Design for everyone

The original aims of the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge – to question conventional approaches to designing with the less abled – are now seen as relevant to a wider audience

Lynda Relph-Knight, Editor of Design Week and DBA Inclusive Design Challenge judge

It is a rare treat to find an initiative that lives up to its title’s promise. But the programme celebrated in Trading Places is one of the exceptions.

The idea behind the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge is to create everyday products and services for people of all ages and abilities. A worthy aim indeed. But while it was conceived long before co-design became a buzzword, the Challenge calls on designers to ’trade places’ with end-users – older people or those incapacitated by arthritis or dementia, say, or with impaired hearing or sight – to understand their needs. The user becomes a client and designers learn from them first hand.

It doesn’t mean that designers suddenly take on disabilities. But it does involve meetings with potential users throughout the design process to get direction and feedback from them, as well as visits to their homes.

This might smack of common sense, particularly within the creative community whose role has as much to do with championing the consumer’s needs and aspirations as it is to do with attaining commercial goals. But, as Kingston University’s recent research into care homes shows, service providers in the care sector are buying goods and services on behalf of residents without due consultation. Nor are they challenging manufacturers of specialist equipment to develop furniture and other facilities that can convert institutions into real homes – or can fit unobtrusively into a domestic environment.

The intentions may be good, but the results are too often inappropriate and tend to distance older and disabled people from society at large. And it was this scenario that prompted the Helen Hamlyn Centre at London’s Royal College of Art to collaborate with the Design Business Association to launch the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge ten years ago. What has emerged in consequence is a body of ideas and an approach that blends creativity with sensitivity to human needs.

In the early years, the Challenge focused on product design, but as the decade has progressed, the focus has shifted as designers generally have taken on a broader social role. Entrants to the Challenge are now as likely to address a social need, as did this year’s winner, Sage & Onions, by design consultancy Clinic, which brings together old and young in the local community to learn new skills from each other – the ’sages’ bringing crafts such as knitting, gardening and car maintenance to younger people, who ’know their onions’ about computers and other digital media.

There have been systems to help partially sighted people find their way more easily though public transport, or campaigns to raise awareness about lack of mobility. There has even been a sticking plaster that anyone can use, even if you are trying to apply the dressing to your own bloodied hand.
The approach advocated by the Challenge is at the heart of inclusive design. It is not about designing for a group of people sectioned off from society, but about drawing everyone in and celebrating the positives in their lives. And it doesn’t apply to just one age group, though with a rapidly ageing population more will need a greater choice of appropriate goods and services as we live into old age.

So it really is about design for everyone. After all, any one of us can be temporarily incapacitated, regardless of age and overall health. It only takes a sprained ankle, cut finger, migraine or pregnancy to remind us that that’s the case.

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