You are a shareholder if you are reading this. It’s because you have the means to have access to this material, whether through a digital asset, like a laptop or a phone, or through knowledge from a design education. Somehow, someone has invested in you. Or perhaps it might even be on your own accord as a personal investor investing in your own wellbeing and wealth. Unfortunately, just like how many designers start off by designing for themselves or their tribe, we need a guardrail that prompts us to think more holistically.
But the issue of investment is pervasive. The word is quickly associated with men in sharp suits using business jargon like ROI (return on investment), CAGR (compound annual growth rate), and working capital. Money is quickly linked to it, and so is greed, one of the seven cardinal sins. In fact, power and greed corrupt so significantly that they can affect any new idea. We see this trend with cryptocurrency traders when the blockchain technology has more utility for a wider group of users. We see this trend with tech companies creating commerce-obsessed metaverses when fun and social interaction were the fundamental drivers for gamers. And now we see signs of artificial intelligence being commercialized, excluding other groups of users from gaining immediate access unless there’s a fee. Sadly, these issues create a distraction and deter people, particularly designers, from understanding or attempting them.
So when I say there’s capital in design, you will immediately think of money or financial assets. Two choices may appear; you may either dismiss it as it doesn’t concern you. Or you might pay attention to understand what capital means.
And that’s because, although financial capital is important, it is not everything. When a pure capitalist model is applied, the ripple effects of negative externalities are formed. Unwanted consequences from a chain reaction result in record-breaking global temperatures, inequity among human beings, and prevalent biases without any governance.
There is a growing awareness of the need to address these issues on all fronts. Frameworks such as ESG and impact investing are taking shape, with more people, including investors, advocating for an equitable world for future generations. Grassroots initiatives such as Global Awareness Accessibility Day (GAAD) and World Inclusion Day, held in May and October, respectively, are also a call for us to come together as shareholders, producers, designers, and entrepreneurs to come up with better equitable solutions for a wider range of users.
But is it enough? When we look at digital access and inclusion, with more than One Billion people with disabilities or impairments, we think the size of the challenge is enough. A fair assessment will acknowledge the acceleration and accumulation of innovative solutions, such as assistive technology, to normalize interactions across people with physical disabilities and impairments in this category, namely visual, hearing, and motor skills. Lately, these users also extend to neurodiverse users as well as others who seek ways to achieve better mental health and wellbeing.
Less of labels
That being said, there are some flaws in this approach, mainly due to the legacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when the legislation was introduced in the 1990s. Shortly after, as technology improves, so do the supporting features and capabilities that enable broader interactions. Microsoft led the initiative with various pre-loaded features, such as sticky keys and filter keys. These policies and features acted as the building blocks of a whole array of solutions and products catering to the groups falling under the ADA.
It does, however, create an unintended dichotomy of “us and them”. Again, this statement is by no means meant to belittle the significant progress of life-changing solutions, but it begs the question, “Why is there a need to create labels? And what are the labels we are giving to ourselves, and more importantly, others?” To make matters more complex, the labels are often mixed with other situational and implicit factors. For example, although the topic of slowness applies to everyone, an observer is quicker to attribute slowness to a person with a disability. The fundamental error in this thinking is the attribution of disability to slowness and the lack of recognition of how slowness can also be applied to the observer under similar conditions. It is detrimental to think in this way, making people culpable for becoming ableists— discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. Sadly, how many other labels will an excluded person receive for different circumstances until we see the need to eliminate labels?
To be fair, due to the progression of time, the topic is further developing into a more comprehensive set of approaches. Microsoft, in turn, has further committed to the evolution of the topic. Today, we see a greater emphasis on inclusive design.
Here is how they have defined it:
Inclusive design is a methodology, born out of digital environments, that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.
Rather than labeling, inclusive design accepts that every one of us is susceptible to the various conditions. It is therefore paramount to learn from diversity and, in turn, extend solutions that are integrative across a wide spectrum of users.
Shared by 99% Invisible, using closed captions, is one solid example of inclusive design. Although originating from legislation and lawsuits that prompted industry leaders such as Netflix to adopt better closed captioning practices, closed captioning does create extended benefits for other nearby users, such as users in noisy environments or children learning to read. Roman Mars, host and producer of 99% Invisible, even admits that he relies on the captions when watching a movie due to the mumbling of the actors. (This is largely due to the changing standards of movie production, such as naturalistic performances.) It is also worth noting that the trend of captions is also based on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram videos.
More to capital
But the story doesn’t end here, and that’s because there is a bigger pie to address on the topic of accessibility and inclusion. Consider the earlier topic of health as one of the categories of human capital, but it cannot be treated in isolation from other areas such as education, knowledge, and skills. And yet, human capital is one of the many other types of capital, such as social capital, cultural capital, natural capital, and economic capital. We often hear about capital in the financial world, and are quick to dismiss its importance and meaning. If we were to intentionally slow down, then we would come across a different definition. Here’s how influential sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines it: Capital is accumulated labor that, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor. In other words, capital can accumulate value, and any form of capital can be converted to any other form of value.
With this concept in mind, a possible goal would be to derive solutions that can ultimately accumulate various types of capital beyond health. Suddenly, other users emerge. From a built-capital perspective, a person with low accumulated capital could be someone who is in need of a home due to poverty or a natural disaster. From a cultural capital perspective, a person with low accumulated capital could be lacking a sense of belonging or identity within a community. Not only is this applicable to indigenous groups, but the problem could extend to racial minorities or foreign delegates. Or from a social capital perspective, a person with low accumulated capital could be a refugee, a person with a criminal record, or a member of the worker class. The list goes on.
Just as the accumulation of different types of capital is beneficial to individuals or communities, the reverse is also true. The lack of capital creates a scarcity of resources. What’s interesting to note is that this in turn produces a snowball effect of other bad choices, which reduces the chances of the user ever getting out of the situation. Angela Duckworth and Steven Dubner expanded on this topic. Based on their discussion of a famous experiment run by researchers Sendhil, Eldar, and Anuj. The conclusion? The creation of a scarcity mindset can happen to any one of us as long as we are in similar situations.
There will be a time when we will grow old and lose our former functions of sight, hearing, and cognitive memory. In other cases, we or members of our communities may suffer from a loss of income, home, or social status. And when placed under such circumstances, any one of us is susceptible to becoming an individual with no capital. Have we seen ourselves as a homogenous group of people designing for each other?
As shareholders, producers, and ultimately users, our positioning to tackle these socioeconomic issues is important to determine the outputs that come out of us. Rather than designing for ourselves, we can design for a better world by incorporating a holistic understanding of inclusive design.
There are three immediate ways to do this:
1. Instead of being human-centered, let’s be humanity-centered
An increasing voice across the design sphere is calling for designers to shift their perspective to address a wider system. One louder voice is Don Norman’s. In his latest book, Design for a Better World, Norman suggests shifting the emphasis away from a mass-consuming market and focusing on the increasing need for sensitivity to biases and prejudices against particular societal groups. From its early roots in 2005 and 2006, humanity-centered design “is judged on the basis of how it has created or will create coherent improvements in the collective human condition.”
Here are the five principles of humanity-centered design, abridged version:
a. Solve core issues, not just presented problems (often symptoms, not causes).
b. Focus on the entire ecosystem of people, all living things, and the physical environment.
c. Take a long-term, holistic view, realizing that complications stem from interdependencies and that harmful consequences may emerge over time.
d. Continuously test and improve designs to ensure they address the concerns of the intended users.
e. Design with and support by the community, with professionals serving as enablers, facilitators, and resources to address community concerns
2. Build spectrum and network vocabulary with a new lens of other types of capital
Katie Holmes and Microsoft started inclusive design with a great tool known as the Persona Spectrum. Known to be a quick tool for empathy and scaling to broader audiences, the persona spectrum consists of three scenarios: permanent, temporary, and situational. The tool is also linked to the adjacent tool known as the persona network, which involves auxiliary groups of people such as friends, strangers, and co-workers.
Extending the persona spectrum, what if we applied the same persona spectrum to other types of capital beyond health? For example, using the persona spectrum on cultural capital could entail the following types of users: permanent (indigenous people); temporary (immigrants); and situational (tourists). The same can also be applied to the other forms of capitals. And since the topic of inclusivity is a wicked problem by itself, we’ve got to use guardrails to shape our thinking systematically. The visual metaphor is to shift from a linear, see-saw balance to a circular spirit level, such that there can be more than one parameter in consideration. These parameters, though adding complexity, make sense and are crucial data points not to be treated in isolation. Because when we design with context in mind (permanent ⇔ situational), we need to factor in network interaction (individual ⇔ community), as well as the accumulation, or lack thereof, as value (abundance ⇔ scarce).
It is worthwhile to then approach complexity with the goal of simplifying. Just as mathematicians condense complexity into symbols, we as designers have the power to do likewise with our innate ability to blend both the arts and science together. The polygon, and in this case, the six-sided hexagon, is a perfect candidate due to its ability to come in different shapes and attributes. And yet, the hexagon transcends different dimensions, as seen in the natural and built environment, which leads to cultural, human, and social symbolism. Even academics Mark Roseland and Maria Spiliotopoulou have used the hexagon for their framework. Shared knowledge from various sources thus leads to the accumulation and conversion of capital, making the hexagon a suitable visual representation for an inclusive design framework, as seen below.
3. Enable empowerment for users. Enlist empathy to shareholders
In this case, both Kat Holmes and Don Norman are in agreement on getting the users to participate, even to design their experiences for themselves. Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, Jenny Lay Flurrie, exemplifies this approach by setting up a new Inclusive Tech Lab, where people with various disabilities offer feedback and ideas to their designers. But the team does more by providing CAD files for anyone to design and 3D print their own add-ons for their mouse and button controller.
And maybe that should be the way forward. For the users to become designers by empowering them with the resources to assist themselves, such as modular education, tool kits, and modules of appropriate technology, as shared by Norman. Because a user who becomes a designer answers their own questions based on their own experiences, they too will have the resolve to iterate and design better for themselves. As fellow designers, we can act as mentors, guides, and facilitators in this process.
And what about the shareholders, especially those with authority and power? Specifically, anyone who is able to read this article. As a start, you can invest in your future selves by recognizing their existing biases and readjusting your perspective. Practicing empathy follows. Some shareholders go to the extent of being alike or speaking to people. Only by removing the insulation that surrounds our preconceived minds and embracing inclusivity can we open ourselves to other possibilities.
I personally like Kat Holmes definition of empathy: to reason with the heart and to sense the total situation. After all, many benefactors had once been such users and had benefited from someone or something else. They may even be living through it themselves. However, they are also essentially paying it forward and breaking the snowball effect for themselves and for others.