Designing A World For Everyone by Jeremy Myerson is published to mark the 30th anniversary of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art. The book takes the reader through a selection of 30 innovative designs -- from product design and graphics to interior and urban design -- which increase inclusivity and ease of access for all ages and abilities.
In this article, author Jeremy Myerson, co-founder of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, and current Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, reflects on the importance of the inclusive design that he explores in his new book:
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It is easy to under-estimate just how much the practices of design have changed over the past 30 years. In the late 1980s, design was a powerful vehicle for consumerism. Designers expertly targeted people as customers, segmenting them into broad, conveniently framed social-economic groups for the purposes of marketing.
Today, that is no longer primarily the case. Design has become a powerful vehicle for social activism and cultural enquiry. Designers globally have started to engage at a deeper, more empathic and human level with the people who will experience and use their designs. They have brought a new mindset to designing – one that is participatory as opposed to expert, and rooted in the methods of the social sciences as opposed to the superficial appeal of styling.
As a result, in 2021, the main focus in design in no longer on learning just a little about very large groups of people in order to design for mass markets, but on learning a great deal about relatively small numbers of people, concentrating not on what makes them similar but on what makes them different, so their needs and desires can then be included in any design project. This type of designing has been proven to be commercially successful, but the development route is different. A common term for this approach is inclusive design.
How design made its journey from creating consumer icons to shaping everyday inclusion is the story of a new book I have written: Designing a World for Everyone: 30 Years of Inclusive Design, which will be published by Lund Humphries on 1 July 2021. This publication charts the history of inclusive design through the lens of 30 projects from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art over three decades (1991-2021). It shows how designers have been able to include the voices of a wider segment of the population, such as older and disabled people who were traditionally marginalised, in both the processes and the outcomes of design.
The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, the RCA’s largest and longest-running centre for design research, has been influential in developing the practice of inclusive design over its 30 year-history. I co-founded the centre with Roger Coleman, the academic and activist responsible for defining the term ‘inclusive design’ at a Toronto conference in 1994 and giving the field much of its theoretical base, and I was its director for 16 years. So, choosing just 30 everyday artefacts and environments that we’ve helped to design – in order to explore how an inclusive approach works – was a difficult task given our rich archive of collaborative projects.
Gradually, the most relevant projects to everyday living made the cut. I was interested in showing how inclusive design can work at vastly different scales, so the cases in the book vary in size. Some are simple, hand-held objects such as a shatterproof beer glass, a jam jar with a square lid for easy opening, an easy-grip saucepan or a carbon-fibre crutch. Others form part of large and complex environments or systems – the care home, hospital, streetscape, riverfront or airport.
Our proposals for wayfinding at Heathrow Terminal 5, for example, reflect detailed mapping of how visual impaired passengers navigate a busy airport concourse. Our community programme to revitalize the banks along the River Foyle in Northern Ireland, a notorious public health blackspot, translates into a series of imaginative interventions in the urban realm. And our many medical projects generate human-centered designs to make the hospitals cleaner, safer and more dignified.
Many of the creative ideas discussed in the book have seen the light of day as products on the market or as public services – from a lighting system for inner-city housing estates to a typeface for dyslexic children and a garden for autistic adults. Others are demonstrator projects, educating the market in the art of the possible and influencing producers and service providers to incorporate certain features. Safer streets, sensual bathrooms, accessible parks and graphic guidance for drug packaging all fall into this second grouping.
A third category we can file under ‘ideas for the future’ – such as a public swimming pool sited right in the middle of an airport or an electric car which lights the street and redirects lost tourists when parked.
All the projects are equally valid, however, in reflecting an approach which could best be described as designing with people as opposed to designing for people. That, perhaps, is the biggest shift of all in making design more inclusive over the past 30 years.
-- Jeremy Myerson is a design writer and academic, and Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art.
Designing a World for Everyone: 30 Years of Inclusive Design will be published on 1st July. Pre-order your copy now:
1. Redesign of emergency ambulance, 2011, with easy-clean surfaces, modular treatment packs, a central stretcher and a jump seat for a family member or friend to accompany the patient. Image by Petr Krejči.
2. Mirror and basin combination for Ideal Standard, Tomek Rygalik, 2007. Image courtesy of Ideal Standard.
3. Foyle Reeds along the River Foyle, Norther Ireland, 2018: part of an urban regeneration project to animate a riverfront area known as a public health blackspot. Image by Ralf Alwani, Greg Edwards, Urban Scale Interventions.
4. The Resus:station, Jonathan West and Sally Halls, 2005: the unit divides into three to make it easier for medical teams to respond to a cardiac arrest. Image by Jonathan West / Bristol Maid.
5. Modular community lighting, Tom Jarvis and Megan Charnley, 2012: illuminated goalposts on the Boundary Estate, London. Image by Tom Jarvis.