Inclusive Design: An Interview with Dr. Dori Tunstall

Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University and the first black dean of a faculty of design anywhere, is not your typical design leader.
 Dr. Tunstall, who comes to her current work with a PhD in anthropology, has a history of founding and participating in initiatives that strive to decolonize innovation. Her mandate is the promotion of a 
form of “respectful design,” which considers the impacts of human-made objects on both the natural and supernatural worlds.

Dr. Tunstall explores how design can address the needs and wants of a greater number of living things in more nuanced ways, all while facilitating conversations about equality, diversity, and connection in order to promote lasting change around how and why humans make what we make.

We spoke with Dr. Tunstall about her views, goals, and sources of inspiration in the overlapping worlds of design and innovation.

One of your roles right now is as a professor of “inclusive design.” What is inclusive design, and how is it pushing the discipline and practice of design in new directions?

Inclusive design is design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference. Basically, it’s about recognizing that we’re really diverse and unique, and that such diversity has specific design implications. With industrial design, we’re designing for the masses; we’re trying to find the standard by which we can design mass products in a cost-effective way for lots of particular people. Alternatively, inclusive design says, “There’s a lot of value in designing for people who do not fit into the narrow parameters that we’ve used our ergonomic charts and tables to figure out.” What does it mean, for example, to design for people with certain physical disabilities who do not fit into those charts?

Ultimately, inclusive design is not about creating multiple products to suit men, women, children,
 or other groups. It’s about considering each specific individual in all of their complexity and thinking. How do we design for them? How do we allow that individual to customize, within a range of products and services, whatever experiences most align with their many complexities? That is really challenging to do, and it works against our modernist paradigm around what design is, its value, the ability to scale, and all the things that are important for how we talk about design.

In what places or industries do you see inclusive design happening?

A lot of the things that have happened in the technology sector have been inclusive. Many companies, including Microsoft, Adobe, and – to some extent – IBM, are using inclusive design because they actually have to reach everyone and customize for everyone. Large-scale companies have to be inclusive. On the other hand, there are also niche places that are offering inclusive services. Maybe it’s because they’re more nimble or because they believe in the ethos and the mission of it.

The idea is to go with the outliers. Then you should find out what element of their experience you can improve or optimize, and then you can roll that out for a larger group of people who may have variations of those disabilities. All disabilities exist on a spectrum, which means that if you can find that core improvement for an individual or set of individuals and allow that solution to be flexible, you can meet the needs of everyone – even those on the margins of that disability.

It seems like inclusive design is just good strategy.

Yes. That’s the best quote, because it really is just good strategy.

Then why has it been slow to catch on?

I think it’s because our driving business paradigm is the 80/20 rule. We try to go for 80% of things with 20% of the effort. Inclusive design flips that. You might do 80% of the work in response to 20% of whatever the field is. From the perspective of economic rationalism, it
 can be hard for a company to convince itself to do the inclusive thing. There’s a lot of risk. So, I think we have to change our paradigms. We need to ask ourselves, what is it we’re trying to do in order to innovate better? The spaces where that risk is tolerated more are within the realm of innovation.

You’ve written and spoken about the concept of respectful design. What is that and how is it distinct from inclusive design?

One of the things that make respectful design distinct is that, while inclusive design is focused on human diversity, respectful design takes that same under- standing and places it within the context of the entire natural world. On occasion, it can also apply to the supernatural world. It comes from an understanding of the differences among plant, mineral, and animal species (I’m including humans as an animal species here). Respectful design asks how you can understand and respect the fact that everything in the world needs to exist and be recognized for its own existence, and not just for its benefit to humans.

This is linked to decolonization in design, which is partly based on indigenous principles around respect for all other living creatures. Specifically, it is about seeing your own existence as being relational to those living creatures. It’s not about categorizing things
 in terms of species, but is instead about really defining every thing in terms of its relationships to all other things. What is my relationship to this river, this animal, this plant, or this rock? Respectful design is about trying to build a sense of respect in the same way you would have respect for your brother, sister, mother, 
or father. How do you bring that to everything around you, to the things that support you and that you
 have a responsibility to support as well?

Respectful design is important because we need to bring in marginal perspectives to what we would consider a design solution. We need to do that so that there is innovation and so that exclusion doesn’t allow design solutions to inflict harm.

How does decolonizing design contribute to a wider project of inclusion?

The way the history of design has been told ignores the specificity of its particular origins. The process of decolonization must first recognize how design principles have come to be, and especially that design is not a culturally neutral practice. Once we acknowledge that, we can develop alternative practices and allow for other modalities of making to be recognized and valued as equal, but different.

This links to inclusive design, because what decolonization has at its core is the idea that everyone is different, but equal. What I mean by “equal” is not that everything is the same, or that design should be the same for everyone. It’s not one size fits all, but one
 size fits one. Since every culture has its differences, each culture should be recognized as different – but they shouldn’t be ranked in a hierarchy. We have to ask ourselves how we can recognize all of these differences and structure our interactions in response to them without trying to rank everything.

What’s inspiring you right now?

I’m inspired in some ways by being in Canada. There are so many catalysts for things going on at OCAD University, where I work. The number one principle of our academic plan is decolonization. This is possible because the Canadian government has decided to accept the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation report [a six-year government-funded research report summarizing the statements of 6,000 survivors of Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children]. With this action, the government is saying that it is important to reconcile Canada’s past and the ways in which it has been disrespectful and has operated on the basis of exclusion. I’m inspired by the commitment to social, cultural, environmental, and economic justice that could come from that. OCAD University is responding to that shift. My job is to symbolically embody this shift, but it is also to champion certain processes of decolonization so that they move more smoothly through the institution.

This is very different to my experience in Australia, where even though there was an official government-issued apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, the notion of incorporating the perspectives of people from Indigenous communities into the government is still being debated. And this idea is not even part of the conversation in the United States. In Canada, it’s a very active and live conversation, which opens up so
 many possibilities about how we think about inclusion, respectful relations, and the role design can play in 
it all.

the author

Maya Shapiro

Dr. Maya Shapiro is a resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.