Rama Gheerawo, director of The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and Reader in Inclusive Design

Designing inclusively, far from clipping people’s wings, makes them grow. It provides inspiration and creative imagination

A member of the team that manages the research centre specialising in inclusive design par excellence and a reader in the subject at the Royal College of Art, Rama Gheerawo’s work revolves around the transfer of knowledge to the business world. He feels proud when he sees the impact of this work, whether through students who have become professionals with an inclusive vision or entrepreneurs who manage to grow their business by 30% a year thanks to inclusive design.

Q.- How do you incorporate inclusive design in your organisation?

A.- Our business model has been based on inclusive design from when we started in 1991. At that time it was not so attractive for people, there was a real challenge in getting people and companies on board. In the last two decades we have seen a growing interest from government, both public and private sectors, and also from the community. Inclusive design and accessibility are at the heart of everything that we do: projects, research, events, workshops, training, etc.

Q.- Which is the key sector in the development of inclusive design?

A.- Highly interactive dynamics are in place: top-down and bottom-up. Especially in companies, it goes top-down, from the management to the staff, but that only works up to a certain point. It is necessary to root it in the community, but working only with the base also has its limits. Both lines are necessary and to these must also be added, the horizontals: from side to side and from front to back. Our philosophy is that 360 degrees are required. In the seven years we have been running workshops, I have seen great receptiveness and eagerness from all kinds of students: from small and large business enterprises, public servants, government, etc. Inclusive design is understood as a visionary way of changing things. Everyone says they want to be innovative but very few people want to do the work to change, and this is a way of breaking that mindset.

Q.- What do you say to students who think that inclusive design clips their wings?

A.- We now have over 160 case studies of companies who have taking the inclusive vision principles on board and with students I always say “who is design done for?” Getting involved and designing for people means that you have to talk to them, listen to them. Gerontologist Bernard Isaacs famously said: “Design for the young, and you exclude the old; design for the old, and you include the young.” Designing inclusively,  far from clipping wings, makes them grow. It provides inspiration and creative imagination. When students go out and talk to people, they always learn things. Inclusive design is one of the great movements of the future because it helps to focus on the user, and if you don’t pay attention to it, you’ll be left behind. Very large companies are benefitting from this because they learn about clients. Opportunities for future innovation emerge, while designers can influence people’s behaviour. I ask them: do you want to make something that is just pretty and technically functional, or do you actually want to make a difference?

Q.- Does graphic design take inclusivity sufficiently into account?

A.- It needs to catch up. Graphic design is incredibly important because often the first touch point with a service or product is an interface, or a graphic. It features everywhere and there is a lot to be done.

Q.- Do advertising and marketing act as agents for change in building reality?

A.- Today communication does not sell features; it sells lifestyle. Inclusive design itself needs communication help and we do research on how to sell it, how to make it much more human, much more connected. Graphic design and marketing hold the key because they do work on the subconscious.

Q.- How do you convince enterprises to open their design processes towards the user?

A.- How you package inclusive design is very important, what you call it and how you sell it. I have no problem twisting the name of inclusive design and adapting the vocabulary to each audience, providing that the philosophy is maintained. Sometimes it is not necessary to even mention inclusive design; we have a good roster of case studies and sometimes it is not a case of delivering a good project to the company, but of changing their processes and mindset. We gather hundreds of insights and put them into an accessible form at the disposal of anyone, because they can all benefit from it. In all companies there is always one “lone wolf” who believes in inclusive design, and we have to help them.

Link here to Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.

Work: Zoltan Bela, WWII helmet, 2014, nickelled with chrome plating, buzzard wings, 66 x 55 x 44 cm, courtesy of Anca Poterasu Gallery

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