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Concept design for Engaged project, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design/PiM.studio Architects, credit: PiM.studio Architects 2023

Key details


  • 22 April 2024


  • RCA

Read time

  • 4 minutes

Toilets are an interesting case study for exploring inclusive design in public spaces. Everyone needs to be able to use a toilet when away from home. Not all of us are able to access public toilets with the same degree of ease, and designing these facilities in a way that is inclusive has implications for product design, architecture, service design, wayfinding, and ergonomics.

Years of working in inclusive design has taught us that designing one thing that works for everyone can be at best difficult, at worst impossible. Sometimes people's needs are so specific that they require a unique solution. When we are approaching inclusive design, we find it helpful to think in terms of three distinct tiers: ‘design with many’, ‘design with some’ and ‘design with one’. 

Design with many: designing for the masses

‘Design with many’ refers to solutions that will work for the maximum number of people. There are certainly ways to make standard toilets more inclusive to meet many people’s needs. For example, gender neutral toilets, with floor-to-ceiling partition walls, might help people who do not feel comfortable using single gender spaces, as well as reducing overall queues, and welcoming people assisted by a carer of a different gender, including children. 

Adding a basin within the cubicle helps people who are managing medical conditions. Choosing taps, flushes and locks controlled with large levers or sensors will help people with less hand strength or dexterity, such as those with arthritis, or children.  A shelf helps people with medical equipment for continence conditions. Good colour contrast supports people with sight loss. Adding grab rails will help people less stable to sit and stand. 

With these small yet thoughtful design considerations, we are making the basic provision more inclusive for everyone, reversing the trend for more and more subcategories of toilets - children’s, family, ambulant, gender-neutral, accessible. We do not need to separate toilets by the identity of the user when so many of our needs are the same: a bit more space, non-gendered access, and easy-to-use controls.

Gail Ramster Ageing and Lifestyle

Design with some: tailored solutions

‘Design with some’ acknowledges that there are instances when individual needs are so distinct that a tailored approach becomes necessary.

Consider the creation of Changing Places toilets, specifically designed for individuals with profound disabilities. These specialised facilities are much larger than standard toilets and are equipped with an adult-size changing table and a hoist.

To keep expensive equipment in working order, these are usually locked, so access is exclusively for those who need them. Some aspects of the design contradict those of the wheelchair accessible toilet, such as whether the toilet is in the centre of a wall or positioned in the corner, due to differences in whether a wheelchair user will be helped by carers or transferring to the toilet independently. When the design for one set of needs contradicts those for another, it is necessary to create a separate design.

The introduction of Changing Places toilets exemplifies a commitment to providing equitable access to public spaces for all individuals, including those with complex needs. By acknowledging and addressing the specific requirements of people with profound and multiple disabilities, we move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to a broader understanding of inclusivity.

A poster designed by participants on the Believe in Us project, which brought neurodivergent people together with healthcare professionals to co-design in a collaborate, inclusive way

Design with one: collaboration and control

‘Design with one’ refers to a process through which individuals can be included in the design of public spaces. Through our collaboration with autistic individuals, we've discovered that the sensory aspects of the environment significantly impact comfort levels. While we all encounter sensory sensitivities, those experienced by autistic people can be more intense.

During the Green Spaces project with the charity Autism at Kingwood, which explored how autistic people experience public spaces, a mother shared with us that her autistic child dislikes the sound of hand dryers to the extent that she has developed three coping strategies: 1) avoiding public toilets altogether, 2) using the accessible toilet (despite potential disapproving looks from others who can't visually identify a disability), and 3) carrying a makeshift out-of-order sign to place on the hand dryer, preventing others from using it.

The innovation of creating an out-of-order sign for a specific situation is an example of ‘design with one’, but it also highlights a wider problem with inclusive design. As we seek to be more inclusive of people’s sensory, emotional and social experiences, we might find more contradictions in what people need.

People have multiple layers to their identities, so we can understand that their needs are also more complex than traditional design might have us believe. Can we do more to ‘design with one’ by giving people more control over public space, to adapt, adjust, and accommodate, rather than standardise? It could be as simple as the hand-drier having an off-switch, so that people can choose to turn it off if they do not like the sound. 

“Designers once needed to learn just a little about large groups of people to serve mass markets. Today, they must learn a great deal about relatively small numbers of people. They must shift from concentrating on what makes groups of people similar to what makes them different.”

Professor Emeritus Jeremy Myerson Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design
A researcher and participant on the Streets for Diversity project, which explored how neurodivergent people experience public spaces

Inclusivity in design is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but instead, it must be seen as a  one-size-fits many, a one-size-fits some and a one-size-fits one approach. Designing with many involves implementing small yet impactful changes that benefit a wide range of people.

However, there are instances where specific needs require tailored solutions, like the creation of Changing Places toilets for individuals with profound disabilities. This approach acknowledges and addresses the unique requirements of specific groups, moving beyond a one-size-fits-all mentality. Designing with one emphasises the importance of considering individual experiences, such as sensory sensitivities. Providing autonomy and control over public spaces can greatly enhance inclusivity.

As Jeremy Myerson wrote in a 2017 report, “Designers once needed to learn just a little about large groups of people to serve mass markets. Today, they must learn a great deal about relatively small numbers of people. They must shift from concentrating on what makes groups of people similar to what makes them different.”

Let's start to explore how personalisation through choice and autonomy can be designed into our spaces. We might then be one step closer to designing spaces for all. 

Related projects

Engaged, a project run by Gail Ramster and fellow Helen Hamlyn Centre researcher Professor Jo-anne Bichard, worked to increase the time people spend in high streets and town centres by creating pathways to reuse empty commercial and community space as long-term public toilet solutions. It was part of the Mayor of London’s ‘Designing London’s Recovery’ programme which supports projects that take a design-led approach to address London’s post-pandemic challenges.

Learn more

The Public Toilets Research Unit, which is run by Gail Ramster, uses design thinking to tackle all aspects of public toilet provision, considering the service, space and the environment around it, to improve the inclusivity and accessibility of this critical yet maligned public infrastructure.

Learn more

Believe in Us was a research project run by Dr Katie Gaudion that brought people with learning disabilities and autistic people together with healthcare professionals and designers to co-design in an equal and inclusive way.

Learn more

This project, run by Dr Katie Gaudion, saw the design and development of new garden spaces for people living with autism as part of a series of projects with the Kingwood Trust expanding Inclusive Design to consider neuro-diversity.

Learn more

Want to learn more about our research into toilet design?

Professor Jo-anne Bichard and Gail Ramster discussed their research on the RCA podcast

Listen now

RCA Students: want advice about how to incorporate inclusive design into your own practice?

Katie and Gail run regular 'T sessions', where students can discuss their ideas and gain insights from Helen Hamlyn Centre researchers

Email us to book a slot
[email protected]