Rama Gheerawo, a well-known designer and longtime director of the Helen Hamlyn Center for Design at the Royal College of Arts in London, England, believes that good design has to be inclusive. Only then design becomes more than aesthetic endeavor and can solve serious social issues. ‘Believe it or not, entrepreneurs, marketers, companies, organizations, governments don’t always do that, they don’t include citizens. They design something that they think you need rather than something that you actually want’, says Rama. During Kaunas Design Event at October 26 Rama Gheerawo will present good practices of the Helen Hamlyn Center for Design. In the following conversation, designer shares his insights about the functions of contemporary design and challenges designers face practicing inclusive design.
Design thinking becomes more and more prominent these days. Why is it important in your opinion?
Design thinking is important because it presents design as a strategic framework for innovation. It links creativity and innovation. So, putting into plain English, it means that design is not just an aesthetic endeavor, it isn’t just about playing with markers or choosing the shade of pink or blue.
Design is moving upstream in the innovation process and upstairs to the boardroom. The gap though that emerged is translating design thinking into design doing. So, it becomes more than a post-it notes filled room. Some people think that anyone with a pack of post-it notes and a blank wall can be a design thinker. But it doesn’t take account for all the use of people-centered strategies that have existed for years, whether it is called universal design, design for all or inclusive design. And, if you don’t actually deliver something, if you don’t actually speak to people, then you’re not doing design thinking, you’re doing ‘design stinking’.
Speaking of inclusive design, what would you say are the biggest challenges one might possibly face when involving people in creative processes?
It’s a couple of things. One is finding people. The other is getting them to talk. And then the third one is stopping them from talking. People are rarely consulted so then someone says: ‘Look I’m working with technology company and I want to know your opinion’, first reaction is: ‘Me? Really? What am I going to tell Samsung, Panasonic, Hewlett-Packard or Sony?’ And then once you get them talking, it’s difficult sometimes to capture everything that they say. It’s not that you want to stop them from talking but there’s one designer with a limited timeframe.
So, finding people and selecting them is important. And people get it wrong. So, we have tools and techniques at the Centre which borrow from the idea of the extreme user. You know, sports companies would get an athlete to test their new running shoes to destruction. Or Honda employed Ayrton Senna, the late great racing driver, in the 80’s and 90’s to develop the suspension on their road car. No one is going to drive like Senna. He’s a Formula 1 driver. But if you’ve got it right for Senna, you’ve got it right for everyone else. He’s testing cars to the extreme. Serena Williams or Venus Williams testing out tennis equipment. Forget the stats of the power of their serves. If they can use the tennis racket, so could you or I.
It’s the same thing with including people of different ages, needs, genders and abilities. 20 years ego, when we were specifying the wayfinding in Terminal 5 at Heathrow, the airport authorities offered us a user group of 50 business people for us. Most were men, few were women, mostly of one majority culture. There was nothing there about diversity according to gender, age or race. They were all able bodied, they all had the assistant to the end of the phone and they all got a better class of treatment called ‘business class’. It wasn’t helping us see truth. So, we said that we don’t need 50 people, we want to talk to 5. And we’ll find those 5 and they will tell us many more interesting things than their 50. They didn’t believe us. Our 5 people were these: an 8-year-old girl, a couple in their 80’s who couldn’t lift their own luggage, a 60-year-old man who was visually impaired and a Japanese tourist who couldn’t speak English. They would tell us extreme failures of wayfinding, but more than that they would tell us micro failures. Because all you need for something to go wrong is around nine small things, and then the bridge collapses or the plane falls from the sky. This is standard engineering speak. You need a few small failures and the big failure happens.
So, what did we learn from our five people. We set them all the same task: ‘You’re in Paddington station. Take the airport train. Go to Terminal 1. Check in. Go through security. And find your plane to go to Texas.’ It was before 9/11 so we were able to film all of this. The 8-year-old girl gets to Terminal 1, she’s standing outside. And she said: ‘I don’t know where the entrance is.’ When you look at the building it’s a wonderful modernist bit of architecture, but the doors and the windows look the same. So, one of our principles was to make the entrance look like an entrance. We drew inspiration from Disneyland, churches and mosques. Disneyland wants you to come in so everything looks like an entrance. And you don’t see people mistaking the window for the door in churches or mosques. So, Terminal 5 entrances are like cathedral porticos. They are actually in a way of the pavement, so, you have to walk around them. They kind of block the pavement visually. At the time inclusive design said pavements should be clear and we blocked them, because we said you can walk through the porticos to get to the other side but they are actually there to scoop you into the terminal.
We also learned that older people go to the toilet a lot. As well as visually impaired people. Why? Because, it’s actually the only place you can you hear the announcements. So, they hang by the toilets and go there to hear the announcements, because the way you build an airport is so full of visual and oral clutter that you can’t hear. So, now, then you arrive in Terminal 5 in front of door there’s the checking desks, because that’s what you’re there for. And you have the screens with a sound shower. You stand in front of the screen and you have a directional sound unit pumping information at you. It’s not a football stadium where you want to hear the roaring of the crowd. It’s a space that’s big but should feel intimate. So, those are just two things that came out. Ant that’s an inclusive design in a nutshell.
A couple of years ago the center made nearly 200 design alterations to the London taxi, aiming to make it human-centered. In order to do so you consulted many drivers and travelers with different needs. Could you tell us more about it?
We had a group of twenty drivers and passengers. And that was our core group. A small number. We call this ‘deep data’ not ‘big data’. People think unless a thousand people say it, it’s not true. But actually, six people can give you something meaningful. The problem with a 1000 people, or 100 people for the marketing survey, you can only ask them 6 questions and curate that data. But the same team can ask 6 people 100 questions. So, there was 20 people on that project. There was a group of maybe 50 to 100 drivers that we spoke with to beyond that and then we spoke to 2000-3000 people that we engaged using surveys asking 6 questions. We don’t use our surveys for validation. We use them to find out what people are doing. So, surveys are a really bad way of actually finding out if someone like something. We’re not doing objective research. We’re doing subjective research. We have designers who hang out in hospitals and go on a ride along with paramedics, walk through a city street late at night to see what it’s like for a 80-year-old women. We have gone out to the Middle East and hung out with migrant workers. One thing I challenged the students and professors to do in Qatar, was to live like a migrant worker for one day. I didn’t ask them to live in a camp, but they had to live on 5 to 7 US dollars a day to eat and entertain themselves. So, you get bored easily and you eat a lot of bread. Your mental and physical health suffers. And that immersive subjective thing is incredibly important. Design research is not observing people through telescope, it’s not stargazing. It’s a contact sport.
So, designers actually go through all this themselves?
They have to. Otherwise, you’re not a designer. If you’re are sitting in a studio, drawing things that come out of your head in my book you’re doing the least powerful, the least empathic and the least conscious version of design. Inclusive design is design at its most powerful, conscious and empathic.
Could you tell us a little about Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art?
It’s very simple. We use design to improve people’s lives. We advocate for design that’s inclusive of people’s needs and abilities across of wide range of age, ability, gender, race, context and circumstance. We believe that the designing for people with disabilities or older people can help get it right for everyone. Inclusive design is just including the widest number of people. And believe it or not, entrepreneurs, marketers, companies, organizations, governments don’t always do that, they don’t include citizens. They design something that they think you need rather than something that you actually want.
As a director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, you’re taking active part in design research and implementation of design projects applying empathy-driven approaches. What got you started? How did you become interested in seeking social innovation through design?
It was very personally driven. It was a gentle power of disatisfaction with what design could do. I remember being 19 and thinking why don’t we actually talk to people? It’s as simple as that. So, when I was 21 I went to the Royal College of Art. I did an engineering degree and then I did a design degree. I did furniture for school children and I just went out, spoke to 200 kids, did 10 visits just to hang out and see what was going on, see how they were sitting. For me it just made sense. You know, sometimes you think what you’re doing is right but the world doesn’t make sense around it. And then I found this thing called inclusive design and the world made sense again. The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design was kicked off the year I graduated. So, I applied for a job there. The next thing you know, few years later, I’m director. Though I don’t know how that happened.
Some of your projects address current social issues. ‘Our Future Foyle’ is a good example of that. Could you tell us more about this project?
Our Future Foyle is an ongoing cultural and health project focused on the River Foyle in Derry/Londonderry. Since March 2016, extensive co-design engagements have been carried out with over 15,000 individuals from the local community as well as national stakeholders and international experts. This innovative project is spearheaded by the Public Health Agency Northern Ireland.
The project aims to improve the health and social wellbeing of everyone using the riverfront of the River Foyle, through rejuvenation and animation of the banks and bridges as a shared positive space. Four elements will be delivered: Foyle Aware, Foyle Bubbles, Foyle Experience and Foyle Reeds. Having gained cross-departmental government support as a flagship ‘Programme for Government’ project, an estimated £25million investment is anticipated with the hope of achieving significant health, economic, and tourism benefits for the city and wider region.
Helen Hamlyn Centre and project alumni Ralf Alwani and Jak Spencer currently lead the project through their Studio, Urban Scale Interventions. This is a people-centred design and innovation studio based in Northern Ireland. Born from the Helen Hamlyn Research Associates Programme and supported by Public Health NI, the studio specialises in design research, strategic policy, creative stakeholder engagement and design delivery.
Further updates on the project can be found on the studio’s Instagram @urbanscaleinterventions or website urbanscaleinterventions.com.
Kaunas design event raises some questions inspired by the pandemic.  Did by any chance the center has done anything on the subject during the last 6 months?
The first thing we did was… nothing. We listened and strategized. Everyone had calls out for doing a new ventilator, many design firms wanted to design a new mask. We didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon. As designer, sometimes you need to wait. We realized an interesting thing. Everyone wanted to design a new mask or a new ventilator. And it’s coming from a good place, a good intention. But they also want to be the people who did that. We didn’t want our name to be branded on everything. We want a world to be a family. So, we set to just support. We asked the doctors and the hospitals at the frontline what they need. We realized there are only a few approved masks the NHS use. Not 70 different designa.  So, we started telling people to pick one of these designs and make that. Don’t make their own design. We also spoke to hospitals staffs and it turned out that 60 % of people are the new staff. They drafted in students and retired clinicians. They arriving at the hospital and all of the existing staff are getting overwhelmed with the same questions: where’s the toilet? Where’s the canteen? So, we created a map which was very useful. That’s the way we respond. By listening to what people want.
Are there many design examples in your everyday life that you find frustrating, or in need of reimagining? I’m talking about massive design disasters….
My answer will be quite philosophical. I think how we design leadership is the biggest disaster of all. In the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design I have seen over 300 projects, led nearly a 100. You end up frustrated and in tears seeing some of the challenges we address. But also inspired, energized, motivated because you realize your small fingerprint can leave a positive touch on the area of the world. All these things from obesity, aging, autism to gender imbalance, violence, overdrinking, health issues… If you can change leadership, you can change it all. We often look at the leadership as the loudest, tallest, mal-est person of majority culture. I think it’s the biggest mistake that we have made. The thing that needs the biggest redesign. We need to rethink leadership.
Author – Justė Litinskaitė.