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What does it really mean to “design for diversity”?

How can designers look beyond their own experiences to meet the needs of a broad spectrum of end users?

What does it really mean to “design for diversity”?

In the era of identity politics, #metoo, and ever-expanding scope for self-expression, it seems that we are finally coming to terms with the notion that no two people are alike. Practitioners across all industries and disciplines are gradually recognising that difference is not something to be squashed or smoothed out, but rather is something to be celebrated. Against this backdrop, “diversity” has emerged as one of 2018’s leading buzzwords, with calls for diversity echoing across all corners of the cultural landscape. But how will – or must – the design industry respond to this call?


Historically, the design discipline has typically focused on meeting the needs of the “average” end user: essentially the person (or group of people) considered “most likely” to use a product or space in the “most likely” manner. While this one-size-fits-most approach allows for design efficiency, it also has the effect of creating underserved pockets of minority groups whose needs – though equally as pressing as those of the “average” envisaged end user – are simply not addressed. The majority of public spaces, for example, are designed for the young and able-bodied, while office furniture typically caters for the 5th percentile female to the 95th percentile male. In doing, the needs of anybody outside of these demographics are essentially relegated to a second tier of importance.


As the occupants of our work and commercial spaces become increasingly diverse, such a narrow approach to design and specification is no longer appropriate. What’s more, it doesn’t make sense from a business perspective: emerging wisdom is that diversity in the workplace is a major asset that drives employee satisfaction, wellbeing, and – in turn – productivity. To invest in and encourage diversity is to invest in a dynamic, creative team whose unique and multi-faceted perspectives can give you the competitive edge you need. The numbers speak for themselves: according to a 2015 study by management consultancy McKinsey & Company, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely than their less diverse counterparts to have financial returns above national industry medians, while companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to do the same.


Below, we explore how designers can harness design and specification to meet the needs of a broader spectrum of commercial space end users.


Think ahead


Designing for diversity is, in part, an anticipatory design approach that predicts who will use your space, how this may change in future, and how these users’ needs may vary and subsequently be met. As such, both design and designer require an element of flexibility. Recognise that design is not static and account for the fact that over the course of its lifetime, your space may be used by people of a range of ages, sizes, genders, and physical abilities. Particularly in today’s fast-paced commercial sector, it is highly likely that the end users that you envisage in the early stages of your project will be different to those that eventually use your space down the track.


Be empathetic


The notion of designing for a breadth of end users falls under the umbrella of “design empathy”, which encourages designers to look beyond their own experiences and consider those of others. Design empathy calls for designers to go beyond the immediately apparent needs and take the time to get to know their end users and the specific challenges they face; as Cliff Kuang writes for Co. Design, “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.”


As such, designing for diversity calls for a new openness amongst designers and a willingness to listen to different voices, including those outside of the design industry. Take the time to get to know your client and take their views and concerns seriously, regardless of whether or not these directly align with your own.


Start small


Accommodating diverse end users isn’t always complicated: sometimes it’s as simple as ensuring the thermostat is set to a temperature that is comfortable for everyone, providing adjustable furniture, and considering how a single space may be easily transformed to serve different functions. Other straightforward strategies include ensuring that light and thermostat controls are at an accessible height, that doors and corridors are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, and that wayfinding signage includes options for the blind or visually impaired. Once small-scale measures such as these have successfully been put in place, listen to feedback from your client and take their cue regarding areas for further improvement.


Walk the talk


As Fabricio Teixeira, author of “The (frustrating) User Experience of defining your own ethnicity”, recently pointed out at San Francisco Design Week, empathetic design is often the end result of design teams that are in themselves diverse. “Diverse teams have serious competitive advantage over homogenous ones,” explains Teixiera, “If you want creative quality, you need creative diversity.” The reasoning behind this is straightforward: design teams that incorporate different perspectives will necessarily be more attuned to a wider range of experiences and needs.


Diversity is a hot topic at the moment, and just like any other topical issue, it is not without its detractors. In the face of this, be vocal about your support: champion diversity in your practice and remind your team that research has shown that teams with homogenous composition are 29% more likely to underperform than their more diverse counterparts.


For more deep dives into the ideas shaping the future of commercial and workspace design, register for FRONT today. Coming to Sydney’s Carriageworks this 9 – 10 August, the revolutionary event will bring together the industry’s best and brightest for two days of networking, panel discussions, and CPD presentations. Don’t miss out: get on board today.

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