When I was in graduate school and working at a large campus library, I often saw students adjust the library to suit their daily needs. They’d pull chairs together to form a makeshift bed during finals week, or huddle into a private corner to rehearse for job interviews. I also noticed that students frequently used the space to perform daily prayers. I wondered if these students felt comfortable praying in the stacks. Did they wish the university offered places on campus dedicated to the expression of faith?
Creative modification of spaces happens in plenty of work environments. The workspace might not fit every need to a T, but people adapt. We wear headphones to drown out office chatter, reserve a project room while on a deadline, or slip into a conference room to pray in private.
But what if the workplace adapted to an individual’s needs—especially needs that are tied so closely to identity—and not the other way around?
Diversity has many dimensions. And a positive employee experience depends on any number of elements, from staff policy to HR support to mentorship opportunities. So it’s been gratifying over the past few years to see design come out of the shadows as a factor for clients seeking to deepen inclusion and better support diversity.
The Inclusive Design Research Center at OCAD University defines inclusive design as “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference.” They aptly describe the optimal approach to configuration as “one-size-fits-one.” To account for all needs and experiences in the design of a new workplace, I recommend that organizational leadership and design team use a planning process that goes beyond industry benchmarks. This means responding to the preferences of actual people who will likely use the space.
I spoke on the phone with Gabrielle Bullock, Perkins+Will’s Director of Global Diversity, to learn how organizations and designers approach diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and what we can do better.
Mary Baker: How and when does designing for diversity and inclusion begin?
Gabrielle Bullock: It depends on the client. Or rather, I think it should start with the client. Approaching diversity can be an uncomfortable question for organizations, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a positive question because it means we’re asking, “How do we design for you?”
It’s often easier to talk about certain traits, like generational differences or gender, than it is to address race or ethnicity. But as leaders, we have a chance to treat diversity and inclusion as something positive. Clients who are new to approaching diversity might not know how to bring it up, so if we take the “taboo-ness” out of it and frame these conversations from the perspective of supporting staff now and in the future, it will help us understand how we can do our best work. The challenge is to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.
MB: How does our physical environment embody and/or reinforce cultural norms?
GB: Based on culture, some people work in a structured way, but others like to work in a more relaxed environment. For me, I need my space, and some version of “home” at work. We often take on workplace trends without asking questions about what’s going to make someone feel comfortable.
MB: I’ve read that many of the issues users encounter in a new environment are a result of biases and assumptions held by design teams. Does that have any merit?
GB: We tend to consider ourselves experts in design, and we assume by osmosis that we’ve figured out the human part of it…but we’re wrong. There are many examples of designers messing up international work by using Western design philosophies or ideals without adequate research. Too often, designers aren’t educated on how to become culturally competent and use contexts appropriately. But we can always learn from these mistakes, even the unintentional ones. The more we take the time to review our designs and communications with cultural context in mind, the more sensitive to client needs we’ll become. That leads to culturally competent solutions.
MB: Design choices—whether it’s designing a fitness center or a coffee bar or incorporating bold brand statements—are often discussed in terms of return on investment. In your opinion, what is the ROI from designing for diversity and inclusion?
GB: A happy and engaged employee. There’s proof that the more engaged employees are, the more profitable and successful a company will be. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the more disengaged employees are, the more destructive they become to the company.
For me, designing for individual needs is not a why, it’s a when. At Perkins+Will, we refresh our offices every few years, and with each refresh, we’re advancing. When a company moves or refreshes their space, leaders should see it as an opportunity to check in with their employees. What’s working, and what’s not? Is there anything that you need that you don’t see here? We walk the walk because we know to engage everyone and ask questions, and we see the fruits of that curiosity in terms of employee engagement.
MB: When it comes to designing for diversity, what does success look and feel like?
GB: It looks… diverse! There’s an unlimited variety of spaces, for people, for projects, and for companies. The deeper we delve into the different cultures of organizations, the more we’ll reflect the people that are actually working there. This culture of curiosity will lead to more interesting and intentional design work.