Reframing ‘Access’: From Compliance To Creativity
User-friendly design has reached peak culturalrelevance, encompassing everything from iPhonesfor the elderly to Nike-brandedathletic hijabs. This is especially true for experience design,where recently brands and their creative partners have been building spaces andevents that are more inclusive and reflective of the times—and it’s about time.
This move prompted the video “Three paradigms of disability applied to design.” The premise is that designing with disability in mind shouldn’t be perceived as a perfunctory act of compliance—though compliance is critical—but rather a creative prompt to ask ourselves how we might extend the storytelling of a live experience to engage visitors who challenge our habit of designing experiences around a single sense, like sight or sound. What would it mean if our default participant was not assumed to be able-bodied and narrative cues intentionally included other senses and mobilities—touch, sound, vision, and the like?
The idea of designing with disability in mind can shift our thinking about experience design, inviting fresh creative outcomes expressed in myriad textural ways. This isn’t about satisfying general accessibility concerns for the sake of ticking the box—it’s about truly thinking expansively, and multimodally. Considering “access” in this way is, in fact, a creative boon and a strategic business decision that can lead to better overall experiences and even brand growth.
But how do designers successfully navigate the accessibility paradigm?
Shift The Conversation
When creating new experiences, “wonder” is typically boxed into one mode of interacting with the world. We might think of this as creative bias, in which designers create experiences based on how they engage with the world with little consideration for alternatives, or diversity.
Wouldn’t making the message heard, seen, and felt by as many people as possible be the better business decision? And wouldn’t communicating it in multiple ways help amplify those business goals, while also being inclusive? Isn’t that what all human-centered brands should strive to do?
Shifting our thinking about disability from “responsible practice” to “creative opportunity” is a thrilling proposition for any creative team as it invites more layered landscapes and exciting outcomes. More modes of media mean more ways to amplify, which should please every CMO.
Include Everyone In The Process
Consulting, compensating, and designing with the disability community locally and virtually is nonnegotiable. “Nothing about us without us,” a mantra that has powered the disability rights movement for decades, reminds us that people with disabilities are the experts. No amount of second-hand research or empathy will simulate the lived experience of disabled people.
That’s why, not surprisingly, many products and experiences designed with disability in mind are instigated by disabled people. Take the lauded ThisAbles line from IKEA. Conceived by Eldar Yusupov, the project sought to create products meeting an array of access needs unmet by standard-issue furniture and houseware. Eldar’s ingenuity led the company to begin the design process by inviting disabled people to a hack-a-thon—where they generated insights and ideas for a new line of seats, beds, shelves, electronics, and more. The result? An inclusively innovative product set that centers on the needs of disabled customers.
What if we gave disabled people a seat at the table in every concept session—recognizing their design expertise and situating accessibility as foundational to successful design? This would re-evaluate our criteria for “good design,” and ratchet up the quality of both our skills and our solutions across the board.
Design Experiences That Are Multisensory And Multimodal For Amplification
The notion of creating multidimensional experiences is not just good for brand image, it’s good for business. Case in point: In mid-June, Visa announced its sensory branding suite so when a financial transaction is complete, customers can receive audible, haptic, or visually-animated cues.
“Giving greater dimensionality to our brand and letting our customers see, hear or feel Visa when they pay is an essential ingredient,” stated Lynne Biggar, chief marketing and communications officer at Visa, at the time of the announcement.
For those who doubt the efficacy of such efforts, an early study shows that “perceptions of the brand increased by 14% compared with those who did not experience the sensory branding.”
Employ A Compliance Toolkit
Integrating accessibility into the design process can lessen the “risk” of backlash, reinvigorate the creative process, and foster trust in our brands. But how do we go about starting that journey with our team?
Several disability activists and advocate groups have created guidelines for how to steward accessible events and experiences. #AccessIsLove and RAMP, for example, have organized reading lists and auditing tools that make it easy to locate best practices for planning, presenting, and participating in accessible events. Hiring ASL interpreters for the day, selecting a wheelchair-accessible venue, and asking attendees to refrain from wearing strong fragrances are just a few best practices worth integrating into experience-planning routines.
Adopting what author, professor, and disability advocate Tanya Titchkosky calls “politics of wonder” into the design process enables a paradigm shift from disability-as-liability to disability-as-creative prompt. As we continue to discover in every new project, adopting disability as a method to arrive at unexpected creative outcomes is an exciting by-product of inclusivity. For brands and designers looking to make experiences that connect and captivate, accessibility could provide a less traditional, but more critical solution.