The Design Slate: Inclusive Design – Designing Spaces for All
Intro: Hello, and welcome to the design slate, the podcast that brings together design experts and industry leaders to talk trends, current affairs, and the future brought to you by Progressive AE. Now here’s the show.
Melissa Malburg: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the design slate. My name is Melissa Malburg. I’m a designer and principal here at Progressive AE, and I’m really excited for this conversation today.
In our firm, our work is grounded in a commitment to creating sustainable and inclusive outcomes for our clients. But sometimes it can be hard to take such big topics and make them tangible for everyday action. Today’s episode is a primer on inclusive design.
We’ll cover the basics, like what we even mean by inclusive design and why should we care? We’ll also dig into practical ways to implement inclusive design strategies in your spaces. I’m joined by Jessica Griffis, a fellow designer at Progressive AE, and an expert on inclusive design. Jessica partners with team members and clients to broaden our impact, integrating inclusive design strategies to create places and spaces for all people to belong.
Jessica Griffis: Thanks, Melissa. What a great introduction. I’m really excited and looking forward to our conversation and talking about inclusive design and how space really impacts the human experience.
Melissa Malburg: Awesome. Well, let’s get started with some basic definitions. Could you tell us a little bit about inclusive design?
Jessica Griffis: Sure. Inclusive design is a human- centered approach. It’s a process that embraces diversity. We consider it a mindset that involves drawing from the full range of human experience to enable people of many backgrounds and a variety of abilities to participate to their fullest potential, but also creating a sense of belonging for everybody.
It’s about the person and the spaces where we help to support that person. So, as we seek to understand inclusive design, I think it’s important to understand what the differences between some of those commonly used terms are that fall under this umbrella. Universal design, accessibility, and adaptive design are often used pretty interchangeably when we talk about but they are distinct concepts that make them complementary and they work together to support a pretty common outcome.
Melissa Malburg: How about we start with accessibility? I have a feeling that that might be the most familiar and understood of the three concepts.
Jessica Griffis: I think you’d be correct in that statement. Melissa, accessibility really seeks out to ensure that a place is usable by all people, regardless of their age or ability. And in design, it focuses on the elderly and users with disabilities, and it’s a subset or maybe an outcome of inclusive design practices.
So an example of this might be a curb cut in a sidewalk. That leads into a pedestrian or crosswalk way. Oftentimes we see these curb cuts when we have folks with a wheeled mobility device trying to enter into a crosswalk or a pedestrian way, but they’re also really helpful for mom with a stroller. Um, someone with a walker and it’s also a signal for people who might have low or no vision as they approach a crosswalk.
So they know if it’s safe or even the direction to cross the street.
Melissa Malburg: And accessibility is something that has been legislated in the U S through the ADA or the Americans with Disabilities Act, right? So it’s built into basic building codes and regulations. In terms of the built environment, I think it’s basically standard practice and kind of a baseline expectation when we approach space design.
Jessica Griffis: Absolutely. It is. It’s our baseline as we start to develop projects, but what we aim to do is now layer in universal design, which pushes the boundaries of the ADA and challenges us. To look a little bit further to what we can do for space to create that sense of belonging.
Universal design really seeks to create a design that works for everyone in all scenarios. And with just about every contingency you could think of. So it makes it usable by as many people as possible without the need to adapt or accommodate. While universal design is grounded in accessibility in the ADA, it offers more potential for inclusion and seeks to design spaces where everyone is given what they need to succeed.
One example of this could be a motion operated entry door as you go into a building. Not only is it helping somebody with a physical disability access a space, it’s also, I’ll use that mom was a stroller analogy again, I have my hands full and I can now wave or push a button and get into a building much easier. Or it could be that apartment dweller with their arms full of groceries and how do I maneuver to get into a space? It just makes it easier for everybody.
Melissa Malburg: So it sounds really idealistic I’d say. Universal design has kind of a “for all” mindset. So instead of creating accommodations, we’re creating a space that that just automatically, seeks to include everyone, right?
It is a bit idealistic, but I do know that there are a lot of resources that exist to help us in how we approach designing spaces with a universal design mindset. So we’ll get into that in a little bit. But before we go there, how about you tell us about this last concept, adaptive design.
Jessica Griffis: Sure. So adaptive design might be one that you don’t hear as much about.
We talk about accessibility a lot. You’re starting to hear universal design come up a lot in conversation, but adaptive design is also important when we talk about inclusivity. So that really describes the ability for something to change to suit different conditions. So we’re not saying there’s a one size fits all, but it’s allowing things to adapt it within the environment more contextually, so it meets the needs of the person using it. I often use the example of screen readers on your digital device. We all have digital devices, but it can be adapted for those who might need assistance. Um, or even curved utensils for those who have low mobility in their hands that helps them be more independent in how they, use the same type of tool or utensil that everybody else does.
Melissa Malburg: Thank you for helping define those different terms. Um, I think sometimes the definitions and the examples can help us have a common understanding of what we’re talking about before we get into more detail.
So let’s take a note to why this matters enough to be a core focus for our design practice.
Jessica Griffis: Absolutely. It’s critical to really how we approach space. And I think it’s important to talk about inclusive design isn’t just about designing for people with disabilities. But it’s important to realize that in the U.S., one in four adults have some type of cognitive or physical disability. Not to mention maybe short-term disabilities that most of us might face at some point in our lifetime. So thinking only about accommodations for disabilities can be really short sighted. Often we tend to think about inclusive design, and it’s also just as good or better for people without a disability.
There’s this cartoon out there. We use it often when we’re talking about inclusivity and it illustrates someone that’s shoveling the steps in front of a school while kids are waiting to get in. And there’s a student using a wheelchair that asks for the ramp to be shoveled. And the person shoveling says, “I can’t do that right now, I have to get the stairs cleared off so all of these kids waiting can get into the building”– without realizing that if you just cleared the ramp, everybody could enter the building while he cleared the stairs. So it’s really, you know, creating this equitable approach to design where everybody feels like they belong.
Melissa Malburg: And as our understanding of the full human experience continues to grow, the case for focusing on a holistic approach to design that I would say more celebrates or embraces our diversity, allows us to create environments that brings us closer together, instead of focusing only on one user group, and then kind of the at the sake of others.
We do have a lot of clients and partners today asking about how to help build belonging and engagement and it covers most of our markets. It’s a concern of talent in the workplace, but also student enrollment in higher education, even among community partners and event venues or other public places, how they might be able to create some differentiation and have people want to to be there.
We know from countless research studies that when employees experience belonging in the workplace, they’re more likely to look forward to coming to work, more likely to want to stay with their company. They typically take far fewer sick days and companies see big improvements in job performance. We also see that diverse teams perform better when there’s equitable and inclusive practices that help them make the best use of that diversity.
So I’d say the business case for designing for diversity, equity and inclusion is clear, especially when they lead to a sense of belonging. But I think what you’re highlighting is more the opportunity we have as we design spaces to help support this type of commitment through the built environment.
So let’s talk a little bit about what this might look like and how do we, how do we get started?
Jessica Griffis: For sure. So at its core, inclusive design starts to require us to take a deep sense of empathy for the human experience and develop a curiosity for wanting to learn more. Just the way spaces are set up can send a really strong message that someone is welcome or not welcome.
Think about a group of people walking into a building for a meeting. When they approach the front entry, they might be met by a half flight of stairs. Most of the group starts to climb those stairs without a second thought. But Mark, who uses a mobility device, isn’t able to do that. He sees the accessible ramp off to the side of the building, and so he makes his way over there.
Once he arrives at the front door, his group’s already inside the building. They’re getting checked in and ready to go up another set of stairs to the main customers experience space on the second floor. This time it’s a monumental stair that’s celebrating the scale of the company and maybe the connectivity between the first and second floors.
Architecturally, it’s beautiful. We want to see those spaces. But once again, Mark has to travel around that stair to the side hallway where the elevators are located. So by the time the meetings formally start, Mark feels pretty strongly how little his experience was considered in the design of this pretty impressive facility.
Melissa Malburg: Yeah, that’s a pretty striking example, but unfortunately, it’s pretty common, I would say, in a lot of our experiences, creating more equity and how people enter, circulate, and just generally experience spaces can have a pretty significant impact on their wellbeing and how they’re mentally prepared or unprepared to participate in whatever they’re there for.
I can appreciate that maybe Mark didn’t feel the best when he was headed into that meeting, maybe even to the point where he didn’t think his contributions really mattered as much as everyone else, just by the number of obstacles that he faced to just join them where they were. So when we are able to apply universal strategies in our approach to inclusive design, some of the high impact areas we consider are maybe wider corridors for better circulation or easier navigation through better wayfinding, more clarity of signage.
We might look at, even when we have interventions like elevators that are common now, but how people can interact with the elevators and how easy it is to understand and navigate the buttons and the levels. So there’s a lot of strategies, but I feel like that maybe it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So with so much to consider, where do you suggest we start?
Jessica Griffis: That’s a great question. And it is exactly, as you said, it’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s so many strategies that we have worked to develop to make space better for its users. So as an organization, we’ve developed a proprietary universal design checklist that covers all areas of the built environment from site entrances and exits, outdoor amenities, building circulation and workstations to pretty specific functions like fitness and locker room areas, restrooms, residential units.
And even overarching processes that you might find in facility management. So when you look at all of these strategies that are available, it can be a little daunting, but our approach is to break it down into some digestible pieces and start with the things that you might already be doing on your project.
You know, you’re going to have certain elements as you kick off a project you may already be putting in new flooring, new paint, lighting, signage. So it would only be natural to start to apply these universal design strategies to things that you’re already going to be doing. Cause at the end of the day, if we do it early, it’s not going to cost any more for a client to start to incorporate these strategies than it would not doing it.
So really my question, my question is usually why wouldn’t we? So interior finishes is one of the biggest categories and one of the basic concepts is color selection.
Melissa Malburg: Absolutely. Yeah. Color is definitely one of the top influencers of a space and how people perceive the space, how they interact with space.
So, that makes sense that you might start there and how a broader range of people are able to perceive space and feel comfortable in that space. In a recent study, 93 percent of people indicated that color is the number one factor that impacts their perception of space and products, which is basically everybody.
But we know that not everybody experiences color the same way, right? There’s a difference in how we perceive color as we age. So if we’re designing for a younger population versus an older population, we might think of hue and intensity differently, just knowing the users of that space.
If we know that it’s going to be, you know, an elementary school, say, or an assisted living facility, we might think about color differently, but there’s also a way of thinking about color, accessibility when we think about the colorblind, right? Colorblindness is the ability to, Or the inability, I guess I should say, to tell the difference between certain colors, or certain hues.
So, we might have a difficulty, let’s say, seeing the difference between a foreground and a background if we’re not aware of the fact that those two colors might appear the same for something that’s, The most common form of colorblindness is red/green. So you have a difficulty distinguishing between red and green colors.
So for some people, they might see those as a high contrast, but if somebody is struggling with red green colorblindness, then they are the same thing. There are some pretty cool tools out there that can help with selecting color palettes that are sensitive to users who may be colorblind. Color-blindness.com has a simulator that you can upload your image or your file and see how it might look through the lens of different people or different types of colorblindness.
And then Vennage, V E N N A G E, also offers accessible palette generators that are fun to play around with, so it can help give you some suggestions to, to support different types of colorblindness.
Jessica Griffis: Yeah, that’s really great. And I’ve actually uploaded finished palettes into the color-blindness.com and it’s pretty incredible to see how colors start to bleed together when you don’t have colorblindness. So it definitely creates this new lens to approach your projects.
When we do start to apply color to spaces that we’re working on, we really need to keep that perception of color at top of mind. But we should also start to think about where and how we apply that color. Is there a bigger purpose? Is there, a reason we put color in certain places? So this could be changing a ceiling color, in a bulkhead that could also highlight the path to an emergency exit without having a big bold sign that says exit here. So you’re creating this wayfinding strategy as well that helps you get through space safely. It can also define certain amenities within a building, like where are the restrooms, where is hospitality, or copy areas in a large office facility.
All of these are really great strategies and really start to bring a positive impact to wayfinding design as well. But looking beyond color, we also want to think about the actual application of materials in space. Thinking about the actual tangible material and selecting finishes, it’s important to really look at who will be using it and who’s interacting with the space.
So, does the flooring have a high gloss finish? And it’s in maybe an open atrium space with a beautiful amount of natural light coming in, which we all love, but it can also cause an extreme amount of reflection off of a very shiny floor, which in turn can become very disorienting, even for somebody who doesn’t have low vision. Those reflections can really start to play with perception of space.
We also want to consider is the flooring material slip resistant, or does it have a texture to help control slipping, especially in those entry spaces or on stairs where, you know, stairs, we know 80 percent of slips, trips and falls are going to happen on a stair. And we also want to consider the thickness of materials as we’re starting to design floors to really start to look at low or no transitions between materials to start to reduce those hazards of tripping or ease of movement for somebody in a mobility device.
Melissa Malburg: Yeah, I think it’s really important to think about those transitions, even to somebody, maybe shuffling their feet, wearing heels for the first time, not wanting to get stuck on transitions that aren’t very safe.
I do want to touch briefly on signage. You already mentioned wayfinding, but signage is a pretty tangible component of wayfinding. It helps us navigate an environment more comfortably and helps us understand where we are, maybe where we’re trying to be and how we can get there. So being a little bit more thoughtful about how we handle signage and giving it a more intuitive approach, it can help people feel a lot more comfortable navigating spaces.
A couple of things that we think about typically are, the legibility of the typeface on the signage. Sometimes we’ll see signs that are very curly or decorative and that can be really hard for some people to understand. So simple typeface, legible, thinking about the contrast again between maybe the symbology or the typeface and the background of the signage. So it is visible to as many people as possible.
Universal symbology that is clear and easy to understand, no matter where somebody might be coming from. And then I think the last piece that we have a lot more flexibility and as technology continues to advance is other integrations of maybe auditory cues or other technology, maybe touch panel, or things that can cycle through other types of technology integration.
So it just really helps people navigate the space better.
Jessica Griffis: Absolutely. And I want to mention like one of the best places to think about signage and wayfinding is think about a busy airport, and there’s so much going on around you, and you’re trying to get from point A to point B, and how do you get there?
So think about the importance of that wayfinding signage in a facility like that. And making sure it’s up high enough that I can see it. The font size is big enough and also in contrast to that background like you had mentioned. But we’re also seeing ties back to mobile apps now too. So there are new technologies out there where there might be, you might start to see these large QR codes on these signs in airports and they’re readable from up to 60 feet away and they pick up very easily. So those who might have a visual impairment, they have apps on their phones that help them read the signage from really far away and automatically starts to pick that up to help them get through these really busy, chaotic spaces.
So it is really incredible to see how technology is starting to integrate to make spaces more intuitive and easy to navigate for people. I also want to talk a little bit about lighting and it’s a really big component of space. Some people might not think about it, but it, it impacts how you work, how you learn, how you live, so many different aspects of, of how we, engage with space.
And I also want to point out, we’re seeing the number of neurodivergent users really continue to grow. And the way we approach lighting can be critical for those users who might get overstimulated or who may have light sensitivity. So considerations we really want to start to look at for lighting is adjustability and temperature of light, daylighting, lighting control, as well as even circadian rhythm lighting so it starts to automatically change throughout the day. So we keep a normal circadian rhythm and it helps keep people, you know, kind of in check with their day.
We know it might be unrealistic for a project to provide adjustable options for an entire office space. That can be pretty spendy, but it could be possible to have spaces that are available to users where they can go when they need to take a break when they need to be able to tune that lighting to their needs for maybe a period of time. And then they can go back to their normal workspace or learning environment.
So I think really in short, we want to keep in mind that we’re not suggesting all spaces do all things or check all the boxes when it comes to universal design, but we certainly can start to provide choice for people to engage with their space, maybe in different ways and in ways that are based on their needs and their comfort level.
Melissa Malburg: So it sounds like really the key is focusing on, maybe as broad of a user group as possible. But even with that, knowing that we can’t meet everyone’s needs, we’re also allowing them to have some choice or autonomy over how they engage with the device.
So it’s kind of a both/and strategy. I think about the idea of designing for “Joe Average,” the kind of traditional design gives us this, you know, if you design for the 80 percent of “normal” users, it doesn’t really work that way. There’s no, there’s no normal user as we think about who we’re designing for.
So really being able to think about who might be using a space. Sometimes spaces are more specific, and we can think about a targeted user group and sometimes like your example of an airport, it’s the broadest range of people that might be coming in and experiencing that. So just thinking about, where it’s possible, single solutions like the automatic door that can meet almost everybody’s needs.
But also, you know, things that can give people choice and how spaces are designed. I think about a work environment that supports people at the extremes of height. You might have a five-foot-tall person meeting with a six-foot-eight person. And certainly there’s not one height of table or one style of chair that’s going to be the most comfortable for those individuals. So maybe that’s where diversity of options puts them back into control of how they are able to successfully meet with each other. It could be that, you know, the, the space adapts with adjustable furniture, or that it’s got a range of postures within one meeting space.
So it can help maybe the taller individual stand if they need to, or again, in that case, it could be an opportunity for somebody that, maybe just needs to get up and get a change of pace to have that comfort in the space to do that because it’s designed to allow that flexibility.
Jessica Griffis: Yeah, having room to move around or not be in a seated position the whole time if they don’t want to.
So at the end of the day, we’re really striving to create those spaces that are inclusive by being responsive, flexible, convenient, accommodating, welcoming, and realistic. By providing these spaces that offer more than one solution, we help create a sort of balance that meets needs and acknowledges that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all mindset.
Melissa Malburg: Absolutely. Well, I think before we wrap up our time, it’d be helpful to recap some key points about inclusive design. I think the first and foremost, the main point is just that inclusive design places people at the heart of the design process. So it puts importance on creating spaces that people can use to form strong, vibrant, and sustainable communities.
Whether that’s a workplace community or a student community, any type of community that we find ourselves in and want to be able to participate in at our best.
Jessica Griffis: Absolutely. And it also acknowledges diversity and difference. You know, good design is achieved if the environment. created meets as many people’s needs as possible and inclusive design really celebrates that diversity in people and should not impose any additional barriers.
It means that we consider physical disabilities, but also people with learning difficulties, mental illnesses, visual impairments and hearing impairments, as well as cultural diversity.
Melissa Malburg: Yeah. That just how we grow up can impact how we perceive space. It also, when we think about inclusive design offers choice, where a single design solution might not accommodate all users.
So we might not ever be able to meet every need in one solution, but rather consider the diversity of people to help reduce barriers and remove exclusion. So, um. Definitely involves exceeding the minimal technical requirements or accessibility when we’re thinking about space and considering as much abundance as possible for everybody that might use the space.
Jessica Griffis: Yeah, and it also provides some flexibility in the use of the space. So we really want to make sure that places are designed that are adaptable and change with the uses needs and maybe demands of the users and the actual environment.
Melissa Malburg: From an owner and facility manager standpoint, that’s a benefit anyways, right? So you’re not locked into an investment that only serves one purpose and can give you operational flexibility in the long run while it’s providing flexibility for those users. That’s, a multifold benefit, if you will.
And I think lastly, thinking about how inclusive design provides buildings and environments that are convenient and enjoyable for everyone to use. At the end of the day, it is about the person. So creating spaces that aren’t just maximizing efficiency or productivity, but really are thinking about how signage, lighting, acoustics, material use, how all of that can influence just the joy and delight people have as they engage with spaces that they find themselves in.
Jessica Griffis: Absolutely. There’s this quote by Susan Goltsman, who’s a leader in the field of inclusive design, and she says, “inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people.” You’re really designing a diversity of ways to participate. So everyone has a sense of belonging. So by incorporating these principles into how we approach design, we’re really saying everybody has a seat at the table and everybody matters who’s using those spaces.
Melissa Malburg: Awesome. Jessica, thank you so much for diving into the world of inclusive design with us today.
Jessica Griffis: You’re absolutely welcome. Thank you for having me.
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