To Design for All, We Must Design From the Margins
Why is it that those who lack money, status or privilege understand the full effects of these advantages better than those who have them? When life is designed to be fit for the very few, all you can see is what is not for you.
It's time to redefine what we mean when we say "fit" and how we help others "fit in." (Hint: It's not about accommodating. It's about centering the few when we build for the many.)
In this moment of history, people are looking to businesses more and more to address societal issues. Brands are expected to reflect audiences and their needs in more holistic ways. Leaders and practitioners across industries are being called to represent the fullness of one's humanity. This is a grand responsibility worth our focus.
Where do we start?
Design From the Margins (DFM) is a design process that calls for centering the most impacted and vulnerable individuals in our society, from ideation to production. This method is designed to be beneficial for all, because creating for specific decentered cases can always be generalized for the broader audience.
This process is extrapolated from Afsaneh Rigot's report "Design From the Margins: Centering the Most Marginalized and Impacted in Design Processes, From Ideation to Production," which focuses on the security and privacy needs of marginalized communities in technologies that permeate our world. For the purposes of this article, our focus is the broader theme of bringing marginalized community members into the work as co-creators of the design process.
Brands not only have permission but are urgently needed to write new stories to reflect the times we're in and reorient the lens of inclusivity.
Here's how you can integrate this approach today:
Focus on the approach, not just the outcome.
While accessibility and inclusive design often get used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Accessible design is an output of inclusive design, but inclusivity is an input to the design process.
"One-size-fits-all" is a myth, yet it's become a reality for many marginalized communities across our everyday way of living—not seeing a foundation shade that matches your skin tone, or clicking to play a video only to see that closed captions have been disabled. Even a name on a résumé for a job application is grounds for an unfounded rejection.
Economists from University of California Berkeley and the University of Chicago sent 83,000 job applications to 108 Fortune 500 employers. This study found that applicants with Black-sounding names were called back 10 percent fewer times despite having comparable applications to their white counterparts.
However, the U.S. population is diversifying rapidly. Data from the 2020 Census shows the nation is projected to be more diverse by the year 2045, flip flopping the concept of "minorities" as we currently use this term. The events of 2020 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement reveal that the U.S. is still reckoning with its problematic past.
And while race typically dominates the diversity conversation, another community that is often ignored and further excluded is people with disabilities. It's estimated that 70 percent of disabilities are invisible.
It's undeniably clear that the ramifications of this lack of visibility are far greater than an unsatisfactory user experience. Work from a place of empathy for all users in their respective situations from the upfront of a project, not as an afterthought.
Take, for example, this inclusive design tool known as Cards for Humanity, which helps you shift out of your individual perspective to design for more people. Creating and critiquing from these personas can enable barrier-free brand experiences.
Uncover the hidden.
There is a real opportunity to tell stories that are hidden and decentered. To tell marginalized communities that we see and hear you, and we are committed to being here for you.
When your existence alone is resistance to uniformity, you are reminded that you are not the norm. Being confronted with the fact that you have been "othered" by society is beyond unsettling. It's dehumanizing. Intolerance and discriminatory behavior based on someone's identity—age, race, gender expression, sexual orientation, religion, ability and other attributes—is unfortunately still a true account of what happens today.
We hear "you're too this" and "not enough of that" all the time from mainstream media messages. Advertising, social media and reality TV are the big culprits, but brands have their role to play, too.
They magnify this disillusion. They feed into the "you don't fit in here" narrative. Exhibit Abercrombie & Fitch, Bon Appétit and Chick-fil-A, just to name a few.
Brands shape how the world sees itself based on who people choose to spend their money and time with. Because people choose brands that reflect who they are or what they want to be and connect based on the values they hold close to their hearts. Gen Z especially align their wallets with their values, letting their purchases and continued loyalty do the talking.
Every deviation from the norm counts, and should be not only recognized but celebrated too, because every individual deserves their place in our society. The vibrancy of life lies within the details; without diversity, the lives we live would be bland and monotonous.
Co-create with end users.
Make the design process inclusive of those who will ultimately make use of the product or service. Recognize your own implicit biases to go beyond your own abilities and glimpse into another's perspective.
People may not be experts on store signage, UX design or packaging production, but they are experts on their experience. As the core audience that interfaces with the brand in numerous touchpoints, enabling them to participate in the design process can lead to critical insights along the user journey.
"Ally" is both a noun and verb.
Instead of letting recruiters and employers make assumptions about a candidate's résumé gaps, LinkedIn introduced a new feature called "Career Breaks" to enable members to capture life experiences outside of work.
People take career pauses for any number of reasons, like raising children or taking care of an aging family member. As LinkedIn investigated, these experience gaps disproportionately affect women, and thus launched the feature in honor of International Women's Day this year.
What about those of us with money, status or privilege in some respect? Where is our place in mitigating the potential for design to be built for the few and not reflect the many?
If we don't start to design for all, then our products and services cannot fully scale, reach and resonate to those outside of the core audience. Our duty as brand practitioners is to help people from all walks of life step fully into their humanity and live out loud.
Brands grow when they make those who have been "othered" or marginalized feel integral to the design process. Designing from the margins is a cultural imperative for today's brands looking to make it to tomorrow. It is the path to sustainable and inclusive progress.