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Designing For Good: Universal vs. Inclusion vs. Equity Design

While you might not know what these words mean, you have definitely seen them in action. You can watch Netflix documentaries with closed captions. You can adjust the contrast and font size on your phone for easy reading. You can voice activate almost any device in your home now. You may also be seeing equity design in action following the death of George Flyod and other black lives. So, here’s a quick guide to understanding the differences and similarities between them.

Universal Design

According to the Center for Excellence in Universal Design, universal design can be defined as follows: “Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability”. This basically means that a designer is creating something for the largest amount of people to use. There is a “normal” or an “average” that is trying to be achieved. While this strategy makes the most sense because why wouldn’t you want the most people to interact with your product or service, it has the potential to exclude other groups. 

Inclusive Design

Enter, inclusive design. Microsoft defines inclusion design as “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”. This means that a designer is creating for one person or one ability in particular. More often than not, this leads to benefiting others in a way that the product was intended. This was the same case for closed captions. While it was designed for deaf/hard-of-hearing, many people benefit from reading closed captions. Lord knows, I can follow West Wing episodes a lot better when I can see what C.J. and Toby are arguing about and I have pretty great hearing. 

Equity Design

Equity design takes a slightly different approach. According to the Equity Design Collaborative, “Equity design is a creative process to dismantle systems of oppression and (re)design towards liberation and healing by centering the power of communities historically impacted by the oppressive systems being (re)designed”. Equity design uses this targeted approach to achieve change. This focus is coming to the forefront of the design world due to mass protesting across the world against racist systems against individuals of color. Designers are taking it upon themselves to help tear down systems of oppression and redesign these systems with the communities that are most oppressed. 

How They Interact

While there are differences between each methodology, it might be easier to view these through a venn diagram. All 3 design methods have the capability to incite change. A lot of the research stages in these methods will be examining current processes and how they can be made better. The how is the center of that methodology. For equity design, that “how” is through dismantling oppressive systems. For inclusion design, it is including the person or group the product is being designed for. For universal design, the “how” lies in research of who does this product affect the most. The key for all three is substantial research through all steps of the process. 

No matter what method you choose to work in (or any combo of the above, designers have a new obligation to use their talents for the betterment of society. We have a special call to do good work that will benefit those that need it. At the end of the day, all 3 of these methodologies are needed to improve life on this planet. 

We can use these 3 methods to create environments for those with disabilities, redesign systems to benefit black people that have historically been oppressed, to create ethical products to save the environment and future generations. Designers have the unique ability to think outside of the box to solve problems and it is our responsibility to use those powers to help those around us and to raise those voices who have a particular stake in the game. No matter what method you choose, always design for good. 

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