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New parameters are redefining inclusive design to be more comprehensive, but how does that impact your developments? Kat Holmes, leading expert in inclusive design, shares her expertise on where the future is headed.

Inclusivity. It’s one of the biggest buzzwords inside corporations right now. But the person who brought the practice of inclusive design to Microsoft–Kat Holmes–isn’t so sure that companies really get the idea yet.

Holmes has since founded an independent design practice focused on inclusive product developing, become a judge for our 2018 Innovation by Design Awards, and penned the upcoming book Mismatch. I interviewed Holmes in a frank conversation about my own confusion, and at times, even skepticism, regarding inclusive design as a salve for many of the world’s challenges. And what she taught me should be required reading for anyone tackling the broad topic of inclusivity in design–or business at large–today.

Fast Company: So I very much believe in the grander idea of inclusive design–that by designing products through the lens of edge cases like disabilities first, they can often become better products for everyone. But lately, I’ve been wondering, does it make sense all the time? And has it been co-opted as a meaningless marketing phrase before it got off the ground? I’ve become a bit more skeptical in the last year, and I don’t even know how to bring that up to people.

Kat Holmes: Like, you’re a jerk if you don’t like inclusivity!

FC: Exactly!

KH: That’s something I’ve had to contend with. The thing I’ve seen is that the word “inclusion” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but there’s been a wholesale agreement that it’s a good thing. However, there’s been very little discourse on what we actually mean by it.

You get people using the word and not always having the true intentions behind it. The Olympics and Paralympics were full of advertisements that highlighted demonstrations toward inclusion, but you look at what the companies are actually doing, and inclusion is not a core value.

What inclusion means can be mistaken. Being inclusive can be mistaken for being thoughtful, or just using appropriate language. The word is elevated so quickly in a corporate sense, it’s a good time to have discourse in what we mean by it.

FC: Okay, so what do you mean by “inclusive design”?

KH: The first thing I had to contend with was, I’d been using inclusion through the lens of disability. Thinking of people with disabilities, then, how we made things fit for them. But I met a lot of people who are working on gender-related projects or race-related projects saying, “This is inclusive design,” and I couldn’t wrap my head around how all of those things are part of the same design practice.

I took a look at the words “inclusive” and “exclusive,” and the root of both is claudere. It’s Latin for “to shut.” Exclude is to shut out. Include is to shut in. Thinking of that mental model, of ingroups and outgroups, I thought maybe there’s something wrong with the mental model in our language.

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