05 The power of inclusive design

By Martin Thomas, Writer

If I told you there was a largely untapped market that’s worth up to £250 billion in the UK alone – and that it’s crying out for products and services tailored to its requirements, you’d bite my hand off to hear more, wouldn’t you?

According to Interbrand Senior Consultant Marianne Waite, there is. It’s the UK’s disabled consumers.

Marianne runs ThinkDesignable, a non-profit organisation she founded to “improve society’s relationship with difference by harnessing the power of mainstream brands and challenging them to represent the needs of disabled consumers accurately.”

Speaking at a CANNT festival lunch and learn session at creative agency Ragged Edge, Marianne said disability is the one minority group that anyone can become part of – and if it doesn’t touch us directly, it’s at least likely to affect a loved one.

And yet it’s still relatively rare to find well-designed products and services for disabled people. In fact, she said, far too many are stigmatising and ugly rather than beautiful and aspirational.

By reframing our attitude to inclusive design, she said, we can improve not just disabled people’s lives, but everyone’s. Texting, emojis and contactless payments were all designed for specific disabled groups but because they’re great designs, all have been universally adopted.

There are three key reasons to embrace a more inclusive approach, she said:

  1. The business case – If brands get this right, they’ll open up a huge market, worth an estimated £250 billion, according to the UK Department for Work and Pensions.
  2. The human case – It will help to create a better relationship between society and disability; it’s an investment in our own potential future needs; and it’s just the right thing to do.
  3. The brand case – Inclusive design builds loyalty, it builds awareness (a Maltesers ad featuring disabled people boosted sales by more than 8%), it improves credibility (just look at Microsoft’s recent initiatives), and results in a better experience for all.

But how do you get it right? Brands are rightly keen to avoid any suggestion of tokenism – or so-called ‘purplewashing’ – for instance, by including someone with Down’s syndrome in an ad, but not doing anything to make the product or service they’re promoting more accessible to those with the condition.

Don’t design for disability, design with disability

One obvious way is to include disabled people in the design process – in other words, don’t design for them, design with them.

Then there’s the way products and services are promoted. By including a photo of a baby with a cleft palate on its site, for example, Not on the High Street.com are helping to normalise disability. It’s also about the design of promotional material – accessible websites, the colours and typefaces used on literature – and the design of physical environments such as shops.

Getting it right – and getting it wrong

Designing without insight means you’re more likely to:

  • Patronise and infantilise
  • Hinder and exclude
  • Alienate customers
  • Get stale

In other words, you disable. Much as HP did when they produced a TV ad for a laptop that’s great for deaf people – but neglected to include subtitles. This could so easily have been avoided by including a deaf person in the creative process.

But designing with insight means you:

  • Discover great insights and stories
  • Save yourself embarrassment
  • Elevate others and change lives
  • Improve experiences for the many

In other words, you enable.

Marianne’s closing example was a promotional film for Gillette’s TREO Razor, which was specifically designed to help carers shave other people. It’s a moving and powerful film that will resonate with anyone who’s ever had to care for a loved one.

I left the talk remembering my own father’s difficult final years as he gently succumbed to Parkinson’s disease. But as I walked away, I also noticed how positively I was feeling about Gillette.

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