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Why inclusive design matters and how we are leading change

Themes: Inclusive Design

By Iain Mckinnon, GDI Hub co-founder and Director of Operations & Inclusive Design

I have been meaning to write a blog on our inclusive design work that I lead here at GDI Hub for ages and have been asked countless times by colleagues. This should, therefore, be the first of many little narratives that I will write on the subject.

I have worked specifically on inclusive design since early 2005 when I started working with Buro Happold as an access consultant in the built environment. I have since gone on to run my own business as a freelance inclusive design consultant and then work as the client-side inclusive design ‘champion’ on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – the venue for the most successful Paralympic Games ever held. My work at GDI Hub now focuses on sharing my expertise from my previous experiences with others while also pushing the subject further through new research and practice.

So what do I mean by inclusive design then? I have created my own definition. That is not to say this is the correct or only definition, but it’s the best I can come up with and says that, ‘inclusive design can help all human beings experience the world around them in a fair and equal way’. Ultimately, inclusive design is about people. Inclusive design is good design that anticipates the widest range of end-user needs.

In this context then, what is disability? We should all be familiar with the social model of disability (if not, look it up!) which sees the world around the person as disabling and not any individual, regardless of their abilities. I agree with this. The way I personally conceptualise this approach is by considering that we are all on a, ‘spectrum of abilities’ with our position on that spectrum constantly changing throughout our lifetime. I often tell the story of when I was studying Product Design Engineering at Glasgow Uni and Glasgow School of Art 20 years ago and was taught to design for the 5th – 95th percentile of the population. Now, that approach is being turned on its head as we realise that designing for historically classed, ‘extreme’ or, ‘lead’ users results in more elegant, intuitive and usable products, services, interfaces and places for all of us. Who doesn’t want that?

I am often asked to set out the business case for inclusive design. The answer is simple. Why would any business want to exclude potential customers? They wouldn’t (and if they do, they won’t be in business for long). For me, this comes back to education. In my experience, inclusive design is most often overlooked not through malice, but ignorance. That’s why I’m so passionate about our new MSc Disability, Design and Innovation and my module on Inclusive Design and Environments in particular. Proper education on this subject is massively underprovided. By ensuring that future designers and decision makers have a good understanding of inclusive design we begin to eradicate the ignorance that can so often lead to exclusion and disabling barriers in the world we live.

The involvement and integration of disabled people themselves in leading and influencing this work is vital. GDI Hub pride itself on this approach, with a Chair who is disabled and an Advisory Board with a majority of disabled people. We also provide opportunities for disabled people to join our team and ‘movement’ to help take this work forward. I know that I have personally learned the most in working for and alongside disabled colleagues. Diversity is so important and ultimately creates better businesses. An unofficial GDI Hub motto is about, ‘the magic in the middle’. This magic is only possible through diversity and collaboration, two vital components of inclusive design.

Getting back to education then and our new MSc Disability, Design and Innovation that launches in September this year. In my talks and lectures I often say that if I do my job right, I’ll do myself out of a job! No pressure then.

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