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Design bias renders huge swathes of the population invisible, says Nicky Kemp

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In exploring the data bias that fuels the industry’s creative choices and the “dearth” of inclusive design, Nicky Kemp exposes the real costs of making products only for a certain portion of the population – and what designers can do to change things.

The problem with gender stereotypes is that we are becoming too familiar with them to be outraged by them anymore. Alexa has fast become the new subservient female voice in kitchens across the globe, while Apple, the world’s most innovative tech company, saw fit to launch its health app without a period tracker. The term “beach body ready” has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of appearing benign.

Yet while start-up culture has long promised to “move fast and break things”, the reality remains that the technology which promised to liberate consumers from our unconscious biases has effectively created an algorithm for inequality. Design bias renders huge swathes of the population invisible and contributes to the proliferation of products and services which are inaccessible to billions of people across the globe.

A design for a (white male) life

In Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, the journalist and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez lifts the lid on the cost of gender bias in design; a silent killer. When a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage and crash intensity. She is 17% more likely to die, largely because the crash test dummy is based on the size of an average male.

The invisibility which many feel in the face of data and design bias is a challenge addressed head on last year by actress and disability campaigner Sam Renke, who launched the #DontWantOurCash campaign to highlight the plethora of high street stores which remain inaccessible to disabled people. It’s a design bias that may well be unconscious, but is nonetheless challenging, cruel and distressing for people who experience it on a daily basis.

The cost of unconscious bias

The bitter irony of course is that this unconscious bias not only manifests itself in the design of the products we do, or don’t use, but also within the walls of the creative industries themselves. According to the Design Economy 2018 report from the Design Council, 78% of the UK workforce in this sector is male; that’s much higher than the proportion of men in the wider UK workforce at 53%.

A dearth of inclusive design extends to the structures and workplace norms which continue to exclude and burn out so many talented people and potential. The industry’s foundations are made up of working structures that are predominately built around neurotypical, able-bodied white men, who historically benefitted from having a housewife at home.

It’s an inflexibility that many in the industry remain remarkably resistant to addressing, instead relying on tired stereotypes and misconceptions about flexible working. Despite it being 2019, an ad agency CEO recently described people working flexibility as employees “sitting at home in your onesies”. It demonstrated a reluctance to embrace the need for greater inclusivity in workplace design which is bordering on reckless.

A lost opportunity

This continued lack of diversity amongst those creating the work and designing the products renders so many experiences both unseen and wordless. This not only results in retail spaces or brand experiences which are inaccessible, but a complete absence of products and services to meet specific consumer need states.

When any-given milestone is a marketing opportunity, consider the lack of products, services and communications designed to support women as they go through the menopause. It’s a silence that reflects the scarcity of older women in the creative industries and an inexplicable squeamishness surrounding telling their stories.

Even in the age of “Just Do It” there is currently no sports bra for women that also acts as a nursing bra. An unconscious, yet nonetheless damaging message that breastfeeding and sports are mutually exclusive pursuits. By making these life stages invisible and failing to create services and products to cater for them, brands are sending consumers a silent message of exclusion.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The creative industries have a unique opportunity to pave the way towards more inclusive ways of working, living and communicating. BECO, the social enterprise that makes environmentally friendly toiletries, recently raised the bar for inclusive design with its “Steal Our Staff” campaign, created by TBWA\London. The brand, 80% of which’s workforce is visually impaired, disabled or disadvantaged, successfully put the Disability Employment Gap on the national news agenda, with a campaign highlighting the skills of its staff.

In the midst of social media powered cancel culture, it is all too easy to become so accustomed to outrage, that we become too apathetic to outrage to challenge the status quo. But greater empathy in design, stretching from the way jobs are designed in the first place to the products and services companies create, is not only long overdue, it is our collective responsibility.

Nicky Kemp is managing editor of Bite at Creativebrief. Caroline Criado-Perez will be speaking at Bite Live at the Regents Street Cinema on Thursday 19 September.