Towards a more inclusive design thinking process

By Kevan Gilbert
My teammate Tracey has said it more eloquently than I—when we follow principles of universal (or accessible) design, we make a better world for all.

That makes a lot of sense when it comes to outcomes: the actual designed objects and experiences being created. But what about design processes? 

Often, design processes tend to favour speed, extroversion, and surface-level conversations. This can be especially true in design thinking—a collaborative design process focused on ideation and solution-finding. This is a space packed with terms like “sprints,” “hacks” and “jams,” the vocabulary of people problem-solving in a hurry. While design thinking can be powerfully effective, it runs the risk of defaulting to a “move fast and break things” type of mentality. And, as we have learned the hard way, speed and disruption is not without risks. This type of process often results in thoughtless innovation that bypasses rigorous ethical considerations and adversely impacts communities. 

Practicing design thinking this way can also exclude a wide swath of creative, intelligent humans who have valuable contributions to share. If you think of your own community, you probably picture a spectrum of folks with very different gifts. Not everyone is extroverted. Only some people naturally perform well at high-speed. And very few people would enthusiastically volunteer to engage in public speaking on a moment’s notice. When we create high-pressure environments for innovation that cater to a certain type of person we are not only missing out on great ideas from more people, we are missing out on a diversity of ideas from diverse people. And that’s where creativity comes from.

As the design and societal landscape shifts towards an intentional pursuit of diversity, we have an intriguing opportunity to slow down, listen deeply, and get to the root of the challenge in our design processes. As our team likes to remind each other, there are many situations when we need to transition from “move fast and break things” to “move slow and heal things.” But to do so will take a reorientation, an adjusted posture—one that is not seduced by the lures of hustle culture, productivity hacks, and profit maximization above all else.

We can learn from those who have come before us in this space:
  • Youth and children naturally show the way towards inclusive, imagination-driven future-making. Our partners at Foundry consistently co-design with the young people and families in their care, modeling engagement as a core principle. 

  • Neurodivergent communities have been showing us a more inclusive way for years. We’ve seen this in action in the communities convened by our client at AIDE Canada, whose autistic and neurodiverse constituents have modeled what wholeness and authenticity can look like in co-creation.

  • Across what is today called Canada, Indigenous communities have been living and leading in a way that shows respect for the land, and connection with each other since time immemorial. They call us to slow down, reconnect with one’s self, nature, and others, as part of the work of decolonization. “Innovation” doesn’t mean “progress for progress’ sake”: it means bringing ingenuity to meet our current needs. This often means a return to old ways.

Drawing from this and other wisdom, we can begin to ask, what might a more inclusive design thinking process look like?

1. It might have room for wholeness: room for trauma, pain, joy and humanity.

Often design events can pressure participants to emit a one-dimensional enthusiasm and energy—a kind of relentless positivity that scrubs away any of the very human experiences and vulnerabilities we encounter when doing creative work with other humans. As Brené Brown has said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Rather than encouraging compartmentalization, where we hide our authenticity and reduce our emotional bandwidth, we can create safe spaces in which to be brave emotionally—to be “all in.” We can welcome each other to participate as integrated, complex humans: whole-hearted participants in the process.

2. It might dig for truth and authenticity: not settling for surface-level success and image-centric conversations

Related to being “all in,” inclusive design processes could lean into productive, honest conflict—even if it requires uncomfortable conversations. Co-creation that seeks to remain a cozy and heartwarming experience can become an exercise in muting and suppressing the truth in favour of artificial harmony. Our friends in the neurodivergent community in particular, have bravely challenged us as facilitators to open the floor to respectful but honest disagreement and sharing of lived experiences. The results? Far more relevant and rigorous solutions.

3. It might need highly sensitive and flexible facilitation.

Rather than a rigid, insensitive process, where leaders force the process through no matter what, we could adapt as we sense the needs of the room. When you’re working with humans, things rarely go exactly to plan—unless you’re overly controlling the situation. Being calmly confident (and practiced!) enough to sit with what emerges, and follow promising lines of inquiry, can transform a process from busy-work into meaningful transformation.

4. It might be co-designed and co-led with and by community members with lived experience.

Rather than being led by outsiders with no experience, superficial scans, and shallow insights, the wisdom of the community would design, guide and lead the process. There is so much to be learned and such wealth to be mined in co-creating and co-leading with communities, instead of merely for them.

5. It might be slower, allowing space for processing and listening. 

We’ve touched on this already, but it’s worth revisiting. So many design thinking processes work at the speed of sprints. They prioritize fast-processing, public-speaking and extroverted personalities. What would it look like to also create the space for introverted process, reflection, and slower ideation? There are many, many styles of processing and thinking and sensing—let’s have the patience and intentionality to make room for this.

6. It will need commitment to resources to execute.

Many communities are—sadly—accustomed to tokenized listening, where leaders and researchers take a posture of engagement, hosting passive “we are listening” meetings, placating but not offering progress. The lack of buy-in, sponsorship, traction, and support in these scenarios is extremely disempowering. Not only is the session a waste of time—some call it “innovation theatre”—but the consequence is complete disenfranchisement. If we’re collaboratively uncovering ideas in a design thinking process, let’s respect the community’s involvement by ensuring we commit adequate resources and planning to execute the ideas that emerge. Otherwise, we shouldn’t bother asking a community to engage in the first place.

What might the results of designing differently be?

Co-designing innovation processes to be more inclusive…

…might create experiences that are more sensitive and flexible, which would be an evolutionary, adaptive step forward.

…might lead to communities that feel more cared-for and heard, instead of furthering a sense of alienation and ostracization. 

…might lead to solutions for a healthier society, instead of perpetuating the status quo. 

Inclusive design is ethical: it’s the right thing to do. But it’s more than that. It’s all of the above, moving us towards realities that are more adaptive, resilient, and healthy. We don’t pursue inclusivity to place the spotlight on any one group or type of person. We do it to create a better world, bit by bit. As adrienne maree brown writes, “No one is special, and everyone is needed.” When it comes to innovation, we all need everyone.

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