Inclusive Design: Pictograms for Everyone

Nov 20, 2020
Owen Zhang
10 min

The past Open Studio at NYUAD marks a remarkable exploration of things that hinder inclusiveness in our community – the impossible map to see, the killer emergency exit, the dangerous stair for wheelchair users, an inconvenient automatic door… Bad designs, in this case, embody implicit biases that restrict access to resources that are supposingly be shared. However, the recognition of those biases, many of which is inherent and widely-accepted, is only the first step of a long journey.

The term, inclusive design, emerges as a response to confront bias and see things from different perspectives, advocating design for a wider variety of people and making more effective products for everyone. To apply the principle in business, Airbnb is making efforts through their release of the inclusive design toolkit, called Another Lens. The following principles offer us a new perspective to reflect upon our designs in questions such as,

“Am I just confirming my assumptions, or am I challenging them?”

“What’s here that I designed for me? What’s here that I designed for other people?”

“Who might disagree with what I’m designing?”

1. Design principles from Airbnb's Another Lens toolkit

Therefore, Inclusive design not only opens up the accessibility of resources to more people, but it also reflects how people really are. Indeed, humans are constantly growing and adapting to the changing world around them and our designs are the perfect carrier to reflect that. In Microsoft’s guideline on inclusive design, disability is seen as an engine of innovation. Indeed, it views that “disability wasn’t a limitation of someone, but rather a mismatch between his/her own abilities and the world around him. Disability was a design problem.”

Nevertheless, inclusiveness is larger than helping people with disability. It covers many more things – language barriers, knowledge gap, infrastructure, or even sexual orientation. Essentially, by designing with the biases in mind, we can create products that are better for everyone else. In this way, designers are able to make lives better, not by focusing only on the average person with average needs and expectations; rather by creating something elegant that let everyone live a little easier.

Responding to this genuine hope, the idea of “inclusive washrooms” are providing valuable opportunities for public discourse and education on inclusivity and acceptance. Socially, we are becoming more and more aware of individuals and groups, such as members of the LGBT community, who may not conform to conventional gender norms. As a result, we are strategically shifting our public assets and services to be more accessible and inclusive.

We do it through pictograms. The remarkable aspect about pictograms is that they “contain little detail and easily distinguishable through common sense”. Moreover, Vezin, one of the first to argue this position, found that the descriptive nature of a pictogram is such that it “provides high-quality pictorial representation facilitating memorization and association; and since a pictogram can be used to represent a category, it can provide broad information exceeding the specific items it portrays”. Put simply, signage is powerful in social expression. With that in mind, the question to confront is, how do we resolve communication around the emerging rights to gender equality and meanwhile, maintain a universally recognized and understood approach of pictograms?

Here is one conventional example of how designers deal with this issue

2. Inclusive washroom signage example

It makes sense but doesn’t seem entirely right. The design focuses very much on the identity of users. However, I believe that the purpose should not be highlighting differences; Instead, it ought to create a system that does not need to bring these differences into the equation. And designers at entro gives out a brilliant answer, as shown below.

3. Inclusive washroom signage example

When the topic of inclusive washrooms is presented, questions surround the most appropriate way to display gender identities on signage. The simple answer by the designers is to not focus on identities. Signage represents and speaks to the service provided. In other words, it emphasizes what they are going in to use rather than who is walking in.

Moreover, when it comes to a social issue that may not be accessible to everyone. This set of pictograms ensures gender neutrality while accounting for those who may not speak the national language, as well for individuals with impaired vision. Staying in line with the idea of inclusivity and pictogram’s advantage in simplicity, clearer signage will provide ease of navigation and understanding. Furthermore, making signage widely applicable and consistent lies in the very core of this project. The principles are not restricted to toilet signs. They simply apply in every possible way in which we create pictograms or signage in general. There are existing sets of standardized design which exceeds languages, borders, and generations. The sense of continuity is preserved, thus making it remain accessible.

In sum, here comes the bigger role that designers take in the society. All designs have voices and they are the manifesto of a social function. Thus, the responsibility of artists, designers, communicators, and people is to recognize a change in our societal makeup and the need for key public assets to reflect this.


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