There’s a rise in interest in designs that have a positive social impact. A number of projects are focused on “designing for” a community of people that’s presumed to be disadvantaged. New technologies for students in developing countries. Design contests to create solutions for elderly people or people with disabilities.
While these are often well-intentioned, there are some potential pitfalls to designing for people with this superhero-victim or benefactor-beneficiary mindset. It can lead to specialized solutions that cater to stereotypes about people.
To illustrate the problem, let’s consider the Dodge La Femme — a car designed specifically for women, brought to market in 1955, and canceled in 1956. The car was pink, inside and out, and decorated with small roses. It featured a fully equipped matching purse that fit into the back of the passenger side headrest. It was marketed with the headline “By Special Appointment to Her Majesty… the American Woman.”
While it’s somewhat easy to dismiss this as an artifact of a bygone era of male chauvinism, let’s also consider the failed launch of Bic for Her in 2012. This was a line of pens designed specifically for women that were thinner than standard pens and available in pastel shades of pink, purple, and turquoise. It was marketed on Amazon as having an “elegant design — just for her!” and a “thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand.”
Thin barrel or not, the pens are now a hallmark example of how not to design and market your product to women, thanks to writer Margaret Hartman, who sparked thousands of people to write entertainingly sarcastic reviews on Amazon. The product was quickly removed from the market.
In the pursuit of innovation, it’s common for teams to focus solely on the functional elements of design. It’s equally important to understand the emotional considerations.
In a more serious example, the automotive industry conducts safety testing with models of humans, also known as crash-test dummies. For decades, these models were made to match the average male body type, though it was widely known that women were significantly more likely to be injured in a car crash.
In 2011, the federal government started an initiative to reduce demographic disparities in public health. Car accidents ranked high on the list of public health risks. Passenger-side safety ratings plummeted as cars were tested with a petite female crash-test model that was 4 feet 11 inches tall and 108 pounds. That year, studies revealed that a female driver wearing a seatbelt faced a 47 percent higher risk of death or serious injury than a male driver.
Decades of design choices where made based on average male-sized testing standards. Engineers and designers were trained to optimize to these standards. It wasn’t that the cars were suddenly less safe. They had always been less safe. It just hadn’t been recognized as a problem.
This wasn’t a sex-specific disparity. The average male crash-test model is 5 feet 9 inches tall and 172 pounds. Once the industry started using a range of body types in its safety testing, there was an improvement for any person whose body didn’t match the design of the male crash-test model, across all genders, sizes, and ages.
We can see from these examples how the perceptions people have about one another can be manifested in the design of products and environments.
An unspoken hierarchy also appears when attempting to design solutions for groups that are perceived as needing help. Without an authentic and meaningful understanding of a person’s life experiences, stereotypes can prevail. All too often, designers and architects perceive the recipients of their solutions as “other people.” This mindset distances the designers from people they perceive as disadvantaged beneficiaries of their design.
The problem is separation. It’s rooted in the ways we categorize human diversity. The most common ways that we group people by diversity are single dimensions like ability, gender, race, ethnicity, income, sexual orientation, and age. Even if we know people are more complex than a single dimension, businesses regularly try to solve problems based on these monolithic groupings.
How we categorize people shapes how we make. With a growing interest in participatory design methods across many professional fields, how is that participation to be facilitated? What kinds of questions do you lead with? Do you meet people in their homes or require them to visit your office? What tools do you ask them to use when providing input to the design, and are they comfortable using them? Meaningful inclusion is much more than hosting listening tours, focus groups, or interviewing people on the street.
One way to start is by building an extended community of “exclusion experts” who contribute to your design process. These are people who experience the greatest mismatch when using your solution or who might be the most negatively affected. Develop meaningful relationships with communities that contribute to a design. Designing with, not for, excluded communities is how we put the inclusive in inclusive design.