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Design that fails to account for every sector of society has no place in this world; our bodies may fail us, but design should not. Richard Eisermann says that designers should build on current achievements to produce great, inclusive design

Mother Nature shows no mercy. She does not discriminate. All of us will eventually suffer from diminished abilities. Many of us will leave this world with mind and body reasonably intact. Many of us face challenges placed before us at birth that must be overcome. In between sits a vast group of us who, as time passes, will no longer have the abilities that we once did. Our fingers will no longer be able to fiddle with the elusive cellophane tear strip that releases the shrink-wrap on a CD. We will read the play list, set in five-point type, with difficulty. We will miss the sound of the drummer’s high hat. And we won’t remember the name of the tune that we like so much. Our bodies will fail us in some way. This is why design should not.

As designers, we must address the broadest possible spectrum of users in our work. Being inclusive in our approach will lead to better design outcomes. Whether we are developing a control panel for a piece of technology or a website for a travel company, the principles of inclusive design will help make our work better for everyone, not just those of us who are less able. Inclusive design is good design – designers now need to make it great. We must learn to apply the principles of equitable use, tolerance of error, flexibility and reduced physical effort to develop outcomes that are simple and intuitive to use, while still maintaining a high degree of aesthetic integrity.

Product design issues are not the only ones driving the inclusivity agenda. Recent legislation has thrown a harsh light on the shortcomings of many websites, for example. While the Disabilities Discrimination Act came into full effect in Britain in 2004, there have been DDA laws on the books, for the past six years, that require websites to be fully accessible to all users. The vast majority of sites do not comply with these DDA requirements. While the laws are not yet being diligently enforced, stern warnings are being voiced and some prosecutions have actually reached the courts, with claimants winning. And, as of next month, all pharmaceutical packaging will have to incorporate braille. Not only does it make ethical sense to get inclusivity right from the start, it makes good business sense. Following proper, inclusive design guidelines at the outset of a project will be much less costly than retro-fitting after the fact.

There is a compelling business case for inclusive design – the evidence is irrefutable. There will inevitably be more of us. Nine billion people will inhabit this planet within the next half century. As a populace, we will be older, because we are living longer. By 2020, half the adult population of the UK will be over 50 years of age and a fifth of the inhabitants of the US will be over 65. Statistically, there was a female born in Japan last year that will live to the age of 150. Coupled with increased demand for democratisation and choice, businesses will be increasingly faced with savvy consumers, who will expect their needs to be properly addressed.

The future of inclusive design will not be about high-concept ideas for whizz-bang technology. The progression that technology provides, allows us to dream of glossy futures, but inclusivity is more about looking at the ordinary in an extraordinary way. The things we take for granted, as capable individuals, can pose daunting challenges to those who are less able. Recent research projects in two areas demonstrate that satisfying alternatives can be found for ‘mundane’ problems, such as getting through a door, or applying a sticking plaster.

Vhairi Maxwell, in her degree project for the Glasgow School of Art, developed a door solution that allows people with reduced mobility to easily enter their homes. The clever engineering of the sliding rails provides for a door that will move out of the way of the wheelchair-bound user, rather than the other way round. In addition, the use of flexible polymer edging prevents children from trapping their fingers – an all too common occurrence with traditional doors. For her idea, Maxwell was the ‘Inclusive Worlds’ category winner in the RSA Design Direction competition 2005.

Pearson Matthews, the healthcare design specialist, looked at the problems that impaired users encounter when they apply a common sticking plaster. Through extensive sessions with users who were unable to use both hands, the group turned, what has always been a two-handed procedure, into a quick and easy operation that can be performed by one hand (or even one foot). Clevername™ was named winner of the DBA Design Challenge for 2004/5.

By applying innovative thinking and a rigorous design process to problems of inclusivity, we will be able to secure a future of enhanced independence and increased pleasure for those of us who are less able. We will all eventually lose the battle with Mother Nature, but we might as well fight the good fight while we can. •

Richard Eisermann is director of design and innovation at the Design Council1 Even the most dextrous among us struggle with the cellophane tear strip on CD packaging.

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