Designing the Future, Inclusively

Featured image: Laureate Park in Lake Nona, photo by Dana Hoff and MacBeth Studio

“The outcomes of design carry the imprints of the professionals who crafted them. They are scratched and scored by the remnants of their creators’ thought processes and assumptions. Even after the architect or designer is long gone, their mark endures. The generations of people who live with those designs every day can tell you the exact ways in which design was a success and a failure.”—Kat Holmes, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018). These lofty words made me sit up when I read them and then made me think about the design of new homes and communities.

Kat Holmes was named one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business” in 2017, and it’s no wonder. From 2010-2017 she led Microsoft’s executive program for inclusive product innovation, and in 2018 she joined Google to continue to advance inclusive development for some of the world’s most influential technologies. I participated in a session with her at a May, 2017 Fast Company event, where she challenged us to think about something as simple as a playground and how it works or doesn’t work for different kinds of people.

We were a room of creative types—designers, planners, architects, writers and so on. She opened our eyes to the impact of the design decisions we all make every single day when she shared her assessment that 80 percent of us have some level of disability now (even if it’s as simple as limited mobility from an old injury, or poor eyesight), and the other 20 percent are just temporarily able-bodied. If we only design from the perspective of and for the 20 percent, we’re creating limited solutions.

We all gain and lose abilities over the course of our lifetime. With so much focus in new homes and communities today on the aging Boomer homebuyer, I think Kat is really on to something that potentially has lasting impact and could shape how we think about design as a discipline, and how to account for these varying levels of ability.

What is “inclusive design” and how does it differ from the concept of universal design that most of us involved in the built environment are already familiar with? Universal design is about providing accessibility and usability to “all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”[1] Inclusive design is a method of design that grew out of the development of digital technologies. For example, captions are important for people who are deaf, and those same captions have now found a place in loud airport TV lounges and onto e-readers that teach kids to read. Audio-recorded books that initially served blind communities are also now subscription services, like Audible, for individuals trying to catch their favorite stories on the go and hands-free. These solutions for one turned into reimagined products that have changed technology and spawned whole new businesses.

In her recently released book, Holmes explains it is not just about being “nice.” Many inclusive inventions don’t require a huge investment but can pay dividends in setting your work apart from others. Many innovations that began from inclusive design solutions to solve an access issue for one have now become design requirements, like curb cuts – solve for one, extend to many. Inclusive design is about three things:

  1. Recognizing exclusion. Look for the mismatches between places, spaces and people. In our playground example, we talked about kids who are too small, mothers with tiny new babies and an older toddler, grandparents with mobility challenges.
  2. Learn from diversity. As designers, we can invite the various groups of playground users to tell us about mismatches and misses for them. Maybe it is something as simple as a different kind of bench to sit on with a newborn, signs with bigger icons, more forgiving surfaces. We won’t know if we don’t ask.
  3. Solve for one, extend to many. The example of swings in the playground came up in our group. What if your child is too small or too tall for the “normal” sized-swing? Enter the adjustable seat position that can be moved and will work for all. This original innovation now turns into an individual fit. The same inclusive design is behind objects we now take for granted in our homes like the adjustable chair at your desk, or the bar stool that spins up and down to adjust to the height of your kitchen island, or the interface on a smartphone screen that connects with your Ring doorbell.

Design is purposeful and has an intent. It requires thinking about how people will interact with a solution now, and into the future. Holmes makes clear that the spectrum of abilities, from permanent (someone born with one arm) to temporary (an arm injury) to situational (a new parent carrying a newborn around the house in one arm) spans today into the future. We see an understanding of this in car manufacturers who are bringing to market different ways to open the tailgate of an SUV (with a foot, with a voice) and offering a product that is inclusive of different levels of dexterity.

Community members young and old can enjoy spaces like this community garden, with its wide pathways, low planter boxes, and ample seating.
Laureate Park in Lake Nona, photo by Dana Hoff and MacBeth Studio

If you believe the premise that our bodies and minds change over time, the designers today who invest time in recognizing exclusion (be it permanent, temporary or situational) learn from it and design in a way that benefits many will be better positioned to excel. And they just might capture the opportunity to reimagine something none of us see today.

Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki is the principal of tst ink, bringing a customer-focused “how might we?” approach to creating communities and brands that connect and engage with how people want to live their lives.


[1] https://www.nahb.org/en/consumers/homeownership/homeownership-articles/what-is-universal-design.aspx

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