Diversity versus inclusivity: do we understand the differences?

Design experts met at Clerkenwell Design Week to look at the nuances of diversity and inclusion, how to embrace them and why they make business sense.

“Designing for diversity can be counterintuitively a bit of an exclusive process because you’re looking to speak to a certain demographic. Inclusivity however is when you seek to speak to everyone. It’s like on GOV.UK – their design thinking has to cater to everyone,” says Sēon Creative founder and director Sarah Malik.

Malik is speaking on a panel at Clerkenwell Design Week and is joined by interior designer, lecturer and mentor Simon Hamilton, barrister and diversity and inclusion consultant, Morag Ofili, and marketing specialist Daniel Peters.

To make any progress with diversity and inclusion Malik believes that designers firstly need to think about the differences between the two terms.

Malik says that by embracing diversity in their practice, designers are making a concerted effort to speak to one demographic and in doing so they need to accept that they are giving another demographic less attention.

While this approach carries an inherent risk that some people can feel alienated by a particular design approach, for Malik this is the only way to move forward when thinking about how to reach a more diverse consumer base, customer or type of client.

Part of this is about becoming comfortable with criticism. “I think as a designer it is hard to take criticism. The first thing I suggest you do is be humble about it and listen to it,” she says.

“Next you have to really look at and interrogate the errors you have made. Is it offensive? is it distasteful? Have you accidentally referenced something negative that you and your company had no idea about?,” she adds. If the answers to any of these things are yes, then it’s necessary to reflect, but otherwise it’s okay to move on, she believes.

Developing diverse thinking strategies

Malik adds that she often sees clients or designers struggle to create something for an audience that they do not know or do not relate to culturally or socially.

“In the design industry we are all taste-led and it can be very hard if you’re trying to speak to other groups. You might not really like or feel a sense of kinship with what you’ve designed or with what it’s doing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working”.

Most of the panellists agree that, while hiring diversly is one solution to the problem, becoming diverse in your own individual thinking also helps. Malik suggests that one way to do this is through developing your own strategy.

She says, “Try to create three different personas and then critique the design from those perspectives. It won’t be perfect but at least you can begin to shift out of your individual perspective.”

This may be particularly useful for smaller design studios without the resources to carry out extensive customer research.

Another key message pushed by everyone on the panel was that, in their opinion, diversity and inclusion is not only morally right, but also business smart. They hope that it will become second nature to have diverse and inclusive design strategies, products, workforces and clients.

Elsewhere Hamilton spoke about one particular experience that had a lasting effect on the way he thinks as a designer.

He says, “I had an injury a while ago and I went to an exhibition in a wheelchair. I suddenly realised that even though I was at an exhibition for design, I couldn’t see the exhibits.

“This was over 20 years ago and ever since then I have a hyperawareness of how things can be accessed, just from that one experience.”

Hamilton and Ofili also discussed the benefits of design organisations sharing strategies.

“I think design organisations need to get together and learn from each other to understand what it means to be diverse,” says Hamilton.

Ofili adds, “Being a diverse, inclusive work environment should not have a competitive edge, it should be a base level.”

They agree that by holding onto their strategies on diversity, some design organisations might be “damaging the industry.”

Diversity in Design: are we missing the point? took place at Clerkenwell Design Week, which ran from 24 May 2022 to 26 May 2022 at Spa Fields, Clerkenwell

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  • Neil Littman May 30, 2022 at 8:15 am

    I would like to hear some examples of what the panel think are specific issues and experiences we need to consider relating to the subject they discussed. I wasn’t sure how a wheelchair experience from 20 years ago was particularly relevant. So much work has been done since then to improve accessibility although I agree still have some way to go on that issue. Your recent piece on the opening of the Elizabeth Line highlighted that point in particular.

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