Row of rubber ducks
September 26th, 2018

Beyond Design for the “Fake” World

In the real world, people are diverse. Real people have varying abilities, appearances, sizes, and backgrounds.

But in the fake world, everyone is pretty much the same, pretty much like … me. In the fake world, everyone can read drug labels without glasses, lift a milk jug from a high grocery shelf, walk down the aisle of a commuter jet, climb up the playground structure at a city park, and access clean water from their tap.

Problem is, we still design for the fake world. Drug labels require magnifiers, grocery shelves are stocked high and heavy, commuter jets and skinny jeans are designed around the same legs, playgrounds marginalize kids with disabilities, and many people lack access to clean water.

Design for the fake world is perfect, simple, and exclusive.

Design for the real world is messy, nuanced, and inclusive.

Here’s what I mean….

A Very Brief History of Inclusive Design

In 1990 president George H. W. Bush signed into law the American with Disabilities Act preventing discrimination based on disability and commencing design guidelines to ensure accessibility. It ushered in all kinds of design adaptations and accommodations. It was a wonderful achievement, and did in fact lead to accessibility, but not inclusion.

Universal Design
Around that same time Ron Mace, a North Carolina architect who had polio as a child, and used a wheelchair and a ventilator, started using the term Universal Design. He made the case that the design of products and environments should be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, regardless of age, ability, or status in life, and without the need for adaptation or specialized design. A classic example of Universal Design is the door lever. Levers began to replace doorknobs in the 90s because levers are better for people with limited hand strength, for people with groceries in their hands, and for people without hands—in fact they’re better for all people. Mace founded the Center of Universal Design at North Carolina State University and published the 7 Principles of Universal Design—to this day the foundation of Universal Design practice.

Ron Mace consulted with BOLTGROUP on product design and I became an advocate of Universal Design—and still am. However, some people hear the term Universal Design and assume it’s a bridge too far—an elusive perfection that seeks to be universally better for everyone, but is inevitably flawed by compromises.

Inclusive Design
Inclusive design is less prescriptive, more affirmative, and more intentional in its advancement of diversity, inclusion, and integration. Inclusive Design considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference. Designing inclusively results in better experiences for everyone.** Inclusive design recognizes that people are different, and that sometimes, design needs to be different to meet everyone’s needs. And inclusive design doesn’t just “accommodate” diversity, it actively seeks diversity—gathering people of mixed perspectives, cultures, and abilities as part of design thinking and design output.

In recent years I’ve learned more about inclusive design. My eyes have been opened through personal experiences with clients, associates, family members, and employees. Here are a few examples:

Equipment Design

PlayCore is a manufacturer of playground equipment, and a leader in inclusive design for playgrounds.  PlayCore hired BOLTGROUP to help create playground experiences that were not just accessible, but also inviting, appealing, and encouraging to the widest variety of kids—kids of all shapes and sizes, all abilities and needs, including children with wheelchairs and children with autism. The ADA established the minimums to make allowances and accommodations—but PlayCore and companies like it are going much further, seeking inclusion rather than just accommodation. The result of our joint design effort includes PlayCore’s Sensory Arch and Car Wash.

PlayCore Sensory Arch

Product Design

My mother has very limited eyesight, hearing, and dexterity. She relies on audiobook CDs as a source of entertainment; however, CD players are notorious for hard-to-read controls. Below is what my sister and I whipped up in a pinch. Recently we bought her Amazon’s Alexa. Innovations like Alexa are positively impacting the lives of people with disabilities. However, my mother was accustomed to the clear speaking voice through the headphones on her CD player—and her Alexa doesn’t have a headphone jack! So now she’s back to the complicated (but audible) CD player. Things like impaired hearing need not exclude an otherwise brilliant product from a large segment of users.

Labeled Boom Box

Organizational Design

I’m one of the founders of a non-profit arts organization whose purpose is, in part, to be a catalyst for inclusion and diversity in our city. We do so by setting an example of diversity in the arts—that is, diversity in the artists, audiences, genres, and the communities where they intersect. We learned that, surprisingly, even the relatively progressive art world is often segregated. Artists and their shows are either bound by center city institutions, or fall into separate cliques based on location, socioeconomic levels, and ethnicity. Our goal is to showcase diversity—not merely by allowing it, but by insisting on it—intentionally seeking artists and audiences of different personal backgrounds and artistic genres. Inclusion is not an  afterthought, it’s an intention. (

Man helping girl with art

Environmental Design

One of our design engineers uses a wheelchair. Our office is ADA compliant, but not truly inclusive. Kitchen cabinets are too high, tables have bases that block access, and thresholds are steep and wide. And venturing outside is worse. Our neighborhood’s restaurant scene has exploded with sidewalk cafés and breweries. But traveling out to lunch, down sidewalks riddled with holes and blocked by streetlights, presents challenges to users of wheelchairs or canes, walkers—heck to everyone.

A Different Way to Think About Ability and Inclusion

Recently at BOLTGROUP we’ve been designing products for our older selves—products for people with declining sight, mobility, and dexterity. It’s forced me to ask: what exactly is an ability, and what is a disability? Without my glasses I’m not able to read print under a certain size. And without my phone I’m not able to hear people across town (or across the world). So without these “ability aids” I’m not able to do my job. I’m not particularly tall, so I use a stepstool to reach the top shelf. I can’t read small print, so I put on my readers. When I want to fasten two boards together I use a drill driver because I’m not strong enough to use the screwdriver. Are these disability aids? If I wear a hearing aid—is that a disability aid? I think it’s time we rethink the notion of ability, and move to a new way of thinking about design for diversity and inclusion.

Twenty-five years ago a young writer from Metropolis Magazine, a design and architecture publication, called to pick my brain for an article on universal design. BOLTGROUP had won a design award for a product that was ergonomically better for people of all ages. She asked what predictions I had for other universally designed products. I told her she’d soon see levers replace doorknobs, and a host of easy-to-read displays on things like thermometers, all because they are “universally better for everyone.” Today we see the potential of technology products, with things like voice recognition, making huge impacts on the lives of all people without regard to ability, language, age, or culture. So maybe this truly is our opportunity to move beyond a focus on “ability,” and declare this the age of inclusive design.

**  Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto

Let's Connect

Are you in a position where a pivotal shift is required to hit your goals? We can help.