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RCA Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design Shapes Policy, Methods and Ethics for Inclusive Design

The principle of designing for inclusivity and accessibility is widely accepted as good, often standard, design practice today. We have come to expect that tin-openers cater for left-handed users, that traffic lights have an audio signal for visually impaired people or that household interiors offer options for those older and less-abled bodied. 

This shift in thinking has occurred over only the last 50 years – driven by civil rights campaigning, changes to standards, guidance for accessibility and pioneering design research led by the Royal College of Art ­– towards consideration of the needs of those previously marginalised by mainstream design, and moving beyond simple accessibility in the built environment.

The RCA Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s myriad publications, workshops, events and executive education – which together form one of the world’s most comprehensive bodies of research on inclusive design – has shaped both the methods and ethics of the design profession in this regard, and public discourse on design as a response to the issue of an ageing population.  

Professor Jeremy Myerson, Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, who has led much of College’s research into inclusive design, recalls that when the RCA first started its inclusive design research in the early 1990s, the debate on the design needs of older and disabled people was dominated by the issue of access to the built environment for disabled wheelchair users.

‘The Seven Principles of Universal Design had been defined by Ron Mace, an American architect and wheelchair user, and Universal Design was the dominant term,’ recounts Myerson.

It was Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design Co-founder Professor Roger Coleman’s paper at an ergonomics conference in Toronto that repositioned the debate away from wheelchairs and the built environment to the right to access a whole range of goods, services, environments and experiences for all ages and abilities, says Myerson.

He adds: ‘The argument for inclusive design veered away from the stick of policy and legislation that Mace and his followers advocated, to the carrot of bigger markets and more profits for companies. The argument shifted from a moral one to a more commercial pitch for business to behave in a more inclusive manner.’ 

The impact of this approach and the subsequent research paved the way for a new generation of welcoming, intuitive and convenient products, services and environments for all ages and abilities, without need for special adaptation. Today, inclusive design is upheld by product and environmental standards, policy and its embedment in design education, largely due to the ongoing efforts of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design research team and its partners.

Incorporating older and disabled people into the design process – an approach advocated and led by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design – has seen a dramatic shift away from the idea that consulting with a few people with disabilities in a focus group suffices for inclusive design. The fruits of such an approach are evident: by gaining greater insights into the needs and lives of older people, there is greater systemic understanding, and thus, more effective designs to meet the needs of an ageing population.

Ongoing research into The Future London Taxi, for instance, revealed a need for more comfortable and accessible space, not just for passengers, but for drivers, many of whom are over 65, and can often spend the entire working day in their vehicles. The Great British Public Toilet Map, the UK’s most comprehensive coherent information resource on publicly accessible toilets, makes the task of locating nearby accessible toilets easier, helping to address a more universal potential cause of anxiety.

Innovations such as a cooker design for Osaka Gas in Japan have reached the market, while both government and businesses including Kinnarps, Procter & Gamble, Samsung (South Korea), Stannah, UK and Hong Kong Civil Service, BlackBerry and Vodafone have benefited from an extensive programme of executive education.   

RCA inclusive design research has also fed into policymaking at a number of levels  – from defining the term for the UK government and writing a British Standard in Managing Inclusive Design to issuing guidance on housing design for autistic adults for the Welsh Government. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) incorporated RCA research into how visually impaired people navigate streetscapes in 2010.

The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s Include conference, an international biennial conference now reaching as far as Asia, has helped build a global network of academics and practitioners whose work embodies, and expands, the inclusive, user-centred approach.

An indication of just how far the approach of inclusive design had reached into public consciousness came in 2010, when BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme featured an entire programme on inclusive design, based on an RCA-led roundtable to brief the media on the business benefits of inclusive design.

Setting and sponsoring inclusive design briefs in national student design awards, such as D&AD 2012 and the Royal Society of the Arts’ Student Design Awards, and giving guest lectures in design schools around the UK have ensured inclusive design’s longevity, improving and evolving concepts through embedding it in education.