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The connection between design and equality

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

A core principle of service design is to be human-centred. And here's one thing we know about humans: We're lazy and hardwired to take the easiest path - the one of least resistance.

Therefore, we can conclude if we want people to do the right thing - we need to make the right thing the easiest thing for people to do.

This is why millions of people have provided three private companies with their fingerprints and retina scans. In my opinion, it's probably not a great idea. It's a great accessibility feature for those who need it.

But because it's easier than typing in a passcode to unlock your phone, its also very common for those who don't need it.

This is also why millions of environmentally-minded people have terrible recycling habits - the systems aren't set up to make it easy to do the right thing - so people don't do it. If you have to go to a specialised recycling facility, then what happens? Be honest - you probably just throw these 'recyclable-but-not-in-your-weekly-recycling-kind-of-recyclable' items in the trash.

These are just two examples of thousands. But they have real world consequences (think: landfill 3x the size of France floating in the ocean).

And it's why design (of products, environments and systems) is so important.

Design is everywhere

Every product we buy, every service we use and every environment we operate in has been designed. The questions we should be asking are:

  • Who are they designed for?

  • What does this design encourage?

  • Is it designed well?

  • Is the design accessible?

  • Does it meet people's needs?

  • What does the design make easy?

  • What metrics are the designs judged by?

The impacts of poor design

Poor design leads to poorer outcomes. Two examples around childcare:

Why are most women's bathrooms equipped with a baby changing station but very few men's bathrooms are? What message does that tell us? Women take care of children; men don't.

What continues to happen when it's easier and more favourable for women to stay home after having a child and for men to continue working? More women pause their careers to raise their kids while the men continue working. (This is the ultra-cliff notes version, I know).

Parental leave policies are great. The help new parents maintain a level of financial security. That's great. Except in New Zealand only about 1% of fathers take paid parental leave. As author Michelle Duff says in that Stuff article, most fathers return to work (after two weeks unpaid leave) before their babies can even properly focus on their faces.

An unintended consequence is that women of a certain age are seen as liabilities to companies as they may decide to start/grow their families. This is why in 2022 women are STILL asked in interviews about their families, kids, and childcare arrangements. (First hand knowledge of this happening, in March 2022).

It doesn't have to be like this. There are some fascinating studies comparing the design of paid parental leave in different countries and the impact it makes on women and men at work and at home. Surprise, surprise - the countries that have designed childcare around TWO parents, have a higher uptake of both parents sharing child care responsibilities.

Want to help new mums in your workplace? Look at how you treat the new dads.

As Kevin Costner stated in Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." If you design something, with equity and equality in mind, it's amazing what it can do.

Awareness, in this case and so many cases, is realizing when something’s challenging and deciding not to take the easy way out. -CAROLINE BEATON

Universal design isn't universal

Universal design is fundamentally creating something that can be accessed and used (to the greatest extent possible) by all people. Often the test case is if it meets the needs of the youngest, the oldest and those with disabilities - it will often work for everyone else.

An ATM without Braille and audio stops those with visual impairments from using it.

An ATM with Braille doesn't stop people who can see from using it. Quite different.

If you aren't designed for, you can be designed out

Our neighbour, an electrician, told us a story recently that illustrated this. He was working at a bar and the owner was looking at increasing accessibility standards. All good. But, the cost of designing and building wheelchair access into the bar was a step too much.

"The person in the wheelchair can just be carried up and down the steps when they need to leave."

Ok...I guess they could. But why should they be?

At this stage my neighbour put his foot down. You see, his eldest child is wheelchair bound. And it's very obvious they don't want to be, nor should they need to be, carried up and down steps in order to have a drink with their friends. They want to be able to access the bar, independently and on their own. Unfortunately the design at this stage makes that impossible. So they miss out.

Because their needs haven't been designed for - it means they've been excluded from the environment. A recent article by Ripu Bhatia highlighted this problem all too well: Not build for Me: Auckland nightlife a step too far for disabled partygoer.

Universal design principles also recognise the needs of people over the wants and whims of others. Maybe Heritage NZ could have used this before they spend years opposing a wheelchair ramp due to aesthetics.

What's the problem?

The outcomes of these designs are obviously problematic: exclusion and discrimination.

These outputs come from flawed inputs.

Why does that happen? During her HBR interview, Dr. Christine Marie Ortiz Guzman, founder of Equity Meets Design, highlights a traditional problem in design:

There are capital "D" designers, trained in design. And they are "given the power and the permission to design for problems that largely they don’t experience themselves, for communities that largely they do not live in themselves.

Insert examples of those who design support and benefit systems and processes have often not been on government support themselves. The people who have created our prisons are often not the people or the communities who are most effected by the horrible design of our prison systems. And how do you know what you don't know?

Design thinking looks to undo this.

At it's heart, design thinking is:

  • grounded in the person's experiences

  • guided by information not preconceptions

  • customised and creates more effective solutions.

So how can design thinking help equality?

Dr. Guzman wants to see people do equity, not just believe in it and pay lip service to it.

She challenges us all to think about ourselves as designers. And that we have a role to play in designing better, more equitable systems. Guzman states:

The premise of our work is this really core belief that racism and inequity are products of design. And, for us, that is the kind of most helpful way to think about inequity and racism, because if they are products of design, then that means that they can be redesigned. And, so, our work is really thinking about how we can get folks to think of themselves as designers. We think that everyone is a designer.

To Guzman's point, that means we need to focus on the people we are designing for - regardless of what we're designing.

We need to remove our individual lens and judgment and understand, then respond, to their needs. This isn't tokenistic 'consultation.' This is fully integrating people into the design and creation processes. It involves being transparent and intentional.

Deloitte used design thinking in an attempt to tackle gender bias in the workplace.

They followed these five service design steps: Explore, Identify, Ideate, Test, Evaluate. You can read more about their work here.

Here are some public, free to all resources published by the Design Council in the UK. There's some great stuff here - happy exploring!

Want to hear more?

I haven't even scratched the surface. During my next Tea & Toast webinar on Friday 1 April (Service design for great customer experiences) I'll be diving into these service design steps and other principles we can each apply into our work - regardless of what we're designing (products, services, processes, environments) - to make sure it promotes equality.


Beaton, Caroline. "New Research Shows That We're Wired To Take The Path Of Least Resistance." Forbes. Published on 22 February 2017.

Duff, Michelle. "The dad trap: The parental leave system that shuts out men" Stuff. Published on 4 July 2021.

Frank, Alexa, Kelly Connors and Michelle Cho. "Designing Equality" Deloitte Insights. Published on 16 May 2018.

HBS Digital Initiative. "Christine Marie Ortiz Guzman on how we are all “designers”" Harvard Business School Digial Initiative. Published on 19 March 2021.


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