Design for Life

Mei-Yee Man Oram is the Access and Inclusive Environments lead at the global firm Arup. I asked Mei to tell me more about her interesting job title and what her role consists of. Mei explained that Arup is a large engineering company. Her team specialises in inclusive design. 

Mei continued, ‘I’ll be honest, I got into inclusive design completely by accident. I finished my university studies. I knew that I was very interested in design and the social impact of design and the built environment. I wasn’t aware that Inclusive Design existed as a discipline or a career path. I did some work experience at Arup, came across the inclusive design team and never left.’

I asked Mei to explain what inclusive design is, what it entails, and why it matters? 

‘What we do is work with developers, architects and other people to try to make things much more inclusive. We maximize the opportunities that there are when we design things to meet the needs of a more diverse population.

Inclusive design is design that is good for everyone. As there are a diverse set of needs across our communities, inclusive design recognises that people will have different preferences, requirements and needs for a built environment. There will be differences in how people like to use and experience the space. By designing in a way that thinks about the user needs and about flexibility and choice for individuals within our communities, we’re able to create spaces that people can use more independently and equitably. That’s not just from a spatial or physical perspective, but also how people feel and experience behind the space.’

I asked Mei why she thinks inclusive design is important in the 2020s.

‘I think there’s a moral duty. It’s the right thing to do. It’s something that we as designers, as service providers, as anyone who is interacting with anyone else should be doing. Inclusive design thinks about all the current changes in our world, with people working and living longer. It takes account of body shapes and sizes changing and technology changes too. There’s a lot more that needs to interface with technology when it comes to the built environment now.

There’s also the environmental side of things. Climate change and the impact on travel choices. How can design encourage people to use more sustainable means of transport? The only way that we can start to address some of these current challenges is to think about who we’re designing for and make sure it’s fit for purpose.’

I reflected that there are a broad set of parameters that need to be kept in mind to design inclusively. I asked Mei what future trends she sees on the horizon? 

‘The current pandemic is something that is going to affect inclusive design in the long term. The impact is particularly around issues of health and hygiene.’

Mei believes that ‘There’s a real opportunity there to try and capture what it is that’s not working at the moment. To design things in a much more equitable way and make things safer for people in future. I think the lessons from the pandemic are going to create spaces that are much better all around. 

We’re still learning and having conversations about things that are being tested. What’s key is the opportunity to test and get the feedback to make sure that it actually works for everyone. 

One big discussion topic now is the provision of touch-free controls. Since the pandemic, people are very conscious of touching surfaces. Many people have jumped on this issue and made quite quick decisions. Maybe saying, “Okay, we’ll minimise the number of surfaces that people have to touch, so lift controls, toilets, everything within the built space.”

What’s not been thought through properly is how that might impact the blind and partially sighted community. Not thinking about how, without touch, people are going to be able to navigate through the building. Some people rely on tactile information to have that equitable experience. 

There are other considerations, as in the active travel choices I mentioned before. There’s lots of new work that’s being done to cycle lanes. The drive is to improve those and to increase the opportunity for people to avoid public transport and to avoid using personal vehicles. But, again, there’s not necessarily been the thinking through what impact that might have.’

The pandemic has made Mei’s team very busy but they were already working on some really cool projects before it hit. I asked her to talk more about some of those projects.

‘One team member is looking at an office building in Central London at the moment. There are lots of interesting technology interfaces that are being introduced to help enhance user experience and improve building efficiency. Things like sensors within evacuation halls to detect whether there’s someone there that needs assistance or not. Things like well-being measures that are being discussed or even introduced. For example when you’re sitting at your desk for too long then the technology might encourage you to take a short break.

There’s also a project that we’re working on with a retailer. We’re looking at how they can improve the experience from both the staff and customer perspectives. We engaged with users from both sides to discover what the key challenges are. In that project, we are looking at the sensory experience. We’re thinking about lighting and acoustics. How can the less tangible elements shape the space that people are using and start to make the experience a lot more intuitive and friendly for people?

I think that’s quite a nice one whenever people ask about what we do. There are sometimes assumptions that access and inclusion only means that you put in ramps and lifts. The retail project is a great example of how inclusive design is all-encompassing. Everything about that space will have an impact on people and how they experience it.’

Inclusive design sounds like real inclusion as Mei describes it because it takes intersectionality into account as well. This is one of the challenges I have when I talk to organisations about diversity. They might have a hierarchical agenda laid out, saying, “Okay, right now we are focusing on gender, then next year it’s ethnicity, the year after that is LGBT+.” They might intend to eventually get around to doing something about disability. I talk to them about intersectionality and how people can tick several of those boxes at once.

Mei had already mentioned the moral business case for inclusive design. I asked her if any clients ask what their return on investment is likely to be.

‘A few things relate to that economic side of inclusion. There’s the productivity, the health and the happiness of the individuals that are working or visiting a particular space. If you design something to be healthy, then longer-term there will be more return. People won’t be taking as many sick days. There will be fewer work-related injuries. Improving the well-being of the occupants will mean there is that long-lasting economic impact. And, if we design things well initially, then there is less risk of needing to retrofit things later on.

Flexible inclusive design means adaptations can happen within a building without having to undergo a major refurbishment. Major works will be much more costly if inclusive design is not considered from the beginning. In addition to the physical costs of the materials and the refurbishment, there’s also disruption that shutting down parts of the building or space to make those adjustments causes. There’s the time that’s wasted and the people costs associated with that.’

One of the things that I talk to my clients about in terms of the return on investment that they should expect from diversity and inclusion is inclusive growth. Growth can mean different things to different people. I’ve worked with a retailer who wanted to sell more TVs and I’ve worked with a police force who wants better relationships with their communities. I asked Mei what inclusive growth means from an inclusive designer’s perspective?

‘The first thing I would say is about the team. Ask who’s actually feeding into that design in the first place. That includes the design team and the people that are engaged from the wider community and the end-users. Making sure that its a diverse group and that we are listening to a wide range of voices that feeds into the design process. Doing that means the solutions and designs that we create should hopefully be inclusive and be suitable for their intended purpose. 

Inclusive growth for me encapsulates growing as organisations and communities together. It’s important to make sure we are bringing in the different voices that make up those communities.’

To learn more about the work that Mei’s team does on inclusive design, visit their team pageon where their contact details are listed.

Design for Life - Mildon