27/02/2023 • 17 min read

The Future of Work: What Is Inclusive Design and Why Is It Important?

Insights from our podcast discussion with Gail Napell and John Scott

by Haworth, Inc.

A web search for “inclusive design” will turn up at least a dozen different definitions. But for physical environments, inclusive design is about making spaces healthier, safer, and more convenient for everyone. Building and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) codes only get us partway there.

In this Work from Anywhere podcast conversation with Haworth’s John Scott, Gail Napell of Gensler’s San Francisco office shares why—especially now—inclusive design is so important in the workplace; how it differs from universal design; and why clarity, choice, and empathy for all are its key drivers.

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Podcast Transcript

John: Hi there. Welcome to Haworth’s Work from Anywhere podcast. I’m John Scott. I'm a workplace design strategist with Haworth, and I am joined today by Gail Napell, who is out of the San Francisco office of Gensler. She is a sustainability and inclusive design strategist, which sounds a lot cooler than my title.

Welcome Gail. Happy to have you join us today.

Gail: Thank you for having me. Really looking forward to this conversation. One of my favorite topics.

John: Yes! Inclusive design. I thought maybe we could start off by sharing with our listeners your design career journey and how you got started. But more importantly, what led you to become so intimately connected with inclusive design?

Gail: Thank you for asking that. I think that all architects and designers—and I just want to say this upfront—know more about inclusive design than they think they know.

But for my own personal journey, I am an architect with 40 years of experience—primarily technical—in all different areas. In interiors, in buildings, in places around the world.

About—well, literally—29 years ago, I had a daughter who has intellectual disabilities. And as I watched her grow, I rapidly became aware that the profession I love was not serving some of her needs. We have the ADA, but that just begins to scratch the surface for people with cognitive disabilities.

The further I got in my journey as an architect, I realized that we have opportunities to make places much better by removing barriers that we may not experience, but that other people [do]. I started working on bringing it into every project I did, and then realized when I joined Gensler—which is a huge design firm—that we had both an opportunity and a responsibility to make a much broader impact.

I found like-minded people at Gensler—and there are many in the world—people who care about designing inclusively. We created an inclusive design network at Gensler. As that got going, we created an inclusive design guide for our own internal designers. And that led to doing work with clients who are looking for ways to modify, update, upgrade their guidelines to incorporate inclusive design holistically.

John: That's amazing. Wow.

What's the goal for inclusive design? And how is it defined?

Gail: If you go on the web, you'll find at least a dozen definitions for what inclusive design is. There are some areas of it that are a little outside of the expertise of architects and interior designers. For example, user experience design, or digital design. It's also very important to do these inclusively. But for what we do for the physical space—and I'm a built-environment gal—the way that we define it at Gensler is that inclusive design makes spaces and places healthier, safer, and more convenient for everyone.

There is a little bit of a difference between inclusive design and just [ADA] code and universal design. For example, code primarily looks at accessibility—and primarily physical accessibility. This is absolutely critical. But it only gets us partway there. People who are in a space that complies with ADA may often experience other challenges.

One of the reasons we've had these conversations with Haworth is that there are not the same kind of codes around furniture. But furniture has a huge part to play in whether a space is inclusive or not.

Universal design is usually seen as the next [step] beyond accessibility. But it, again, is primarily focused on that physical access and often has this one-size-fits-all approach.

Inclusive design goes that [extra] step to say, “Let's look at all the aspects of a human being—not just our physical size and shape, but also mobility, age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, cognitive abilities or disabilities.” Inclusive design aims to capture all of those wonderful things that make up human beings. [It] often requires us to design to those edges, which often means that we have to have a one-size-fits-one approach. [This] means either [supporting] flexibility and/or multiple choices for things, so that we actually can provide an inclusive environment for everyone.

John:  I read recently an analogy from Matt May with Adobe that really hit home for me. He said, “Inclusive design is the practice of going up the mountain. We can always look for ways to include more people and situations [in] our designs, even if the result only gets us a few steps up the trail at a time. Whereas, universal design starts to imply that reaching the summit is the true goal.” That really drove home the understanding [of] how inclusive design is different than—as you mentioned—universal design.

How do we design spaces that are inclusive? According to the World Health Organization, we have over a billion people living with disabilities in the world.

Gail: I think, again, this gets back to the idea that we all know more about this than we realize we know.

One of the wonderful things about inclusive design is that we never see people's eyes glaze over when we bring up the topic. Because everyone has a personal experience that they begin to go, “Oh, wait a minute.” You know?

Part of it is stepping back and tapping into what we know as designers and what we've experienced ourselves, personally, or watched other people experience. Then, [we should] think about, how can we make sure everyone has that positive experience in a space?

Sometimes, it's easier to start with what didn't work and say, “What was that barrier that we keep seeing?” How many times have you said, “Oh, if only someone would ‘do X,’” around a piece of equipment or a piece of furniture, or a space, or an interior, or a door? One of the things that we think of first is, What are the things that always bubble up to create a barrier?

That's often how we actually start a conversation with our clients. [We] say, “What are barriers that you have experienced?” And then, “What are those bright spots that you would like to see us do again?” That is absolutely our favorite way to start designing inclusively.

You've probably heard the Abilities community’s phrase, “Nothing about us without us is for us.” So, from our point of view, we start with an inclusive process.

We know that—in the work all of us do—our own teams are probably not going to [include] one of every kind of person who's going to be using the space. Our teams are just not that large. But that's an awesome opportunity to reach out to our clients and say, “Please, let's gather those people that represent the variety of people who are going to be using this space. Let's have a conversation with them. Let's keep them engaged as we design, so we know that what we're designing is with them and for them.” Otherwise, it may not be inclusive.

John:  I love that. I love that phrase too. Hopefully, someday, all of us will be speaking and using that as our guiding mantra—our guiding principle—when it comes to good design.

Why do you think this idea around inclusive design is really taking on more meaning, more relevance—now more so than ever before? It seems like it’s always been there. And to your point, we probably know we're doing it to some degree. But why do you think right now it's really in the limelight—there's high focus and concern about doing it the right way?

Gail: I think there [is] a number of things that have come together in the last few years that have really made this top of mind for more designers—and certainly for more people. For example, [it’s] the—maybe “empowerment” isn't the right word, but the awareness that people who have experienced barriers have. [It’s the understanding] that they have a right and an obligation to tell us what we're not doing right.

I think the increasing voice of people who have been underserved or disenfranchised in all areas—racially, ability, gender, all of these things. We've seen come forward in large parts of the world over the last few years. You know? Partly catapulted by [events like] the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. That may have focused primarily on race, but that's an awareness. The “Me Too” movement [is another example]. Those are awareness-building [events] that [have] helped other groups realize, we need to make our voices heard if we're not being served in the way that we should be.

The pandemic has also created an amazing amount of empathy amongst many people. It's been really interesting in the conversations we've had with clients—in work sessions—[we discovered that] people who had to work remotely for various reasons [before the pandemic] suddenly found that everyone now understood their challenges and their benefits in working remotely.

[We also found that] many people who have challenges [with] barriers in the physical environment had exactly the same experiences in the pandemic that everyone else did. Some of them found it much easier to work from home because they had a better setup for their particular needs—acoustically, ergonomically, and so on. Some of them found it much worse because their work setting [in the office] was much better equipped for them. That kind of awareness [that made people say], “Wait a minute. We're all experiencing that,” has also been a great empathy builder.

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John: I'm glad you brought up the pandemic because that was something I've been thinking about. Is there a negative impact on individuals with disabilities [who] are attempting to return back to the workplace? What exists now that maybe didn't exist pre-pandemic?

Gail: There are a couple of things that have been really amazing. They're sort of hyper-specific, but they're meaningful. They are along the same lines as curb cuts [on sidewalks and other walkways], which were made common from the ADA. They were thought of as something to benefit one group, but actually benefit everybody.

[Think about] touchless controls. The Abilities community has been asking for this forever, for a number of reasons—not necessarily because of pathogen transmission, but because of ease of mobility. If you can use a foot pedal to open a door instead of having to maneuver around with your walker or wheelchair—or find with your cane where the handle is—that touch control is awesome.

Or [consider] automatic controls, where there's an automatic sensor for a door to be opened. Same thing with all the fixtures and washrooms. It's one less thing you have to worry about fussing with, when you have any kind of mobility challenge.

Those are things that I think people are finding are much better because of the pandemic.

[We’re also seeing] empathy around hybrid work and the challenges of being in an office where all of a sudden it [may be] hyper-loud compared to what you were used to [working at home]. People who theoretically have no challenges in their lives have gone back to an office setting and found themselves suddenly challenged with the fact that there are people all around them—when, for two years, they were working alone in their office. That's a challenge that many people with cognitive challenges or neurodivergent conditions have always found to be the case.

Now, everyone understands what they feel like. So, the conversation is had.

We have certainly been advocates [for change following the pandemic] by saying, “All right, we're returning to [the] office, and [now] we're finding that we need to do things differently.” All of us realize the world has changed. That gives us a wonderful opportunity to think of everyone when we go back to the office—and the modifications we make to serve all of us.

John: You mentioned neurodiversity. I'm curious how that's connected with inclusive design.

Gail: Oh, absolutely. Of course, I am biased because of my daughter having intellectual disabilities. That’s considered a neurodivergent condition. And that is something that traditional accessibility codes just really don't recognize—not because they don't care, but it's something that's a little more subtle, you know?

How do you design for this? We are constantly learning ourselves.

We've been fortunate to do a deep dive into design with one client—you know, research and design for neurodiversity. And we are now doing an internal research grant exercise on design for neurodiversity. [In] the findings so far, we found three key themes, which are: design for clarity, design for choice—and empathy, which is more of that operational, HR, and culture side of things. We cannot force [empathy] through a physical design, but we can support [it] through a physical design.

Much of what we found in this particular research project is that those things that serve people with neurodivergent conditions absolutely serve all of us. It's just [that] we may not be as aware [of them] on a surface level because we are not as sensorially tuned in to find things—like the flickering of a decaying ballast on an LED fixture or an overly rough texture in a place where you're likely to be touching it with [your] fingers or something else that might be sensitive.

Those things that can be problematic for somebody with a neurodivergent condition are usually problematic for all of us—but we may not know why we have a headache or feel irritated or uncomfortable. That was, maybe not surprising, but reinforcing to learn from people with neurodivergent conditions.

John: I love those three key themes for inclusive spaces. So [the] choice, clarity, and empathy that you mentioned—Are those the metrics you use when you start working with organizations to understand how to design inclusive spaces?

Gail: These are themes that we've identified relatively recently in this research project, which just wrapped up this last summer—just a few months ago. I love that you asked about metrics because there are a number of different checklists and rating systems in the world. What we have found is that none of them automatically apply to every client because every client is in a different place in their journey towards inclusive design and inclusive culture. So, we actually have another research grant that we're doing internally, which is to bubble up the key performance indicators that really make a difference in measuring inclusive design.

In the meantime, what we do with our clients is say, “All right, what are the things that you're already doing? Let's just set those aside and say you'll keep doing them. Now, let's talk about the things that will make the most positive difference to your employees and your guests or your customers.”

We sort of customize [those conversations] right now. We do have a rubric that we use though. [I have to give] total kudos to the Idea Center at the Inclusive Design and Environmental Access Center at the University of Buffalo. They clarified, or codified—about 15 years ago—eight primary goals for inclusive design.

We usually look at those goals. We have strategies to achieve each of those goals in a space and in a place. We usually use that to start framing the conversation. But it can change, depending upon the client. Some clients, for example, would say they already provide all-gender restrooms everywhere. That's a huge step for some people, but for other people, it's already something they do. So, we don't necessarily say, “That's one of the metrics you have to aim for because you’ve already got it.”

Does that make sense?

John: It does, it does.

I'm excited that you mentioned culture because that's something I'm quite passionate about. But how does company culture play a role in inclusive design—in helping to bring more clarity and transparency to inclusive design?

Gail: Oh, great question. And it's critical. In fact, essential.

We can design the most physically barrier-free, inclusive, supportive space in the world. But if a company has a toxic corporate culture, or an organization allows bullying, or a school turns a blind eye on transgender students, then people will not feel included.

So, we can set that baseline. It is important—in fact, essential—that you have as inclusive a space as possible. But you absolutely have to have that inclusive culture for people to feel they truly belong and can thrive. That's something that we have a small group at Gensler really doing some research into.

[We ask,] “How can we help our clients create a supportive culture for inclusion?” Again, I’m a built-environment gal. I have great admiration for people who specialize in that sort of culture shift and change management. But it's not my expertise. I only know we need it. Absolutely.

John: Right.

You mentioned before about furniture and products and space being highly important. I'm wondering [about] the three themes you mentioned before. Do those apply to product development, or are there other considerations that need to be made for [people who] interact with products in our environments?

Gail: Oh, I think they apply. Absolutely. And in fact, this is one of the reasons why we keep saying that furniture and equipment are key.

Often when you do construction, everyone looks at the fact that there's a significant hard cost to change something. So, that ability within furniture and products to provide people with choice and clarity is critical.

For example, one of my favorite things a client [said] to us a couple of years ago—and this is specifically about furniture—[was,] “I am of a certain body size. Every single meeting room in our building has the same size conference chairs, and I don't fit in those chairs. I am tiny. They hit me in the wrong part of the leg. We understand they look great because they all match as they line up around the conference room table. But, couldn't we maybe have two sizes or a couple of [choices]?”

That was just such a lightbulb to all of us—that [thought of,] Oh my goodness! Yes! It's easier to provide that kind of choice in furniture, which is more flexible [than construction].

We've seen it before in the multiple sizes of chairs that you design. They’re highly ergonomic, but they're made for different body sizes. Not to put any pressure on companies like Haworth, but this is something you have huge agency in. That's why we bring it up.

John: Yeah. We have to strike a balance between the beautiful aesthetics, but also comfort. If something looks beautiful but is not fun to sit in, it's distracting. It's stressful. It just doesn't work.
You've got some really great blog posts on the Gensler website, and I encourage our listeners to go out and take a look.

If you could just summarize, what are some good resources for designers who are wanting to implement inclusivity into their physical spaces or maybe even digital design spaces? What would be some good resources or tools that they could use to think more holistically around inclusive design?

Gail: Before even getting to anything that you have to look up online or in a book, I think just remembering that mantra: Nothing about us, without us, is for us, basically reminds us to ask a question. If we don't have that experience, can we find someone who can give us some insights to whether this is going to create a barrier or not?

In many firms, there are now people who have some inclusive design expertise on a general level, and so many of our clients have ability, ERGs—employee resource groups—or other affinity groups within their employee organizations who have just been waiting to be asked.

I start with the people because we really feel that lived experience rules. But also beyond that, we do love using the resources from the Idea Center at the University of Buffalo because they're constantly doing research. So, they're a great resource.

John: Excellent.

I just wanted to say, a huge thank you to you, Gail. Thank you for spending some time with us today. Thank you for helping us to understand inclusive design. I've learned so much, but I'm hoping that our listeners have also.

Gail: Thank you, John. It's been a great conversation and great questions. Really appreciate it.

Let's just end with that [mantra]: Nothing about us, without us, is for us.


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