From Decolonization to Dolls for All

Connected

Written by: Denis Lirette, Kama Kaczmarczyk, Lisanne Binhammer, Jocelyn Cheung and Katie Luke.

Inclusive Design has become a much-talked-about topic as of late. From the flurry of Medium articles to the plethora of Sketch plug-ins, practicing design in a way that is inclusive of all—no matter their age or background, perceived gender or culture, abilities, etc.—is gaining mainstream traction. 

For us, as designers, this is very exciting. When we’re designing, we push hard for edge-case-less products; everyone should be included from Day 0. At Connected, we try to push for an ethical and accessible approach to product building, which is why we were thrilled when Inclusive Design TO was announced, a one-day conference exploring how we can live, work, and design for inclusion. The roundup of speakers was fantastic—from Dori Tunstall, the Dean of OCADU’s Faculty of Design, to Antonia Garcia, the VP of Diversity & Inclusion for AIGA Chicago. So a small team of us purchased tickets and headed to the Globe and Mail Centre on February 12th. Here are our thoughts and takeaways.

Taking ownership for the past, and inciting radical change

Many of the talks we listened to talked about the importance of taking responsibility for how things were done in the past—even if it wasn’t you who had done things unethically. This is critical because keeping our heads in the sand as to how things were previously done would prevent us learning from our collective mistakes. 

Building on this, Dave Dame (Innovation is the new wheelchair) spoke about how saying sorry in and of itself is not inclusive. It’s not enough to pardon past behaviour with an apology, action is needed in order to take full ownership and change the ways things are done. For Dave (who is in a wheelchair), if people simply said sorry for the lack of accessibility in their environments, things would never change and he would never be included in experiences.

After owning up to past mistakes, exploring radical new approaches to problems can be the right antidote. In Dori Tunstall’s talk, Decolonizing Design: How Diversity and Inclusion is Not Enough, she spoke about how while the hiring practices of OCAD University may have been exclusionary in the past, she is owning this past injustice and taking a 180 approach: OCAD U is currently actively hiring for visible minorities so that the faculty is representative of the student body, and so that students can learn from both learned experiences and lived experiences. By decolonizing this approach, Dori is firmly taking ownership of the past and going beyond sorry.

Inciting radical change can also mean disrupting long-held standards and norms. Linda Jiang (A Doll for All) talked about her challenges in engaging with ideals of beauty in the doll industry. Because so many companies and people widely accept entrenched beauty standards, it can be an uphill battle to try and take responsibility for the problems in the industry and shift people’s perspectives. Mattel’s Creatable World—the product that Linda works on—is tackling this head-on, with a customizable doll line offering endless gender-neutral combinations. This disruptive product is a striking example of what it means to recognize when past standards are just not enough, and how we can shift a dialogue around an entire industry to be celebratory, and inclusive.

Creating an environment in which people can thrive

Listening to the speakers at IDTO made one thing extremely clear: accessible/inclusive does not mean enjoyable, and that needs to change. When designing and building products, it is easy to ask yourself the question, “is my product accessible/inclusive?” and leave it at that. Not often do we sit back and ask ourselves “is my product both accessible and enjoyable? Does my product create a positive environment in which all users can prosper?”

Dave Dame—who suffers from cerebral palsy—asked the audience several questions in his talk that opened our eyes to his world in which the products he uses deem themselves inclusive. “It takes you five hours to go out for lunch, right? It takes you an hour and a half to wait for your uber ride, right?”. He didn’t ask these questions to make us feel guilty, he asked them to expose the missing in the accessibility and inclusivity world.

“I just want the same experience
you have when you get to do the simplest thing.”

Dave Dame

At the end of Dave’s talk, a member of the audience asked him “How can designers be great listeners?”…and after a bit of a pause, Dave responded “I think you just gotta care” and that is what we should all aim to do. To be able to design something in which all users have the same emotional experience when using the product or moving through an environment, you must have empathy.

In Dori Tunstall’s talk, she used the metaphor of being asked to dance for inclusion. She went on to explain that although we may be inviting others to dance, we are asking them to dance our own dance, rather than their own. This imposoition ultimately is, in Dori’s words, the “genocide to their spirits”, holding people back from unleashing their full potential and true abilities.

It is our responsibility as product builders to care for all of our users and ensure that the experience and environment we are providing them is not only accessible and inclusive, but one in which they can operate without a second thought.

Seeing yourself in the product/company

“If I exist in this world I deserve to be represented.” Linda Jiang began her talk with a powerful quote that speaks to the importance of representation—the responsibility and genuineness to depict and portray a snapshot of our society and the people in it.

People discover themselves through the world around them. If these signals are available to them, they will be able to place themselves and participate in our society. The highly customizable Creatable World Doll, with its diverse hair, skin colour, and clothing parts, is a celebration of the human spectrum. In a collage of children smiling with their lookalike dolls, Linda captured a tender moment of little humans thriving through play. From questioning beauty standards to someone who shapes them, Linda’s story is one that inspires people to not simply fight to be visible, but to live with flourish and pride.

In Antonio’s talk, Complex: Navigating Life, Design, and Identity,  a company calibrated equipment for professional portraits of people with underrepresented skin tones. (Did you know that early photography often calibrates imagery to light skin models, causing people with darker skin tones to look unflattering in their pictures?) This project goes beyond acceptance and helps affirm each individual’s beauty through thoughtful and appropriate lenses.  

When people are not represented, they are excluded from contributing to society. Representation is at the root of cross-pollination. When we fail to acknowledge the unique contributions of different lived experiences, it is us as a society that is missing out on chances of affirmation and growth.

Creating seamless experiences universally

Inclusion is not optional: this was a recurring theme throughout the tracks of the conference. As Pamela Hilborn, SVP Global Head of Design at Scotiabank, opened the day she really made everyone feel responsible for the craft of design by saying that by not practicing inclusive design you might as well do nothing, and it doesn’t matter what kind of designer you are. This thought leadership which is both provoking and inspiring begs every practitioner to consider applying mental models that focus on “you” rather than on “I”. 

Every time we miss, ignore, or forget to bring different perspectives into our work we miss out on understanding how others see and feel in the same situation. Even more so, we risk missing out on including those voices in the final design of products, which ultimately leads to the creation of systems that cause users who require accessibility adjustments to feel excluded or tokenized.

Earl Cousins, Senior Digital Accessibility Specialist at Scotiabank, showed us an example of inclusion designed into the code and interface of a video game from the very beginning of its onboarding sequence. In his talk, he talked about how giving control back to the users makes for a truly inclusive digital space where everyone feels like a respected and seen user. The accessibility menu set up front doesn’t call out anyone’s requirements and needs but rather makes it a part of natural flow of the onboarding. Through this design, no user is shamed into using accessibility functions, yet those who need to adjust their settings can do so without too much effort, thought, or strain. This achieves one of the key principles of creating inclusion by design: seamless and effortless design.

Such examples as the one presented by Earl, is a reminder of how big an impact we have on designing and building digital communities. What’s more important is that these communities should be and feel inclusive for all. There is a well-known line in the a11y (accessibility) community that says “nothing about us without us.” In practice this means bringing a diverse spectrum of experiences, reactions, and feelings into the product/service/experience. As Antonio Garcia, boldly stated: “If people feel this, that’s the truth.”

It’s better to design with than to only design for.

We often take for granted how important it is to immerse ourselves deeply in the world of the people that we are designing for. An example of how effective this immersion can be was given by Phil Terry while working on a redesign of a community park. Only when the stakeholders got a chance to walk in the park and see for themselves how people actually used it could they understand the importance of their proposal for making it better. 

After all, it’s essential to create environments where people can fully immerse themselves in  the experience. However, in the case of designing with accessibility in mind, designers must often answer the question: 

“How can I design for this disability if I don’t have it?” 

The answer is: 

Don’t. 

Instead, design alongside someone that has that disability. Even better, hire a designer with a disability to work on the project.[1] 

Currently, the use of disability simulations is a common occurrence among product builders, but this only serves to reinforce the perceptions of people who don’t live with a condition. Whereas, utilizing the expertise of someone who actually lives with a disability means that products can be designed through the lens of their lived experience. This is because their disability is their reality, causing them to continually come up with innovative techniques to navigate the world.

Too often, accessibility conversations happen without people living with a disability. Ultimately, it’s better to design WITH than to only design FOR.


[1] Liz Jackson has created The Disabled List, a disability design self-advocacy organization, and WITH, a fellowship that helps match creative disabled people with design studios and other organizations.

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