"When I first read the World Health Organization’s definition of disability as a 'mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live,' it became very clear that every choice I made as a designer was either increasing or decreasing those mismatched interactions." -- Kat Holmes
©Sennia Kyle / via Mismatch Design
An interview with Kat Holmes, inclusive designer
Art and design were definitely two of my first loves growing up. I get excited about how – and even why – things are made the way they are, and have been known to obsess about the way things look.
After chatting with Izzy Camilleri about the world of adaptive fashion, I couldn’t stop thinking about something she said: that “designers aren’t ignoring the ‘disability issue’, they just don’t know it exists.” And I’ve spent just about every waking moment since then thinking about what small part we, as UR, can play in making sure every designer knows that disability exists. What can we do, as a collective, to make this issue as upfront and personal as possible? Friends, I don’t have all the answers, but we are making this a mission for 2019 and beyond.
When it comes to the world of inclusive design, Kat Holmes is one of those people with a ton of important insights. I find myself just nodding and going, “YASSS” every time I read or listen to her. Kat, named one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business” in 2017, is founder of mismatch.design, a firm dedicated to inclusive design resources and education. She was Principal Director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft from 2014-2017, and led their executive program for inclusive product innovation. Her award-winning toolkit was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. To top that all off, in 2018, Holmes joined Google as a Director of UX Design and continues to advance inclusive development for some of the most influential technologies in the world. She is the author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, which is fast becoming my new bible.
Kat took some downtime from over-achieving to sit with us as we picked her brain some more on inclusive design.
Corinne: Kat, I know you’ve covered this in depth, especially in your book. But for the sake of our readers, can you help us get a sense of the difference between inclusive design and accessibility?
Kat: Inclusive design is a practice or methodology. It’s an approach to building solutions that are made by or with people who’ve historically been excluded from participating in those solutions.
Accessibility is an attribute of the things that we make, often based on legal criteria. Accessibility is also a series of professional roles based on deep expertise in these criteria. Inclusive design may or may not result in a fully accessible product or experience. Accessibility may or may not involve design contributions from excluded communities.
Corinne: How important is the terminology then, especially when it comes to advocating for inclusivity? Is it enough to assume we are all talking about the same thing, or is it important to know the difference in these terms and use them appropriately?
Kat: We’re at a nascent stage when it comes to developing a common language for inclusive design. A central challenge is that inclusion means many things to many people. Where do we start? Gender, age, race, ability? Also, every culture views inclusion in different ways. Language is important, especially when the subject matter is potentially sensitive. But in the absence of universal terminology, it behooves all of us to always consider whose voice is missing. If we begin with that question, then we’re less likely to cause unintentional harm.
Corinne: I want to talk a little bit about values versus marketing. I say that because I feel like many brands see inclusivity as a marketing exercise, but when you dig deeper, it’s not valued across the company. For example, a clothing store that has wheelchair access but doesn’t sell clothes for wheelchair users, or has cash counters that are too high. Or, an underwear brand using people with physical disabilities as models, but maybe not including them in the process of designing the underwear. Or, placing people living with disabilities on billboards but not in board rooms. How do we move the needle from clever marketing to a core business value?
Kat: It’s true that there are countless instances where inclusion has been treated as a box to check. Changing culture is hard, and it takes time and persistence. Anecdotally, I receive inquiries each week from people from all over the world across diverse sectors. People from all types of disciplines and at every level seem to be interested in moving past a superficial understanding of inclusive design. There’s a growing awareness and a desire for meaningful action.
“In the absence of universal terminology, it behooves all of us to always consider whose voice is missing.”
Corinne: Right, I see that increasing interest as well. For example, I was recently asked by a business magazine to write a guest blog-post on the economic argument for disability inclusion. I really hate arguing for inclusion in economic terms, though. We should be inclusive because it’s the right thing to do, no? Or, do you think the economic argument is just as important here?
Kat: There’s no right answer to this question. People and organizations have many different reasons for working on inclusion. And there are many kinds of economic arguments to be made. One that I find especially valuable is demonstrating how the benefits of solving a specific need can extend benefits to many more people.
Examples I often share include the typewriter and captioning. One of the first typewriters was invented with someone who was blind so she could author her own letters. The typewriter evolved into the keyboards we use today. Captioning was developed with people who are deaf or hard of hearing as a way to access television programs. But anyone who tries to watch the news in a noisy restaurant might also benefit from captioning.
Corinne: Very true, in terms of the overall good created by being inclusive in our design approaches. You talk a lot about inclusive design as a process. And, I think there may be a long-held belief among business leaders that inclusive design is costly. Can we talk practically about what every company can do right now to embrace the inclusive design process into product or service development?
Kat: Retrofitting inclusive features is more costly and time-consuming. In an ideal world, every product or solution would employ inclusive design from the start. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to practicing inclusive design. Each company needs to incorporate inclusive design when and where it can in ways that complement its existing processes.
Corinne: What do you think are some other myths or wrongly-held beliefs among business leaders that may be preventing them from embracing inclusive design?
Kat: Regardless of the subject matter, business leaders can’t embrace what they don’t understand or haven’t experienced. One myth is that inclusion is a “nice” thing to do. Inclusion isn’t nice; it’s meant to challenge the status quo. Another myth is that inclusion has a finish line. That it’s a state that can be achieved. In practice, inclusion is an ongoing commitment that we constantly make and remake, one design decision at a time.
Corinne: I love that way of thinking of it: as being more fluid…more dynamic. So, can we talk about scale? I’ve talked to other designers who express doubt about the practicality of meeting every individual need, and who doubt that inclusive design can be achieved at scale. What are your thoughts here?
Kat: Great question. This highlights the difference between inclusive design and universal design. Universal solutions aim to meet the needs of as many people as possible, with a little adaptation as possible. It’s one-size-fits-all. In contrast, inclusive design is about creating a diversity of ways for people to interact with a product or experience with a shared sense of belonging. It’s one-size-fits-one.
Corinne: I love that you talk about considering inclusive design only through the lens of (physical) disability at first, and then later expanding your understanding to gender or ethnic inclusion, for example, as part of that process. Can you share a bit about how you were able to make that shift?
Kat: Ability is a facet of human diversity that transcends all other kinds of human diversity. We all gain abilities as we grow through childhood. We all lose some of those abilities later in life. How we see, hear, touch, think, learn, and move is shaped by our experiences, injuries, and even by switching from one environment to the next.
Yet, when we talk about diversity we often recite the same list of categories: gender, race, ethnicity, and age, for example. But these categories have more to do with social and marketing power structures than with how people actually interact with the world.
When I first read the World Health Organization’s definition of disability as a “mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live,” it became very clear that every choice I made as a designer was either increasing or decreasing those mismatched interactions. It made sense to me that considering disability first and foremost would lead to better outcomes for everyone.
Corinne: As a follow up to that, what about intersectionality? For example, there are women of color who are living with a physical disability, or members of the LGBTQ+ community with physical disabilities. Are there ways that inclusive design can be exclusive along race, ethnic, or sexual orientation lines?
Kat: The inclusive design process incorporates the contributions of people who’ve historically been excluded from participating in a solution or experience. It’s not limited to exclusion by disability. Exclusion in design, intentional or unintentional, can happen by any facet of human diversity. The inclusive design process can help remedy that.
Corinne: We recently talked to Izzy Camilleri, an adaptive fashion designer who says that, truthfully, many designers don’t consider inclusive design because they simply aren’t aware of the problem. And, I imagine that if you’ve never been close to the disability community, you really may never think about it. So my question is, what is it going to take to make this a known issue? And not just known, but cared about? Media representation? Policy?
Kat: All of the above and more. There’s no single answer or single path to making progress. For my part, I try to focus on raising awareness of how design leads to exclusion. Recognizing that can be a powerful starting point for change. It’s also important to create spaces where people can share their stories and perspectives, led by and with excluded and underrepresented communities. Keep doing what you’re doing, and more.
Corinne: And, besides your book, can you recommend some good resources for our readers to learn some more about inclusive design?
Please visit mismatch.design for some of our favorite resources and reading. And we always welcome new recommendations!
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