News / Opinion

Inclusive design that favours function over form is missing a huge opportunity

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Marianne Waite is founder of Designable, a one-day talks event aiming to inspire greater inclusivity in design, giving a fresh take on disability and looking at how brands can rethink their approach. Here, she explains why there’s a gap in the market for inclusive design that considers form, not just function.

Not only is it patently unfair, it’s also peculiarly bad business that companies don’t do more to design better products and experiences for people with disabilities or physical differences.
 
With one in five people having some sort of disability, Government estimates suggest that households with a disabled person have a combined income of £212 billion that the high street could be missing out on.
 
We’re all no doubt familiar with the tension between design and functionality but for products and services that are designed for people who may be less able through disability or age, it seems that function takes priority – most products are completely devoid of style. It’s little wonder then that those who use them are stigmatised and don’t open their wallets accordingly.
 
It doesn’t have to be this way of course. Eyewear is an example of a product that was developed to help overcome a physical difference – indeed their first users were referred to as ‘patients’ – but such has been the design principles that have been applied to them they have entered the mainstream, and it’s now considered an item of fashion.
 
Why can’t this apply to other things that 20% of us are already in need of and that all of us will need as we get older? Unfortunately, the age of inclusive design still eludes us, meaning that we are imposing a process of segregation between the haves and the have-nots.
 
This is why brands need to wake up and do more to design for disability. Indeed, as well as being good for cohesion and business, inclusive design presents us with a far greater creative opportunity than we’ve ever had before, as well as the ability to make more products aspirational. Consider those inserts and catalogues that often fall from the pages of the weekend newspapers listing medical apparatus for the elderly – how dull and functional (and frankly depressing). Given the amount of time, resources and hot air that marketers and agencies spend on Millennials, they are surely missing a much more extensive, valuable and proven market within older people.
 
While most sectors – perhaps fuelled by perceptions from advertising that disability of any sort represents failure or something to be embarrassed about – prefer to ignore and isolate those with physical differences, some belated progress has been made.
 
It’s probably largely thanks to Channel 4 and the skills of our Paralympians that sports brands have started to realise the potential not only of the physically different but also the size of the market itself. Nike has created the Flyease, a shoe created for those with cerebral palsy that became a universal and desirable sports product in its own right, much like those ‘spectacles’ of old.
 
Equally, some of the banks have cottoned on to the spending power of those with some form of disability. In a highly competitive market, they have developed products and services, such as Lloyds Banking Group’s Talking ATMs for the hard of hearing or chip and sign cards for those with memory issues. The reason? The bank recognises that if they don’t invest in inclusive products, customers will leave them.
 
For those sectors and brands that have not worked this out yet, then they soon will. Hiding behind a timidity that creating products and services for those who are in some way different is the responsibility of the state or the third sector, is not only poor business but it’s also a design opportunity that is crying out to be exploited. And as a happy by-product, the shift in perceptions will lead to a more equitable and inclusive society.