“Space that is exclusionary does not live up to its full potential”

It’s time for equitable design to become a priority rather than an afterthought, writes Google‘s Annie-Jean Baptiste.

When you think about equitable design, what does it look like? In my mind, it means everyone being able to move seamlessly throughout spaces without having to think about how their identity might change their approach or reception. This includes a person’s age, race, socioeconomic status, whether they have a disability, and more.

Equitable design is about creating a world where products, services and experiences are made for everyone and are helpful to everyone, with a particular focus on groups that have been historically marginalized. It’s about creating a world where everyone belongs.

It’s not enough to create for one type of person

Equitable design isn’t an afterthought. It’s imperative to ensure environments work for as many people as possible. When we do that, we create spaces that not only reflect the world around us, but create the space for innovation to blossom. When spaces are inequitable, they stunt ideation, growth and change. Non-inclusive spaces can at the least be alienating, and at most, be harmful and dangerous (hospitals come to mind).

There are many factors that can contribute to making someone feel like they don’t belong in a space. For instance, have you ever walked into a store and felt like you were being followed or that you were unwelcome because of your race? Have you ever gone to a restaurant and found that there wasn’t enough space for your wheelchair? Have you ever gone to a movie and realized that there weren’t subtitles in your language? All of these are examples of experiences that can leave people feeling uncomfortable or unwanted.

It’s important to be intentional about designing inclusively and being considerate of every person’s identity. All of us have bias, but we must move from intent to impact. It’s not enough to create for one type of person. We must build to reflect that world and commit to learning about experiences unlike ours in order to do so.

There are several approaches to creating inclusive and accessible spaces, including being thoughtful about how a space is designed. One of my favorite examples of this is by the Magical Bridge Foundation. Their organization designs and creates playgrounds that center around inclusion across several dimensions, including ability and age. This ensures that people with a variety of identities are able to equitably enjoy the space.

Another aspect of inclusive design in physical spaces could be the presence of adjustable lighting, which can be highly beneficial in a multitude of environments, including workspaces. Adjustable lighting could include dimmable lights or blinds/curtains to regulate the amount of natural light. This type of lighting allows individuals to modify their environment to best suit their visual needs, enhancing comfort and productivity. It can also help all skin tones show up beautifully and accurately by ensuring people have the ability to adjust to what works best for them, whereas non-adjustable lighting can fail to account for darker shades and hues.

Spaces can also be used to celebrate identity. For many historically marginalized groups, having environments to authentically connect to is extremely important, because there’s nothing quite like being in a place that was designed with your experience in mind. For the LGBTQ+ community, these types of affinity spaces can cultivate a feeling of belonging. Another example, Black Girl Green House in Oakland, creates spaces for Black women to come together in community.

There are many benefits to having inclusive spaces

While progress is being made, there is so much work that needs to be done.

Consider what a person’s experience would be in a space from end-to-end. The physical components are just one aspect of that. When they enter a space, they should be greeted warmly. There should be someone who speaks their language available to help with questions. Signage should be clear and easy to understand, agnostic of reading level. Hallways should be wide enough for wheelchairs. It’s worth co-creating with communities that may be most at the margins to ensure that you are creating an inclusive experience for as many people as possible.

There are many benefits to having inclusive spaces. They can not only help to create a more just and equitable society, but, at an individual level, they can also help to improve well-being both physically and mentally, by reducing stress and anxiety. These spaces are able to provide people with a sense of community, belonging, and support.

Creating inclusive spaces allows everyone to thrive and tap into their creativity no matter where they are: in the workplace or in the world. Creating inclusive spaces means developing an environment where everyone feels welcome and respected, regardless of their background, identity, or beliefs. There are many parallels between creating inclusive products and inclusive spaces. Space, in fact, is a physical product that people will interact with, utilize and connect with.

Space that is exclusionary does not live up to its full potential. Better decisions and ideas come from dissent, friction and multiple perspectives getting to a solution that is nuanced and multifaceted. The outcomes are better for everyone when you create spaces where groups that have historically been at the margins feel like they have agency to speak their truth.

When creating inclusive spaces, products or experiences, you must always ask: who else? Who else should be involved? Whose voice needs to be a part of the process? As designers, developers, marketers, and creators, we have an opportunity to create products and services that make people feel seen.

We must admit that we don’t know everything, and ensure that we include diverse perspectives

In order to do that, we must admit that we don’t know everything, and ensure that we include diverse perspectives, particularly from people who have been historically marginalized, at key points in the process — ideation, research, design, testing, and marketing. This means being humble, asking questions, and letting those with the lived experiences guide the way. Center the experiences of historically marginalized communities, and build with them, not just for them.

It’s not enough to build something you would like, because you don’t represent the world. When we broaden our perspective and bring in other perspectives, we design, create and innovate for everyone.

The photo is by Red John via Unsplash.

Annie Jean-Baptiste is head of product inclusion and equity at Google and founder of the Equity Army network. Her first book, Building for Everyone, is published by Wiley.

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