How Inclusive Design is Shaping a Better Future

For more than 30 years, urbanisation and an ageing population have posed big challenges to cities around the world. How to make densely populated urban centres more equitable and livable are big questions that must be addressed. Inclusive design may be the answer. 

Editorial Team19 Jan 2022

Jeremy is director of Worktech Academy and holds the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art. He is also the author of more than 20 leading design books, with his latest Designing a World for Everyone: 30 Years of Inclusive Design taking a deep dive into human-centred design projects that have influenced everyday life.


As an expert in future cities, ageing and inclusive design, Jeremy is tackling the big design challenges cities now face, in addition to questioning the role of government and its influence on the design aesthetic. He delves deep into these issues, offers an insight into how we can design for a better future, and gives us some insights from his latest book.


Moreover, Jeremy is one of our prominent speakers in this year BODW Summit. He walked us through the topic of “Carving out Future WorkSpace and Living”. Click on the links to review the seminars.






Summary of Interview



You're an expert is in future cities aging and inclusive design. What initiate your interest in these areas?



Well, I'm somebody who lives in cities and my background is in design, architecture and research, and you know the city is the big design challenge and how we make our cities more equitable, more livable for all ages and abilities, I think, is the big question of the age and, in particularly, how we make our cities healthier.


So, I suppose, in summary, I would say that why I'm interested in these challenges is because they are the big challenges of the age.



That's really interesting. We use this word inclusive quite a lot, I think it would be worth unpacking what it means to you what does inclusive design, especially mean to you, and why the forces preventing design from being as inclusive as it can be?



Inclusive design is a term that my own institution, the Royal College of Art and my colleague Roger Coleman first used the term inclusive design in an academic paper in 1994, in which talked about inclusive design at the time, the general term was universal design and that was used mainly in America and in Japan, to describe design that included the needs of older and disabled people. However, universality is a very tough thing to achieve, whereas inclusive design you can make something more or less inclusive. It's more achievable. And the story around universal design was to do with legislation, you know, governments or authorities legislated minimum standards that architects and designers had to design to.


So, it was really the stick of legislation, which was driving universal design, whereas we thought the inclusive design would be more of a character, and you could say to companies and regional authorities. Well, if you make this transport system more inclusive and you'll have more people using it. You'll have more revenue, if you make your product more inclusive. More people will buy it and therefore you'll have a bigger market, so we were looking at the kind of commercial carrot of inclusive design as opposed to the legislative stick of universal design, so inclusive design is an all-encompassing term.



Can you tell us a story of how you came to found Helen Hamlyn Center for Design?



There is a benefactor Helen Hamlyn and she was a designer and she was a graduate of the Royal College of Art and a social philanthropist. She had a charitable foundation. In the 1980s, she was struggling with her own mother, who had to go into residential care because she couldn't find the products and services that would support her as she got older in our own home.


She set up a unit at the College called Design Age and subsequently this became the Helen Hamlyn Center for Design and I joined him the early days to work with Roger Coleman and we co-founded the Helen Hamlyn Center for Design and we started looking more broadly to inclusion, not just older people, but the needs of all people of all ages and abilities.


That's the really genesis of the Center. We've been working internationally in a series of partner including Hong Kong Design Centre. We've been doing that over many years and had quite a closed relationship with Hong Kong.



That's very cool! and you mentioned the design agencies you wish now funded by the government. Do you think increased government involvement in design will lead to more inclusivity?



Yes, I think it's very important that governments support inclusive design initiatives. I mean what happened in our case, we started with a design age program and this became the Helen Hamlyn Center for Design.


But to answer your question about the need for government commitment to this, I think it's absolutely essential because government kind of setting the framework. It sets the framework for how you might approach things, what the priorities are. I think inclusion now is very all-encompassing. It's about age, it's about ability, it's about gender ethnicity, it's about ensuring social equity, for the widest range of people, maximum benefit for the maximum number of people.



I will ask quite a broad question. What do you think are the current trends and design? How do they respond to this increased demand for inclusivity?



I think the trend is around personalization and customization. We used to have mass markets. In Hong Kong, as a production center that is very much essential there. You worked out what the things made people the same and you design for those. Now I think these are inclusive design. We're respecting difference and designing in order to address those.


So, I think the broad trends in design around customizable design, modular design, but also sustainable design. I think that's a massive push towards environmental sustainability net zero reducing carbon and all that kind of thing is very linked to inclusive design.


Because inclusive design is about social sustainability. It's about creating cities in which people can live together harmoniously, and share public space, and feel that they're part of the public environment.



I'm going to ask a little bit of a controversial question, but do you think design or personalization in design is a slippery slope to laziness?



Well, there is an argument about inclusive design, if you make things too easy for everybody, you lose your capacity, and that is a very interesting counter-debate.


In the early days of inclusive design, reducing friction, reducing barriers making things easier for people but they didn't build any physical capacity. So, there is an argument about that. And there are arguments that the design, should be more therapeutic and less about barrier-free inclusion, but more about building up people's capacity.



Finally, we would like to hear some examples of case studies from your newest book 《Designing a World for Everyone》, which was published to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Inclusive Design.



Well, I think one of my favorite case studies in the book is the one that's on the cover. That is ongoing work in Northern Ireland, the city of Derry / Londonderry. There was a very difficult area around the River Foyle with bridges, which became suicide bridges and especially in winter, very dark and forbidding in a place of very low mental health.


We have intervened with a program of design interventions are works to make the place more positive, to draw people through natural. Instead of putting up barbed wire and flood-lighting to stop people jumping off the bridge, we're creating a beautiful artwork, so the bridges are framed with these digital “reeds” that change color and local people can own them and program them from their phones. It's more than suicide protection. It's changing the perception of an area. So, this is a kind of very advanced form of inclusive design.


It's one of my favorite projects, but I have other projects in the book. There's lots of examples in the book that I hope to show how inclusive design can work.