The Lessons Every Designer Needs

A list of stories and essays promoting inclusion by design

Stephanie Engle
Jan 19, 2016 · 12 min read

Blind by Design is a series focused on addressing systemic biases within design. Join us.

Anyone who has read my prior articles will notice a common thread among some: empowering the ‘outsider’ designer.

The outsiders I address tend to be those without formal design training, in part because I don’t have that experience myself. I’m naturally sensitive to the unique struggles of designers whose path into the field isn’t apparent because I identify with those circumstances.

But while I’m an outsider to design by experience, I’m not by race, socioeconomic status, age, learning abilities, and many more characteristics. These are the blindspots that inevitably creep into my work, despite my best intentions. The billions of diverse people I hope to serve throughout my career shouldn’t have to pay for the weaknesses of my personal perspective, or those of any other designer.

In many ways, design today is remarkable. Designers have never had more amazing tools and resources on the art of design at their disposal. The world has never experienced such polished and beautiful work.

And yet, our designs are still blind. Genuine as our ambition is to make the world a better place, we fail to understand the people we design for, miss use cases, and allow prejudice to break designs that the world depends on.

Right now, we need inclusive designers more than we need more craftsmen. We need designers who design with attention to their oversights and empathy for experiences they’ll never fully know. We need designers who can stand up against bias and be the foil to one another’s contextual weaknesses. We need to celebrate and study the accounts of the designers who do this today, which is why I’ve created this piece.

My intention is for this to be living document to celebrate essays and stories that promote inclusion, accessibility, and diversity by design. More than learning any one skill or tool, these are the lessons every designer needs.

General

Julie Zhuo warns designers that history and experience can obscure their ability to address problems:

“Gifted are the builders with selective amnesia, who can see the thing exactly as it is, without the history. Without the excuses.”

cheryl wu shows that designers need to be conscious of their context because they are arbiters of values and ethics:

“The role of technology is mind control. Technology is about imposing constraints, design is about deciding which constraints are best. Technology is about amplifying some voices and muting others. We have entrusted a very small group of people — the grunts, not to mention the executives or sources of funding — to make decisions for the broader group, yet we don’t think about them as “powerful” as we would a CEO or political president. This small group can be insular, oblivious, and often itself problematic.”

John Maeda discusses how doing the work to get to know others’ experiences can improve communication in design:

“Communication bridges the divide between the get-its and the get-nots.”

Cliff Kuang spotlights Microsoft’s efforts to incorporate inclusivity into their fundamental culture, and how it’s not only good design, but also good business:

…the most crucial piece in the puzzle is this: Disability is an engine of innovation simply because no matter what their limitations, humans have such a relentless drive to communicate that they’ll invent new ways to do so, in spite of everything.

You could describe this in that old cliche that necessity breeds invention. But a more accurate interpretation is that in empathizing with others, we create things that we might never have created ourselves. We see past the specifics of what we know, to experiences that might actually be universal. So it’s all the more puzzling that design, as a discipline, has so often tended to focus on a mythical idea of the average consumer.

Microsoft Design illustrates how designing for inclusivity opens products to more people and better reflects how people really are:

Being mindful of the continuum from permanent to situational disabilities helps us rethink how our designs can scale to more people in new ways.

In the United States, 26,000 people a year suffer from loss of upper extremities. But when we include people with temporary and situational disabilities, the number is greater than 20 million.

Networks + Culture

Anil Dash discusses how the graphs we build can reinforce existing power imbalances — and how we can fix that:

“My social network on Twitter resembles that of a minor celebrity. While I’d like to pretend that’s because my tweets are so good, a lot of the reason is that I was early to the network, and friends with its founders. You might be a far better tweeter than me, but you still wouldn’t have those advantages. There should be a way for anybody to achieve the same level on the same network.”

Anil Dash also talks about strategies from urban policy which help make online communities more pleasant places:

“As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online.”

and

Gender

Soraya Chemaly highlights some of the ways technology otherizes women — and how tech companies are responding:

“The underlying design assumption behind many of these of these errors is that girls and women are not “normal” human beings in their own right. Rather, they are perceived as defective, sick, more needy, or “wrong sized,” versions of men and boys.”

ed: This Blind by Design piece by Kat Ely provides some more key examples, from a designer’s perspective.

Caitlin Winner reminds us how even small symbols can break down outdated gender stereotypes:

“I was moved to do something about the size and order of the female silhouette in the ‘friends icon’. As a woman, educated at a women’s college, it was hard not to read into the symbolism of the current icon; the woman was quite literally in the shadow of the man, she was not in a position to lean in.”

Adi Robertson writes about her experience using VR, and the importance of equal representation at the frontier of technology:

“Whatever the reasons that VR and AR initially attracted men, designing for them perpetuates the gap. It suggests women are a niche demographic for products that are widely touted as the future of entertainment and computing. It’s a message that the community, invested in a world where everyone uses reality-altering technology, almost certainly doesn’t mean to send. And it undercuts the medium’s utopian promise.”

Physical & mental abilities

Livia Veneziano shows us how designing for limitations helps us innovate a more accessible world for all:

Why is it that, while we proudly promote the importance of practicing user-centered design, we neglect the needs of nearly 20% of our users? The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in seven people in the world have a disability. The U.S. Census estimates that number to be as high as one in five.

Jeff Broome highlights how Gearbox designed for colorblind users in Borderlands 2:

“The biggest problem for colorblind gamers is when games use colors (and nothing else) to indicate a type of item, or the importance of an item, in the game. For example, some multi-player games use red for one team color and green for the other team color.”

Usabilla details how simple design changes can improve the way dyslexic people process and experience the web:

“One in every five visitors to your site might be dyslexic.”

Nick Santos highlights common web-development anti-patterns that break screen-reader accessibility (and their alternatives):

Medium Engineering recently had an accessibility fixit. We found some goofy things! But we’re trying to do better. We wanted to share some of what we found.

Other disciplines

Charlie Deets talks about how understanding the perspectives of your collaborators work can lead to better products:

“Once you reach out and care about the workflows of those around you, you will find that it actually speeds things up, because you can work more as a team, instead of as individuals with responsibilities.”

Race

Diogenes Brito reveals how including racial diversity in design can make an underrepresented group feel heard:

“Why was the choice an important one, and why did it matter to the people of color who saw it? The simple answer is that they rarely see something like that. These people saw the image and immediately noticed how unusual it was. They were appreciative of being represented in a world where American media has the bad habit of portraying white people as the default, and everyone else as deviations from the norm.”

Julius Tarng illustrates how building racial awareness into design workflows reminds designers of the diverse people they serve:

“In May, we received feedback from an Origami user that the standard caucasian male hand we included in the prototype viewer didn’t feel quite right with their mockups when a majority of people using their products were neither caucasian nor male. We absolutely agreed — it wasn’t representative for us, either, yet we use the tool every day to design the products they use.”

Underserved fields

Jonathan Shariat reveals how better healthcare design can save lives:

Margaret Gould Stewart shows how designing better business tools can help the livelihoods of people who depend on them:

“Can you imagine if a consumer product you had to use many times a day was a miserable, inefficient experience? You’d revolt, change brands, find a better option. But when you are a junior assistant media buyer in an ad agency, or a nurse in the maternity ward, or a teacher in a public school system, you don’t have that kind of power or choice.”

Dana Chisnell discusses how introducing better design to government agencies can improve political processes:

“If you think about it, government is a massive, continuous service design project. Laws design the scope and constraints of an experience. Agencies that carry out the laws create content, interactions, transactions — and they deliver it all on various channels, through hundreds of touch points.

The crazy thing is — in spite of persistent efforts by many fantastic professionals in various corners of government over the last couple of decades — there hasn’t been an obvious and successful effort to put users, the constituents, at the heart of designing programs, systems, or services.”

Tom Hobbs discusses the disparity between the design of consumer products versus enterprise products — and provides a bit of historical context:

“In a world of iPhones, it’s easy to forget that most everyday things used to be designed without any serious attempt to make them approachable or functionally intuitive, let alone enjoyable to use.”

“We need designers who are willing to work on things that aren’t in the limelight or perceived as cool — at least not yet.”

Institutional Organization

Anil Dash discusses how taking a community-lead approach to socially sensitive projects can change the way in which such projects are received:

“There’s one key lesson we can take from these two attempts to connect millions of people to the Internet: it’s about building trust. Technology infrastructure can be good or bad, extractive or supportive, a lifeline or a raw deal. Objections to new infrastructure are often dismissed by the people pushing them, but people’s concerns are seldom simply about advertising or bring skeptical of corporations.”

Whose voices are missing? Have your own design story to tell? Let us know.

Maintained & edited by Stephanie Engle and Chen Ye.


HH Design is a community around design in the context of technology.

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HH Design

Thoughts from a community built around design within the context of technology.

Stephanie Engle

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Self-driving cars at Cruise. VR at Facebook. Dad jokes.

HH Design

HH Design

Thoughts from a community built around design within the context of technology.