How did you discover your passion for design as an act of service? I believe in the power of design to change how we relate to each other. I come from Denmark, where design is important at every scale—everything from the seat of a chair to public spaces. When we make something that is extraordinary, beautiful and well-considered for others, we can affect their experience. The opposite is also true. When we make things that are not thought through, either in intention or execution, we send a message about how we value that person’s experience—or don’t. That also has an effect on how they think and feel about themselves, and can even influence how they treat others.
What did you learn from your past experience leading Omhu, a design company that made premium medical equipment and accessories? Very early on, I was a designer on the small team at Smart Design that designed the first generation of OXO kitchen tools. There, I learned how product design could really change perceptions about products and how we interact with them. When I cofounded Omhu, I began to look not only at the physical relationship between people and products, but also at products as rituals that enable interactions between people, and how design can have a huge effect on people’s perception of themselves.
Take a cane, which was the first product that we designed at Omhu. A cane is an icon of disability, of not being independent. And because there’s a lot of stigma around it, most people don’t want to use one, though many of them could benefit from one, as canes enable people to be more independent and reduce the risk of injury. If someone is not participating in life, inhibited because something they need looks like a piece of medical equipment and sparks negative emotion, that can be detrimental in a lot of ways.
I learned to trust that design can change how we think and feel about things—even something that might be considered taboo and difficult to change people’s perception of. In this case, that was aging and disability. Our thesis was: If we can change medical equipment from something that no one wants into something desirable, then we can also change our attitudes towards them. What if walkers were sold in some of the best boutiques in the world? What if it was normalized for people to gift canes? When you make an object a point of conversation and pride versus one of shame, then you change everyone’s experience—not just the person who needs a cane or a walker, but also that of the people around them.
What’s something a guest has said on your podcast, Designing for Humanity, that has stayed with you? I’m thrilled to say that I’ve learned something in every single episode. Industrial designer Tucker Viemeister said, “Well, design is how we treat each other,” as sort of an offhand comment, but I realized how important that is to me and how much I agree with that statement.
A few others that stand out to me: Gabby Almon spoke about how she looks to designers for collaboration on solutions for disaster relief planning, and how the combination of designers, planners, scientists, policy makers and technologists working together can make much better solutions. That really resonated with me.
I also appreciated when Marti Romances spoke about how to design a new science fiction universe through interface design. He and his team often imagine a different past in order to imagine a different future, a technique to free themselves and create original ideas. It’s a good exercise for any designer to challenge their assumptions about what’s possible.
What are some specific things that designers can do to push their work and be more inclusive? It starts with taking an active learning mind-set. Engage with others with the openness to learn, and educate yourself about the lived experiences of others. Our education is never over. Designers should always be seeking out ways to continue learning about what we’re making, including understanding how different people are interacting with what you’re creating, in order to avoid unintended consequences of our work.
There are also a number of questions we can ask ourselves: Who is on the team, and who is missing? Also, where are we looking for inspiration? How are we testing our ideas? And, most importantly, what is the intention for our work, and does that match its real impact?
What are some specific things that the design industry can do to push itself to be more inclusive? Individual designers have the power to push the design industry to be inclusive as a whole. So, design organizations and teams should create the conditions for inclusivity to thrive and really make it a priority.
It’s also crucial to support those who are really doing this work. I talk about WITH a lot because I like what they’re doing. WITH is a fellowship program run by the Disabled List that places disabled artists and designers in design firms in New York and San Francisco, including SYPartners. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
We all work within structures—nation states, the educational system, or even the relationship between a client and a designer. The opportunity to make those systems more equitable by design should be taken very seriously.
What advice do you have for a designer who wants to get her product idea off the ground? Spend time on the intention, and work to see it clearly, because that is going to shape not only your product, but also the business that you develop around it. If you find clarity on intention first, then you will be able to solve for a lot of other things down the line. It’ll tell you something about who you should seek funding from, who you’ll hire, how to produce a product, how it might be sold and how you want it to fit into customers’ lives.
How are you seeing the effects of your advocacy for inclusive design? People in my life tell me they are starting to experience their environment differently. For example, a client recently sent me a message saying that she was at a musical and found herself wishing that the ASL interpreter had been integrated into the performance rather than standing on the sidelines. She said that the work that we had done together had allowed her to see access and equity differently—as a creative opportunity. That type of experience, though it’s on an individual level, is really meaningful to me. This new awareness and desire for conversation about inclusion has the potential to scale up to influence systems and groups of people—and even societies.