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Digital Inclusion

Event Recap: Made for Whom? Critically Examining the Design Logic of Everyday Objects

collage of photos from event

For whom is the map a useful tool for navigation? For whom is it not?

What assumptions are built into the design of “universal icons?” How often do you notice that icons are gendered?

How might you design them differently? What values and experiences and assumptions do you bring to your design?

On April 23rd (in Monterey) and April 25th (in Vermont), the Inclusive Design Studio sponsored its first event, an exhibition called Made for Whom? Critically Examining the Design Logic of Everyday Objects. We invited passers-by to learn about the design history of a series of everyday objects and spaces – including maps, cameras, bathrooms, icons, and makerspaces – and reflect on questions like those listed above. Our goals for the event were to raise awareness about the realities of non-inclusive design; to engage participants in reflection around the impact of exclusionary or hostile design on those who are marginalized by it; and to introduce the Inclusive Design Studio as a new DLINQ initiative.

Below, we share some of our reflections from the event.

What were people most interested in?

Noraya (in Monterey)

Those who stopped by the event seemed to be the most interested in the history of maps. Among some comments left on the exhibit were “…makes me question the intent behind everything” and the “dominance of the global north in map-making in general.” Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Middlebury Institute students were most interested in this considering the international focus of the masters programs here and the historical and cultural implications of map-making.

Sarah (in VT)

People who stopped by the exhibit in VT seemed most interested in talking with us about the camera. I think the camera gave people pause because it’s an object that seems on its face to be neutral –  it’s “just a camera,” everyone uses one. Learning about the ways in which design choices were made to calibrate Kodak film in a way that privileged light toned skin and erased dark toned skin, was a powerful lesson in the idea that technology is never neutral.

How did people engage with exhibit?

Sarah

Along with the object/space histories, we had lots of whiteboard/bulletin board space for people to share their thoughts related to a series questions that invited people to dig a little more deeply into the impact of the objects’ designs on our everyday lives, and especially on the lives of those people who are marginalized by the design. At our event, we noticed that people spent time reading the histories, and the questions, and we had some interesting conversations, but almost no one took up the invitation to share their thoughts on paper or post-it note.

Noraya

Our event took place was in Samson Patio, an outside space by local cafe and dining center during lunchtime. That all to say that we were in a conspicuous place during a convenient time and got a lot of traffic as a result. A number of people stopped by the poster with the event description which we often took as opportunities to invite them over to engage with the whiteboards and explain the intent more face-to-face. Although several people did engage by sharing their thoughts, most people reflected independently and actively chose to not write down any thoughts. There were a few times where people said they would rather read and learn about it. After the event ended, I was reflecting on this with Bob Cole, DLINQ Director of  Exploratory Initiatives and Partnerships. Bob made a good point about how sharing reflections can make people feel vulnerable. Perhaps sometimes these reflections are better left unsaid and are private discoveries that people do not want to admit not knowing or have experiences that are personal and not want to expose.

Did we meet the goals of the event, and what would we do differently next time?

Sarah

My feeling is that we did a decent job of raising awareness around the idea that design is everywhere, and designs are created by humans, who imbue their designs with particular values and assumptions that privilege some while marginalizing others. I would have loved to see more reflective writing in response to the prompts. Next time around, we’ll plan to have the exhibit up for longer – ideally, for a week – and in a more public space (at the college, anyway), which would allow for passers-by to encounter the exhibit multiple times, and provide ample – and anonymous – time and space for reflection and commenting.

Noraya

I would say the event was quite successful in raising awareness about the concept of inclusive design and highlighting the variety of ways that objects can be designed to leave people out. We were in a great central location at an opportune time, so I would certainly repeat those qualities. In terms of any improvements, I think I would want to customize the exhibit to the degree programs here and feature objects or systems relevant to students’ fields to get them to think about how inclusive design affects their work.

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