The concepts of “access” and “inclusive design” have become doctrine in the industry. Pauline Hadaway, director of Belfast Exposed Photography gallery, and Geoff McCormick, product designer for design consultancy Alloy, present public and private perspectives on these thorny terms, moderated by Michael Willoughby
Pauline Hadaway: What I would like to talk about is the way that the public sector now demands as much access as possible and starts from the presumption that we are trying to exclude people.
Geoff McCormick: For me, as a product designer, I actually think inclusive design hasn’t gone far enough. I think the principle is a very good and strong one, but it’s just terribly misinterpreted by many people.
PH: Coming from a different background, my impression is that inclusive design has to do with functionality and what the purpose of a thing, activity or object is. Because our organisation has
an outreach programme, I’ve seen the foregrounding of access. This is fine when it’s separated from everything else. But we’re not allowed to just design the best programme we can on our terms and then go to the “access people” and say: “Right, get that out to the public, get as many people in as you can”.
GM: … Make sure that anybody who wants to come
in can come in.
PH: What is happening as part of a deliberate policy – and much of our resources comes from public funding – is a demand to integrate into our
programming the ambition of accessibility. What they’re actually saying
is, “Will you design your programming with as wide a group of people as possible?” and not, “Will you design in terms of what is important in terms
of your artistic direction?”.
GM: Art and design are different. Art is about self-expression and is about the artist’s take on the world. We designers have to create something around a particular brief. That’s still an expression, but it’s on behalf of someone else and, in our business, usually with a commercial imperative. But regulators shouldn’t determine the type of content. How can the government or regulatory body influence what you show and what’s their reasoning behind that?
PH: They no longer say, “Fine, you get on with it,” but they want an integrated programme that is not just good quality, but that is also of interest to a group of people that they designate, be it “early years”, “young people” or “disabled people” or whatever is the target for that year. If we want to get 100% of our funding, we are expected to put together programming that will include these segments in a commercial way.
GM: As a product design agency, we create artefacts for people to use
– things like the touch, feel or form factor – and inclusive design has been a big element of our business for quite a while now. This is where I think it’s been misinterpreted, because inclusive design is not just designing for the elderly or disabled. I think this is the worst way of looking at it. It’s designing for the widest possible audience. On the other hand, inclusive design as a trend only has to get bigger. The ageing population of the UK means you have to consider this new group who are quite young in their minds but are ageing physically. It’s something that we are going to hang our hat on quite strongly for the next ten years because we think it’s going to be a big thing.
PH: I think in the public sector you are much more vulnerable. In the private sector, a lot of the ideas about good design are to do with function. That’s unassailable. You know people want something because they go out, buy and use it. You can establish a connection between good design and value. It’s probably less easy to measure the value of a painting or a programme.
GM: It’s subjective!
PH: So what is the “design for all” concept? Does it apply to everything?
GM: Everything that we design has to have an aesthetic consideration which comes from understanding the lifestyles, concerns, worries and needs of a particular niche. And although you are a public body, you need to generate some form of money, and that’s the problem. I mean what are you actually
on this planet for? That is tied into where you get your money. That’s where
you have a tricky path to tread.
PH: I think the gallery’s purpose is to provide a public space for private use
and contemplation. It sounds grand. But in a city where there is not much
quiet space for people to go and look at things and think and be left in peace, the public gallery serves a valuable purpose. Trying to design for every eventuality misses out what people bring to a situation. It’s a failure
of imagination, in a way. If you want to have total design, you are saying,
“nothing else can happen”. Museums are a nightmare now because everything
GM: Yes, the voyage of discovery is important. The audio commentaries make you passive. A space where there are no accepted norms can be quite comforting or quite scary: “There’s no path, just have a look.”
Moderator: What about the death of the Routemaster double-decker bus in 2005 and the rise of the bendy bus design disaster?
GM: Well, first of all, they were hard to get pushchairs in, so I always ended up taking a taxi. But I think the bendy bus is a relatively good idea because it accommodates more people per square foot.
PH: But why is it that we hung on to the design of the Routemaster for so long? And how come what’s replaced it all these years later is so obviously inferior? Why, when we are so aware now, are things not getting better?
GM: I think it’s a dilution of purpose. There’s a complexity in terms of engineering. But because you are including design principles that have to appeal to a broader section of the community, you are going to have some dilution of purpose. The answer is that nothing is as simple as it used to be. That’s not necessarily a good thing. That’s just the way things are.
PH: Is there a sense that there has to be a compromise between functionality and access and if you go all out for access or the greatest number of people you may have to compromise on the functionality of the object?
GM: Quite simply, yes. But in terms of the gallery and of access, I honestly don’t see the harm in having a gallery as a place to go – not just to look at art. I think that provides greater meaning. That would be my ideal situation.
PH: Going back to the Routemaster – it was popular because you used
to be able to jump on and off it. You had freedom.
Moderator: You used to feel so alive. You’d think:
“Here I am taking a controlled risk. Wow!”
GM: Well, you are fit, active and male. That’s maybe seven percent of the population. So that’s good for you. I mean a lot of the rest of the population would do it, too.
Moderator: More than seven percent of the population jumped on and off Routemaster buses!
PH: I think even I could manage it. But isn’t there a connection between accessibility and social progress? These buses were designed to produce cheap transport for the masses. Why didn’t anyone think of adapting the Routemaster?
GM: Well, we’ve moved on. In Japan inclusive design
is much more popular because they have more elderly people and more respect for them. The have tools that are designed so you don’t have to apply brute force to them. B&Q do a range of them. They are lighter and they perform their function better than they did before. They support inclusive design principles but they are not designed for old people. It just so happens that since they are easy to use, then older people will buy them.
PH: That makes a great deal of sense to me.
Firstly, the product will be commercially successful. The problems seem to arise more in the public sector, which often “creates” the publics the policy makers want. Progress is not being driven by the real users but by the people who set themselves as representatives of the public.
GM: They try to give themselves goals so that they can then be judged against a determined set of criteria – for instance, more young people, but there is no commercial benefit apart from their
pay rise next year.
PH: In that case, the purpose of art – that it has its own purpose – is not valued. It becomes a tool for something else – for cohering society, for example – so if you’ve got young people drinking on street corners, if we could only get that lot in, we would be fulfilling a target.
GM: It seems that policy makers are not speaking to your users and they haven’t tried to speak to them.
PH: We know very well what we need to do and would just like to get on with it.