How design switched from surface style to social inclusion

As the return to the office puts more focus on diversity and inclusion, a new book by the director of WORKTECH Academy tells the story of inclusive design through 30 objects and environments

Workplace environments have always reflected broader trends in design – and continue to do so today as we grapple with the Covid-19 era. In particular, a rising interest in diversity and inclusion to ensure greater social equity with the return to the office is part of a wider orientation towards inclusive design.

It is easy to under-estimate just how much design practice has changed over the past 30 years. In the late 1980s and early 90s, design became a powerful vehicle for style and aesthetics – a triumph  perhaps of form over function, especially in the workplace.

Today, that is no longer the case. Design has become less obsessed with looks and more concerned with social connection and cultural enquiry. Designers globally have started to engage at a deeper, more empathic and human level with the people who will experience and use their designs.

A broader agenda

Designers have brought a new mindset to designing – one that is participatory as opposed to expert, and rooted in the methods of the social sciences as opposed to the superficial appeal of styling.

In the workplace, this has manifested itself in the design of services and experiences that serve a broader agenda around individual purpose and wellbeing – and not just the narrow commercial interests of the organisation.

In 2021, we find that the main focus in design is no longer on learning just a little about very large groups of people in order to design for an average type of worker or a mass consumer market, but on learning a great deal about relatively small numbers of people, concentrating not on what makes them similar but on what makes them different, so their needs and desires can then be included in any design project.

‘Concentrating not on what makes people similar but on what makes them different…’

A common term for this approach is inclusive design – it is about designing the workplace, and indeed of all our environments, for the maximum benefit by the maximum number of people. How design made its journey from surface style to shaping everyday inclusion is the story of a new book I have written: Designing a World for Everyone: 30 Years of Inclusive Design, published by Lund Humphries in July 2021.

Including more voices

This publication charts the history of inclusive design through the lens of 30 projects from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art over three decades (1991-2021). It shows how designers have been able to include the voices of a wider segment of the population, such as older and disabled people who were traditionally marginalised, in both the processes and the outcomes of design.

The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, the RCA’s largest and longest-running centre for design research, has been influential in developing the practice of inclusive design over its 30 year-history. I co-founded the centre with Roger Coleman, the academic and activist responsible for defining the term ‘inclusive design’ at a Toronto conference in 1994, and I was its director for 16 years.

In choosing 30 everyday artefacts and environments that the centre helped to design – in order to explore how an inclusive approach works – I was interested in showing how inclusive design can work at vastly different scales, so the cases in the book vary in size. Some projects are simple, hand-held objects such as a shatterproof beer glass, a jam jar with a square lid for easy opening, an easy-grip saucepan or a carbon-fibre crutch. Others form part of large and complex environments or systems – the workplace, care home, hospital, streetscape, riverfront or airport.

Our work to make the office environment more inclusive is represented by collaborative projects with Haworth, Herman Miller, GSK, Kinnarps, The Shard and others – all part of an approach based on the human-centric values of sensory experience, wellbeing and identity.

Designing with people

Many of the creative ideas discussed in the book have seen the light of day as products or services in their own right. Others are demonstrator projects, educating the market in the art of the possible and influencing producers and service providers to incorporate certain features. A third category we can file under ‘ideas for the future’ – such as a public swimming pool sited right in the middle of an airport or an electric car which lights the street and redirects lost tourists when parked.

All the projects are equally valid, however, in reflecting a sea-change in attitude which could best be described as designing with people as opposed to designing for people. That, perhaps, is the biggest shift of all in making design more inclusive over the past 30 years. As we begin to emerge from the global pandemic, this attribute will be matter more than ever.

Jeremy Myerson is Director of WORKTECH Academy and Professor Emeritus of Design at the Royal College of Art. His new book, Designing a World for Everyone: 30 Years of Inclusive Design, is published by Lund Humphries.
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