John Maeda & Kat Holmes on Designing for Inclusiveness
We all feel it—our technology feels like a century ahead of us, while our behaviors are reflective of decades before us. The systemic issues in the lack of inclusiveness in design, tech, and hiring reveals a profound cultural failure. But let’s flip it: it’s a shimmering possibility to show what better looks like, to do important work that will matter for the future we want to create.
We spoke to the Global Head of Design and Inclusion at WordPress.com, John Maeda, and Kat Holmes, Founder of KATA and Advisor to Automattic, on what the future of inclusiveness looks like, how we can enrich the content we make through diversity, and the slow but steady progress of change.
There seems to be a common understanding that there is a lack of inclusiveness in design/tech and many other fields. What does success look like to you? What does 2027 look like?
John: To be up front, inclusivity isn’t a topic that I explicitly started to focus on professionally until 2016. I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon Kat Holmes’ work at Microsoft when I was developing the 2016 Design in Tech Report with a small team of rising professionals. It was largely thanks to Justin Sayarath – who at the time was working at Kleiner Perkins and now is at a startup called Helix. Justin had spent the majority of his life after college working in Silicon Valley.
My approach at the time was much more purely business- or design-focused. But Justin pushed me to consider the social dimension of the companies that are being created today — and to specifically look at inclusivity as something that we needed to look more closely at with respect to business, and especially in the tech industry. As for what the future will look like, I frankly don’t know. But that’s why after joining Automattic, and when I raised the importance of inclusivity with my CEO Matt Mullenweg, he asked me to do something about it. Within less than a year’s time, we were lucky to invite Kat Holmes onto our Board of Advisors at Automattic. So I suggest we all listen to Kat!
Kat: There’s definitely been an increase in awareness since I started working on inclusive design many years ago. I don’t think we’re at a common understanding, yet. Inclusion means a lot of things to a lot of people. We need better language to describe different kinds of inclusion. We need specific methods for building and measuring it. There is a lot of work to do to make inclusion a repeatable practice, not just a nice idea.
Success is when inclusive design is the default way to design any aspect of society. In 10 years, the urgency for inclusiveness in tech will be higher than ever. My hope is we’re prepared to meet those challenges with practical methods.
The assertion that we are pushing for is that the more diverse the team behind the content produced, the better it will be. In what ways could that be false? And in what ways is that true?
Kat: Representation matters. However, changing representation doesn’t necessarily change culture. Culture change is hard and it takes time. And, culture always wins. If we increase diversity of a team, but don’t also evolve the culture that surrounds that team, a number of challenges commonly arise. There are two approaches that I’ve seen work well. First, start with building diversity in the most senior leadership positions. People in positions of power can move culture more quickly. Second, focus on building inclusive customer experiences. We’re all here to build great products, regardless of our demographics. That’s core to many tech teams and a great way to guide everyone towards a more inclusive culture.
John: It’s all about how we believe we define “better.” I like to think that “better” means succeeding in the marketplace at a scale that is hard to imagine. In the “hard to imagine” space lies the reason why diversity of talent creating content and products is so key — certain folks who have similar upbringings and social circles will at some point be unable to think outside of their box, because they’re all roughly the same person. Who do you trust more? Someone just like you? Or someone that isn’t like you? The answer is simple: we tend to like people who think like ourselves. And when we make content or products our immediate go-to instinct is to design for ourselves. But if our goal is to expand our market size, commonly called “Total Addressable Market” in business parlance as meaning the demographic range of your product or service, then the way to grow the TAM is to incorporate diversity into the content and product team. That helps to lower the difficulty of finding “hard to imagine” spaces because you are working with the people who live and work in those spaces that you can’t imagine, or empathize with, on your own. Inclusion is good business.
Success is when inclusive design is the default way to design any aspect of society.
If inclusion isn’t a checklist (or maybe it is), then what is it? How do we do it in a way that is authentic and true?
John: I wish I had the answer to that question, but I don’t. I don’t think anyone has it. Because inclusion is highly personal — so the one answer or checklist that might work in one group isn’t guaranteed to work in another.
For example, when I led diversity efforts at MIT (largely by accident because: 1/ at an MIT cocktail party, I asked the Chancellor how I could serve, and 2/ it wasn’t a popular committee to chair :)) I recall a Native American student addressing the committee and sharing many of the uncomfortable experiences he had gone through. When I sought to share my empathy with him and related how I’ve been called a few racial things in life, or even had a bottle thrown at me, his response shifted my frame of thinking. “You’re the victim of immigrant racism; I’m the victim of indigenous people racism. The latter is much worse for so many reasons.” From that moment forward, I realized how everyone’s hurt is a different kind of hurt. So you can’t simply bin them all into neat boxes and then write the easy-peasy HBR article that solves all complex problems and wraps it all with a big bow.
That said, it’s possible to frame the question within the context of designing for technology products – as we’re working to achieve at Automattic. Our recent take on an inclusive design checklist by Automattic Design is here.
Kat: The word “inclusion” has come to represent a world of good intentions. However, the simple Latin origins of the word “include” literally mean “to shut in”. Most companies, when they talk about inclusion it’s unlikely they want to shut their employees within their walls. So what, exactly, does inclusion mean?
Similar to how “green” was initially used as shorthand to represent a complex system of practices for environmental sustainability, “inclusion” needs a similar division into more nuanced definitions. Accessibility checklists, for example, can be a powerful tool. Co-creating better solutions alongside excluded communities is another great tool for building inclusion. Each business and team has to build their own lexicon for what inclusion is and how to ensure they are building for it.
What’s your personal framework for championing inclusivity? What inspired the creation of this framework and how has it changed over the years?
Kat: As a designer and engineer, I’m fascinated by how people work together. Their systems of interactions, especially conversations, that lead to success and failure. After working with thousands of people to build inclusive solutions, three themes emerged. I call them principles, but they are also skills that anyone can develop: 1. Recognize exclusion, it happens when we build things using our own biases as a baseline; 2. Learn from human diversity, people are experts in adapting to diverse situations; 3. Solve for one, extend to many. Create a solution that works well for excluded communities, then figure out how to turn it into a mass market opportunity. There’s a long tradition of accessible designs that demonstrate how this works.
John: I like Kat’s framework and at Automattic we’ve been using it as our North Star for how we think of inclusivity. And in a few months we’ll be open-sourcing Muriel — our design language for distributed design teams that puts inclusion and data-minded practices at the center of our work.
Studies all show that diversity makes teams better, yet there are naysayers that ignore these insights. How do you inspire people that don’t value inclusivity to consider it into their process?
John: It’s quite simple. I make terrible mistakes. I try all kinds of things. And I recover quickly when I fail. Inclusivity is a tough topic to broach – and because everyone is different, it requires finding the right “radio frequency” at which the conversation can work best. So you need to turn the tuning knob fast and slow (or I guess these days you just press a button – but there’s no simple button to press).
Kat: I never had a goal of convincing everyone of the value of inclusion. The altruistic argument for inclusion is often at odds with the reality of business and engineering constraints.
Similarly, I don’t think you can inspire people into inclusivity. I aim to bring clarity. When we recognize how our solutions are exclusionary, and take the time to understand the impact on a person who’s excluded, we then have a choice. We either fix it or we don’t, but we are responsible for the consequences. Either way, it’s an intentional choice, not an accidental harm. Accountability is more durable than inspiration, so that’s where I focus.
What does the future of content look like to you?
John: It’s about hearing all of our voices — and a medium that enables inclusivity. It’s why I’m proud to be working at a company that believes in democracy and making it possible to experience each other on the Web. At Automattic, we strongly believe that the person who makes the content should have the best chance at owning their content, too. That’s been the ethos of WordPress since the Open Source project got in started 2003 – and it’s been a key reason I believe that inclusivity in tech is preserved and expanded by fostering its health.
Kat: I hope we gain a much better understanding of how people work. How our bodies and minds work together to learn, communicate, and process information. This should certainly include giving people multiple ways to interact with content. What we can hear or feel is reinforced by what we can see or taste. But I think content developers are going to play a key role in building more respectful ways to put human beings in the lead of any interaction with technology. Content can be designed to complement a person’s goals, not just to compete for their attention.
Create a solution that works well for excluded communities, then figure out how to turn it into a mass market opportunity.
How do you define what it means to own your content?
Kat: Beyond creative control, it’s economic control. It’s not that I’m opposed to my content being used for economic benefit, but I want to decide when and how it is used - and personally benefit from that use.
John: It’s about knowing the basics of business: which is grounded in ownership and control. I saw this first hand when my parents retired after many years of running a tofu-making shop in Seattle. Both of them didn’t have a college education and neither of them understood business. At the end of their multi-decade run, they had no major asset to sell – because they didn’t know to think of purchasing the space they had used. By working in the venture capital industry, it helped me see the power of ownership — and how value accrues over time that is proportional to the work that you put into it. So owning your content – if it’s content that you’ve put your heart and soul into like everything that Tina Roth Eisenberg and Maria Popova do on their blogs — is simply the only way to create content that you love to make. And putting the choice of how to give it away or how to sell it – needs to be up to you.
The tech industry has a term “roach motel” which sounds a bit icky, because it is. It’s used to describe some of these super fabulous services where you write short or long-form text or take photos or videos to share them with your friends. What isn’t obvious to you, however, is that you lose ownership of all of these pieces of your content life. It’s hard to take the content that you’ve created back for yourself. Many systems for building websites or writing text or sharing photos do not have an “Export” button. That means you’re trapped. Like a cockroach. I know. Ick.
Free WordPress is one of those weird exceptions – it has an “Export” button so you can go anywhere you like with your data. And the commercial, cloud-hosted version that Automattic makes — WordPress.com — also has the same “Export” button. It’s because Automattic believes that your freedom lies at the foundation of what keeps the openness of the Web alive. So, be free!
Morning people get 15% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.
Recommended tools by John & Kat:
- KH: I maintain a Pinterest board of favorite reading, examples, and media located here.
- JM: I go into communities that I’m unfamiliar with to break my own biases — so you can say that I prefer to act as a means to learn, rather than read about it. So whether it’s going to Detroit (link) or to the Appalachians (link) — I’m trying to live it.
Good reads recommended by John:
- At Automattic we launched design.blog right when I joined. It includes 50 essays by leading thinkers on the intersection of design and inclusivity.
- This is a great listen – it’s an online conference that Automattic led together with Airbnb, Autodesk, Twitter and hosted by Amy Choi.
CreativeMornings talks on designing for inclusivity:
- Ramona Lindsey, Director of Education at Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft, shares how everyone deserves a seat at the table.
- Co-founders of Design Impact, Kate Hanisian and Ramsey Ford, share five stories of times that they dug deeper or jumped into another person’s shoes to better understand the people and the project they were working on and how it leads to better outcomes in their work.
- Aaron Ott describes how getting your bubble burst and going beyond your comfort zone is a difficult but necessary experience for creative capacity.
- Tim Allen leads teams of designers across Microsoft and in this talk he shares why great design is about human diversity.
- Sadiqa Reynolds of Louisville Urban League explores race and discrimination and gives an inspiring challenge that the time for change is now.
- David Kelley speaks about the growing importance of design to the world and how IDEO continues to routinely innovate through a human-centered design process.
- Vicki Saunders shares her thoughts on equality and showcases the work she’s doing with her company, SheEO, a global community of women radically transforming how we finance, support, and celebrate female innovators.