that what you’re creating will be successful. Putting the moms at the center of your design process, and allowing them to make decisions, would not create greater impact, it would also build their power.

Using your power to build inclusion

Whether or not you have the word “designer” in your official title, you may have some control over what and how solutions get designed. The moms in the above example likely don’t have the power to shape solutions for themselves, so it is up to you to empower them with that opportunity. . 

The first step is to identify which of your audiences will be most impacted by the decisions you make. Who needs your product or service the most? Whose lives may be affected negatively if it doesn’t work as intended? Who has the most to lose? When defining impacted audiences at the onset of a project, it’s important to ask yourself these questions (which I borrowed from Creative Reaction Lab):

  • Who should have power in this project and why? 
  • Who actually has the power in this project? Why?
  • Does the distribution of power in this project reflect the community impacted by the project? If not, why not?

Consciously defining who should have the power to make decisions in your design process will help you figure out who is naturally included (i.e., stakeholders, project teams) and who may be excluded (i.e., the people you’re actually trying to help). It will help you recognize who should have a say in the decision making that doesn’t already have that power. Once you figure out whose voices may be left out, you can work to intentionally find people who belong to your impacted audience and ensure their ideas are heard. 

Why inclusive design matters

Inclusive design has the power to ensure that we are helping the right people in the right ways. It can increase access for more people, build equity and power for people who are typically excluded, and helps us improve as designers. But most importantly, inclusive design is important because it can meaningfully increase the impact of what we create and—ideally—make people’s lives better. 

Sarah Cantor Aye, co-founder of Chicago’s Greater Good Studio, says that inclusive design has the power to do these three things: 

  • “It honors reality.” If we design for what’s ideal, we won’t create the right solution. Collaborating with our impacted audience helps us gain insight into what they are really experiencing and what they need in reality.
  • “It creates ownership.” It is more likely that the impacted audience will actually use the new solution we designed if they played a part in creating it. 
  • “It builds power.” Social change is about rebalancing power and allowing people who typically don’t have power to have more of it. 

In short, in order for a design to be most effective, ensure that the people who are really experiencing the problem you’re solving have control over the outcome, and feel a sense of ownership over the final product. The disability rights movement has long used the mantra coined by author and disability rights activist, James Charlton, “Nothing About Us Without Us,” which is the idea that “no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy” (source). The idea of including communities in shaping their own solutions is not a new idea, though it is not yet widely practiced. Tight timelines, strict budgets, internal politics, and opinionated stakeholders are among the barriers that prevent a true inclusive design process on many projects. Forum One has experienced these limitations many times, but we are working on finding ways to involve our most impacted audiences in more ways on more projects. Designing inclusively takes effort, time, and thoughtful planning. It requires slowing down—particularly at the beginning of the project—and intentionally deciding who should be included and whose voices should be centered. 

Practicing conscious inclusion

Having the power to control outcomes for other people is a huge responsibility that should be handled with the utmost care. Kat Holmes, author of Mismatch, How Inclusion Shapes Design said, “For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly.” If we don’t structure our design process to be consciously inclusive, we could end up creating something that does more harm than good and that actually may exclude the very people we’re trying to help. 

Right now, we (and most other agencies) are designing for audiences who are very different from us. But we are working on finding ways to design with the impacted audiences on more of our projects. I look forward to a world in which inclusive design is the primary way solutions are created. I am excited about moving away from designs that center the mythical average or ideal person, and towards a process that centers real people and their real experiences. I have seen how inclusive design works in practice, and the results are so much more fulfilling when the people impacted most are given the power to let their ideas come alive.

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