From becoming inclusive to inclusive becoming

The final issue in this serie is about the process of becoming.

Tekst: Sander van der Zwan (i.s.m. Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken)

On the 17th of October, a group of 70 visitors of the Dutch Design Week came together to participate in the 7th Social Design Showdown event about Inclusivity. Both onsite and online, they discussed a topic that is often regarded to be at the very roots of social design: inclusivity. In a series of three articles, this is a reflection on the results.

In his critique on commercialism, Victor Papanek already made a plea for inclusivity of design in the 60s and 70’s, and thereby launched an alternative perspective on what design could do. Even though the topic is of high importance to social designers, the question remains: can social designers really say that they work inclusively?

During the event the participants pointed their gaze, not towards their stakeholders as they are often trained to do, but to themselves. They did so to be able to critically reflect, redirect and promote a more inclusive social design. In small groups they discussed, among other things, ways of designing, diversity in teams, exclusive language use and accessibility issues.

Work has to be done

In the first two articles, I discussed how reducing our biases is not necessarily desirable in design. I proposed that instead, being explicit about our predispositions can be more fruitful. In the second article, I responded to the first article. I discussed how trying to make our predispositions explicit at the beginning of a project can indeed be very valuable, but will not get us out of the mud. I proposed that paying attention to our stakeholders, rather than going to them with a specific intention might help.

In this final article, I will pay closer attention to another phrase I heard: “We are not inclusive yet.” This phrase however seems to suggest that we can, at some point, arrive at a state of being inclusive. I will try to argue that we should be wary of that idea and that it might be better to assume that we will never arrive.

Let’s dive into some quotes of the event:

“We are not there yet”, but in the upcoming years, “big steps will be made in getting more inclusive and more diverse. Bias is still a very important point on the agenda for the next few years, but I strongly believe that in 10 years it will no longer be a subject”, and: “Our design methods are not inclusive yet.” Also: “We are not an inclusive company at the moment, but we are striving to be.”

The latter quotes pose a very important point: work has to be done! To illustrate this work, let me highlight some of the cases discussed during the event:

“Our design teams are not very diverse. When I look at the design teams I have been a part of, many of the members, including myself, have had a higher level education, are mostly Dutch and have a financially stable background.”

Another example:

Language might be exclusive. For example, during the event one of the statements discussed was as follows: “A cultural change starts by updating our language with the contemporary norms of society.” The statement was followed by a sharp remark from one of the participants. Talking about ‘the contemporary norms’ seems to indicate that there is only one contemporary norm at the same time. But this is not the case. Different groups of people might have different norms, and so, updating our language with 'the contemporary norms of society' implicitly means that we will have to choose whose norms serve as the norms. This choice of course excludes other norms. The language used here might therefore be seen as exclusive from the start.

And finally:

Our designs are often excluding and pushing out many users, for example, as pointed out by one of the participants of the event, colourblind people are not able to read the text on the Social Design Showdown website. The event itself was rather exclusive for people in a wheelchair, which became painfully clear when watching some of the pictures taken during the event.

Workshop inclusivity event Social Design Showdown 

The ideal of arriving

As mentioned before, the quotes indicate that work has to be done, and the latter examples clearly show that this is the case. But the quotes do something else too. They implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, promise that if we put in the work we will at some point ‘arrive’.

While the ideal of arriving at an inclusive state in the future fuels activism, I think we have to be careful. Assuming that one can arrive at a state of being inclusive, one will naturally ask: what do I have to do to become inclusive? This is where guidelines and checklists might come in. For example, guidelines for inclusive language, guidelines for inclusive hiring processes and checklist questions for an inclusive design process.

Guidelines and checklists redirect what we pay attention to, and as such they are helpful tools. At the same time, each of them draws attention to some things, but not to others. They might point designers to particular issues of disabled users, but neglect gender issues. They might point designers to how they use language, but neglect how they hire people. They might point them to the way they include the non-human world as might be relevant in our days, but most certainly neglect specific needs of youngsters. The list of things to pay attention to may go on indefinitely, and each of them might be more or less relevant depending on the specific situation that the designer finds herself in. And so, while helpful as tools, ticking all the boxes of the guidelines and checklists can never grant us a status of being inclusive. In other words, we should never stop thinking for ourselves because we will never arrive.

As mentioned by our participants, rather than aiming for such a state, we need to remind ourselves throughout the process that this is a dynamic structure and should not be a one-time event." And: "Another thing is that this is only a process, it is a process that we have begun and that is actually never-ending. I often mention to people that there is no true arrival when it comes to understanding these issues. It is a lifelong process if you will, to understand perspectives of others, to try and see other people and learn from them. To be empathic. So to have this idea of 'I have arrived, I understand everything' is not going to bring us forward. I would like to urge everybody to keep on thinking and to make connections. In this way, I hope this event was a way to connect with others.


What can we learn from this with regards to inclusivity?

To start with where we left off in the last two articles: Inclusivity of design might not be about reducing our biases in order to become objective. Becoming fully objective as designers is unattainable, and we might be better off trying to be explicit about our predispositions so that others may respond to them. At the same time, we can never be fully explicit about all of our predispositions from the start, because we might not notice them ourselves. Therefore, we also need to be attentive to others, including our stakeholders, so that they may surprise us and teach us about ourselves. 

In this final article, I aimed to show that even though we can work hard, doing the things stated above, we will never arrive at a state of ‘being inclusive’. In the same spirit, checklists and guidelines can serve as great tools along the way, but they will never be able to grant us this status. That we will never arrive doesn’t mean that the work is irrelevant. On the contrary, it might for example help us attend to and change our inaccessible websites for colourblind people, mind the way we speak about norms or change our teams and hiring processes. It means that in each particular situation, we have to put in the work. It is a continuous effort of listening and responding to others. This is what we might call a shift from thinking about ‘becoming inclusive’ to an ‘inclusive becoming’.