What Is Inclusive Design – and What It Isn’t

[Image description: An aerial view of the legendary Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit, Michigan. On the left are the two-story Brewster single-family townhomes. On the right are the Douglass towers, stark and identical concrete 14-story buildings that housed scores of families and became the design template for notoriously inhospitable public housing projects across the United States.]

By Kat Holmes

There is a growing interest in making inclusion a positive goal for companies, teams, and products. Now, especially, as inclusion drives daily news headlines related to governmental policies, and representation of excluded groups in mainstream industries, the urgency to reach a collective consciousness about inclusive practices is more acute. To begin developing and growing inclusive practices in company culture is challenging. As with any expertise, inclusion is a skill that’s developed with practice over time.

Where in life do we learn inclusive skills? In my education as an engineer, designer, and citizen I never formally learned about inclusion or exclusion. Accessibility, sociology, and civil rights weren’t required curricula for learning how to build technology.

As I grew in my career as a technologist, I noticed a void of information on how to practice inclusive design for digital technologies. Most examples of universal design applied to sidewalk curb cuts and kitchen utensils. It was unclear how to achieve similar outcomes in the design of mass-scale technology. In search of guidance, I realized that many people had the same question: where do I start?

Three fears of inclusion

Today, my answer to this question is always the same. There are many misconceptions about inclusion. It’s important to know what you’re getting into. These three fears of inclusion will likely strike you at some point. If so, you’re not alone. But from each of them grows an insight into the nature of inclusion:

  • Inclusion isn’t nice: There are many different interpretations of the word “inclusion,” but very little guidance on what exactly this word means. The bottom line is that inclusion isn’t nice; it’s about challenging the status quo and fighting for hard-won victories.
  • Inclusion is imperfect: There are endless nuances and considerations when designing for people. There is no single answer that suits everyone. Accessible solutions are always, inevitably, accessible to some but not all people.
  • Inclusion is ongoing: There are rarely enough talented people, time, and money to make a sudden sea change in inclusivity. As a result, the work of inclusion is never done.

Another common question is how to distinguish inclusive design from related concepts, like accessibility and universal design. There are multiple interpretations of each concept, and they overlap at times. When designing, the following distinctions can help clarify their unique strengths and how they work together.

Accessibility describes the qualities that make an experience open to all. It’s also a professional discipline aimed at achieving that open experience for all. An important distinction is that accessibility is an attribute, whereas inclusive design is a method. While practicing inclusive design should make a product more accessible, it’s not a process for meeting all accessibility standards. Ideally, accessibility and inclusive design work together to make experiences that are not only compliant with standards, but truly usable and open to all.

Inclusive design should always start with a solid understanding of accessibility fundamentals, which are the foundation of integrity for any inclusive solution.

Universal design is the design of an environment so that it might be accessed and used in the widest possible range of situations without the need for adaptation. Universal design is rooted in architecture and environmental design and emphasizes the end solution, which often is one that is physically fixed. The principles of universal design are focused on attributes of the end result, such as “simple and intuitive to use” and “perceptible information.”



In contrast, inclusive design was born out of analog and digital technologies in the 1970s and ’80s. These solutions are created with or by people who were historically excluded participating in aspects of society — and then, went on to become mainstream products and services. Well known examples include captioning, which was created with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and audio recorded books with blind communities. Inclusive design is now growing into adulthood alongside the Internet.

In some areas of the world, the term inclusive design is used interchangeably with the term universal design. I prefer to make a distinction between them in two ways: Universal design is strongest at describing the qualities of a final design. It is exceptionally good at describing the nature of physical objects. Inclusive design, conversely, focuses on how a designer arrived at a solution. Did their process include the contributions of excluded communities?

A simple way to remember the distinction is that universal design is one-size-fits-all. Inclusive design is one-size-fits-one.

Inclusive design might not lead to universal designs. Universal designs might not involve the participation of excluded communities. Accessible solutions aren’t always designed to consider human diversity or emotional qualities like beauty or dignity. They simply need to provide access.

Inclusive design, accessibility, and universal design are important for different reasons and have different strengths. Designers should be familiar with all three. An inclusive designer is someone, arguably anyone, who recognizes and remedies mismatched interactions between people and their world. They seek out the expertise of people who navigate exclusionary designs. The expertise of excluded communities gives insight into a diversity of ways to participate in an experience.

About the Author: Kat Holmes

Kat Holmes, named one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business” in 2017, is founder of mismatch.design, a firm dedicated to inclusive design resources and education. At Microsoft from 2010 to 2017, she led that company’s executive program for inclusive product innovation. Her award-winning toolkit was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. In 2018, Holmes joined Google and continues to advance inclusive development for some of the most influential technologies in the world. She is the author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.

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