Centering the Margin: August de los Reyes on the Design of Disability and Futures of Well-Being

August de los Reyes works as a Design Director at Google where he leads a team dedicated to harnessing technologies in the service of human well-being. Prior to joining Google, August led design at Pinterest and at Xbox for Microsoft. August is an active champion of Inclusive Design in the tech arena, as well as a pioneer in the Natural User Interface. He serves on the board of directors for the Bay Area AIGA and San Francisco Design Week. August is a member of the Advanced Studies Program at Harvard where he holds an MDes with Distinction.

De los Reyes spoke at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation at UC Berkeley as part of For Whom? By Whom? Designs for Belonging in January 2019. Afterward, he sat down with Jacobs’ Public Programs Officer Robert J. Kett, PhD to discuss design, disability, and futures of well-being.

Robert Kett: Over the past years, you’ve done significant work to foster a conversation around accessibility and inclusion at the intersections of design and technology. Can you tell us what you perceive as the challenges and opportunities in forwarding these conversations today?

August de los Reyes: One shift I’ve experienced in the last couple of decades is an acceptance of the need for things like accessibility or ecological sustainability. Earlier in my career, these considerations were more like a tax designers had to pay at the end of the design process. I came of age as a designer in the ’90s, when design practice had started finding its way into boardrooms through the rise of consultancies. And so a lot of the way design work was framed at the time was as a business function that required efficiency, precision, repeatability, and some sort of secret sauce usually in the form of a “method” or a “process.” And I could see why things like accessibility, ecological sustainability, or inclusion were left out of those processes given the business decision-makers of that decade.

But now, design is seated at the proverbial table. Given our role in business and industry is to be the proxy for the end-user of those goods and services, not only is it understood that we want to include as many people as possible, but — going back to that more commercial dialogue — that we’d want as broad a market as possible as well. So when we get into discussions of inclusion and accessibility, you can get the best of both worlds. It addresses the kind of implicit humanistic, empathic drives that most designers tend to have as well as the business case for doing so. So, I think it’s an exciting to time to see designers — especially with waves of recent design graduates — accepting that accessibility, inclusion, diversity, and sustainability are just a matter of course. It’s not a design specialty but simply part of design today.

August de los Reyes. Courtesy the designer.

RK: I like how you touch on the appeal of method as something that gave design a broader purchase within business — through discourses like “design thinking,” design has managed to find its way into so many new contexts. Part of what we’re interested in here is asking what new methods look like for a design that begins with commitments to things like accessibility and inclusion. What are some strategies that you find effective in bringing these commitments out of the conversational and into design practice?

AR: I think in the 90s the design consultancies — even in using the word “consultancy” as opposed to “studio” — drafted off of the management consulting practices of McKenzie and others. I think what we’re finding now is that design is in a different position. We’re drafting off of previous practices but particularly those around the built environment. So, the new methods and approaches around accessibility — topics which have existed in architecture for decades if not longer — are now being applied to other practices, particularly in technology. If one can assume that architecture is about the built environment — the mediation of space — we can also think of software as a space. It’s a mediated space as well. So, I number myself among the practitioners who started transposing some of those practices, whether it’s inclusive design or universal design, into the mediated space of technology.

RK: In the past, you’ve described disability as the product of a mismatch between a user and the “designed environment” and I like how you’ve broadened that terrain to include any number of designed objects and experiences, including the digital. Can you talk a bit about how that reading — of disability as something actively produced through design — is an implicit critique of how we’ve historically understood the user of design? What new mentalities are required in a future where those mismatches might perhaps be resolved?

AR: That’ll be the dream. But I don’t want to position that argument as a kind of utopian dream. Rather, it’s a consideration when one designs. A personal example: I have a house in Seattle. And I have tailored it to the point where, when I’m at home there, I don’t feel disabled at all. I have all the access to all of the experiences in my home. I can cook. I can bathe. I can watch TV as easily as I would have before my accident. So in that sense, in that space, in that environment, I am not disabled. I’m not the “other.” As I go throughout the world, the city, buildings that don’t have those considerations, it makes me feel an other. I designed my house so that I have both the access and utility that I expect at home. And my suggestion as a designer is that that kind of access and utility could be made available in other spaces. Not just in the built environment, but in product experience and software experience as well.

A slide from de los Reyes’ presentation at the Jacobs Institute. Courtesy the designer.

RK: As you just alluded to, you’ve come to this commitment through a very personal experience of traumatic injury that changed the terms of your life. How do you see designers who may not have that immediacy of experience developing the necessary sensibilities to avoid “othering” their users, as you describe? How can every designer be a participant in affording that kind of access?

AR: I think the notion of empathy is something that most designers already have, but is something that could be cultivated. But more specifically, I see three levels to building up that kind of empathy for people with ability differences. The first is just being informed through reading the literature and whatever studies research teams might be performing. The second is through observation. I find there is a growing shift from rational design to empiric design — design that emerges based on direct evidence. The third level is direct engagement with people who have an ability difference.

And what’s funny to me is that you can do a “search and replace” with “ability difference” and a completely different life scenario and you’ll find that designers have been doing this all along. If I asked a junior designer who just graduated from school, “Please work on this home finance application,” that’s something that’s not within his or her direct experience. But they could go through those three channels of becoming informed, observing, and perhaps even co-creating with people who are going through something like home financing to develop a useful, usable experience without themselves having to go through the mortgage process.

RK: It’s interesting to hear you invoke two different scales present in contemporary design conversations around accessibility. One is the tradition of universal design — born, as you say, from within the context of architecture. On the other hand is the possibility of extremely customized experiences—your home, for instance, or digital fabrication technologies and their promise of a transition from “one design for all” to “many designs for many.” How do you see the question of accessibility sitting amidst that tension in scale?

AR: I think of accessibility as an outcome and universal design and inclusive design as approaches or methods to get to the same outcome. (I often hear them all used interchangeably.) What’s interesting about universal design is that most of its emphasis is on the end result where one makes, say, a space as accessible as possible to as many different people as possible. Inclusive design, as an approach, focuses on the outset of the design process. One picks a very specific difference and designs a solution around that with the assumption that it will address a need for many, many more people who don’t share the same difference. So I think with the trend in technology to customize experiences more easily with less cost, it seems less of a utopian dream to have a more meaningful, inclusive approach. Going beyond just customizable software experiences, with advances in fabrication and 3-D printing even physical product design can be hacked for a truly inclusive approach for very specific differences.

In my own experience as a wheelchair user, I sometimes deal with organizations or companies that just consider all wheelchair users as one group. Despite the fact that I’m in a very specific kind of wheelchair, with different power and with different dimensions, I am still put in the same group as a paralympian with a titanium wheelchair! So even within a group of people with, say, a mobility difference, there is still a broad diversity of needs. And that’s where customizable experiences come into play. So I guess my point about design and inclusive design is, rather than designing a kind of a one-size-fits-all solution, technology affords us the ability to devise systems that can create a one-for-one solution.

RK: In your professional life you’ve worked for a number of companies that have very broad reach and substantial implications for collective life. How have you gone about articulating an agenda of change within some of the largest companies on the planet ? And how do you think of their role as agents of change?

AR: Well, for me, it’s been a deliberate decision to join organizations that have these massive audiences. And because of that, I find it easier to make the case for serving this segment or that segment of the population. What I found, especially with my current employer and former employers like Microsoft, is that even a fraction of a percent of a given market still translates into millions of people. So, in organizations that deal with that kind of scale, it is much easier to argue for attending to what might be considered an edge case, or a group that is not large enough to warrant attention at smaller organizations. So, that’s been my personal decision.

De los Reyes’ list of innovations arising through inclusive design. Courtesy the designer.

But in terms of strategies for beginning the dialogue around these considerations in corporate contexts, one — especially in engineering cultures — is to use the substantial data available to support these kinds of needs. For me, the data is just there to open the dialogue and from there there seems to be a greater openness to trying out some of these solutions. Another strategy is talking about inventions and discoveries that originated as solutions for people with ability differences — things like the telephone and the keyboard and the electric toothbrush. The list goes on and on. When my team or I have raised awareness that all of those everyday innovations were born out of a similar approach, then it becomes a powerful realization. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, there is always framing it in terms of the commercial need or the business need. So, those tend to be useful means for encouraging a willingness to try both inclusive and universal approaches.

RK: Yes; I appreciate how much you’ve emphasized what a generative exercise it can be to design from an attention to those who fall outside of the parameters of design as we currently understand it.

To step back a bit from your work around inclusion, you’ve also talked about the importance of public design literacy in a contemporary moment where design’s reach and impact are perhaps the widest they’ve ever been. Why do we all need to know about design?

AR: Well, there are a lot of different ways to approach this. One I’ll bring up today is that I think design develops taste. If we think of Hume and his discussion of the standard of taste, he talks about two approaches that for me illustrate why design is important.

One line of argument is about the notion of sentimentality, but the other is about judgment and critique. Within the discussion of the development of judgment and critique — and this goes back to how designers develop our taste — he outlines two necessities. The first is having an exposure to a broad variety of a given thing. So if I am going to be an expert or a critic of, say, teapots, I first want to be exposed to a lot of teapots — everything that you can pour tea out of. And the second necessity is a knowledge of how a teapot is made — not that you’re going to go out and make teapots, but having a knowledge how the thing is made actually sensitizes you to what is good. So that broad spectrum of both exposure and awareness of how the thing is produced is crucial. And I would argue that those are two ways that one, designers are trained in design, but two, we all develop taste.

So when I talk about design literacy I think the largest part of my argument is that people should become more aware about design and the everyday decisions that we make not only as consumers but as citizens or inhabitants of this planet. I think we are getting to a breaking point where we just don’t have enough resources; we don’t have enough energy; and the planet is in such a dangerous point in her history that it is important to raise this awareness. And while there are so many other arguments about consuming less, I think the development of design literacy and greater criticism will drive people to make more informed choices about the things that we use and the way that we live — simply by being exposed to more instances of design and how things are made and brought about.

RK: One question I have within the context of your argument concerns today’s emerging technologies. You mentioned earlier that you’re now working intensively with things like machine learning and artificial intelligence. It seems like learning about “the making of design” is a more difficult process for the would-be critic of an algorithmic, digital experience than of the teapot. How do we cultivate that shared understanding of technologies that are framing so much of contemporary life but seem more obscure than ever?

AR: Well, specific to AI and machine learning, I think we will get to AI and machine learning being part of everyday discussions much further out. But it starts with people who have a more formal practice in design. We can now think of machine learning, and more broadly artificial intelligence, as design materials. They amplify the relationships within a process. In some ways, that’s the role of the designer: to curate the different relationships in a process — say, reserving a table or looking at the weather forecast.

Broader collective understanding is going to take a bit of time. But if we work our way back and look at something else like typography, I’d argue that before the Macintosh and 1984 and desktop publishing very few people had an opinion about type. But once making even the simplest typographic choices from a drop-down menu became an everyday thing, now in the early 21st century, everyone has an opinion about type, even children who are just learning how to read. And I think that kind of sensitivity is in our future. As we start shifting from assisted technologies to more agentive technologies there will be a kind of taste that forms around things like machine learning.

RK: We just need that Macintosh of algorithmic systems!

AR: Yes. Exactly. Well, assistants are already working their way into everything, and I think the next step beyond assistants are agents.

RK: Well, we know you’ve been reading Hume, but can you tell us who are you learning from today? Who should our students be learning from?

AR: There are people from whom we should learn in formal education, but I think the greatest source of learning is actually from observing all different kinds of people. I guess it’s going back to Hume — you look at a broad spectrum of the thing and then understand the process or the experience through which people arrive at that thing. I think students today can learn the most from observing and engaging with people. And through that understanding their experiences, their journeys, their histories to use that as a point of inspiration for the work that they do.