Going global

The altruistic message and brainstorming potential of the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge have had a global impact, with similar programmes now running worldwide

Julia Cassim, Senior Research Fellow, Helen Hamlyn Centre, Royal College of Art

When we launched the first DBA Inclusive Design Challenge in September 2000, it was in the spirit of an experiment whose outcomes were unknown. We knew that good designers are bold creatures – altruistic and unafraid of being taken out of their creative comfort zones even when the rewards are intangible commercially. A decade of Challenges has proved this over and over again.

Some participants have become serial ’offenders’, despite knowing that this is an immersive experience not for the fainthearted, especially in the 24- and 48-hour Challenges held all over the world.

The international extension of the DBA Inclusive Design Challenge is one of the most interesting aspects of the story: the Challenge model made such an impact on designers and manufacturers, who were impressed by the speed, creativity and teamwork inherent to the process, that it has been adapted for different partners, in different contexts and for shorter durations.

Since 2005, the Helen Hamlyn Centre has organised 24- and 48-hour Challenges in ten cities around the world – Kyoto, Tokyo, Oslo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sarajevo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Dublin. Why has the challenge model achieved such global visibility? Many years of designing and interpreting exhibitions with visually impaired people in Japan made me realise what a criminally neglected resource disabled people are for the creative process.

Disabled people bring an incisive and detailed knowledge of design failure that is immensely beneficial for designers on ergonomic grounds alone. And the ingenious lateral strategies they develop to tackle the catastrophic failure of the designed world to consider their needs are a treasure trove of innovative ideas.

Far from presenting a set of creative handcuffs, they turn a problem on its head, forcing designers to go back to first principles. ’How do you put on a Band Aid when you have no arms?’ was the question implicitly posed by Tom Yendell of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Association to the Pearson Matthews team which developed the Clevername™ sticking plaster, winner of the 2005 Challenge.

We wanted the Challenge to be seen as an intensive tutorial designed around the realities of design practice so that designers could learn replicable methodologies and become advocates to their clients of the business and innovation benefits of an inclusive approach. We needed to demonstrate what we meant in terms beyond the theoretical. For this, benchmark exemplars of inclusive design had to be generated, if the design industry was to sit up and take notice.

With these considerations and feedback from participating groups, the challenge format quickly evolved. By 2003 we had a growing portfolio of innovative examples of inclusive design across the design disciplines. Those who had participated asked for our help in running innovation workshops for their clients.

By retaining core elements but telescoping the time frame to three days, we created the challenge workshops. All are based on the principle that by forming a dream team of designers and inspirational disabled partners, by removing barriers to mutual brainstorming and briefing participants thoroughly, significantly innovative concepts can be generated within a short period of time.

From there it was a short hop to the first 24-hour challenge held at Include 2005, the Royal College of Art’s biennial conference on inclusive design. Five teams worked through the night, presenting their concepts to conference delegates the next day. It was a dazzling display of the true strengths of UK designers – of their ability to think on their feet, lead from the front and deliver.

In 2006, the first international 48-hour challenge was held in Kyoto, the time-frame extended in consideration of the linguistic and cultural context. Five veterans of the UK Challenge led teams of in-house Japanese designers from household names such as Toyota, Sony and Panasonic. The winning project was a customisable remote control.

Since then, the Challenge concept has been embraced wholeheartedly on a global scale. Each has produced truly inclusive designs, but ones that are specific to the context in which they were created. Where else but Hong Kong would you expect a chopstick computer mouse?

In Dublin, the winning team transformed the historic city centre’s street bollards into valuable markers for navigation, while in Oslo, the Chalk interface for an 85-year-old’s mobile phone linked to Scandinavia’s humanist design tradition and showed how mental models of interaction could be a greater issue than functional concerns.

It has been an immensely rewarding professional and personal journey, and I am deeply grateful to all those who have supported the Challenge workshops along the way – those who have thrown their lot in with the idea that inclusive design can, and does, change the world

Latest articles