Collectives from different backgrounds practice inclusive design that is usable, and clients can keep. 

National Design Week at Cooper Hewitt

National Design Week launched in 2006; it is held each year in conjunction with the National Design Awards. The National Design Awards recognizes design excellence and innovation in 12 categories. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, has celebrated the winners of the 2019 National Design Awards on October 17, 2019. The Awards are bestowed in recognition of excellence, innovation, and enhancement of the quality of life.

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National design award poster image ©︎ Cooper Hewitt

Cooper Hewitt kicks off National Design Week with a day of hands-on activities led by The National Design Awards winners and guest designers. Audiences of all ages are invited to play designer and tackle design challenges in workshops, learn new design skills, and explore the museum. The workshop includes “Redesign a watch to improve its function for a unique user” by Patricia Moore, “Design a park for a specific user” by scape and more. The common theme I found from these workshops was “inclusive design”. 

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“Design a park for a specific user” by scape. Photo: Rika Ito

Designers are asking themselves whether their design works for everyone who may interact with their works. For the fashion industry, the concept of "adaptive clothing" (clothing designed for people with physical disabilities, the elderly, and the infirm who may experience difficulty dressing due to an inability to manipulate closures) is nothing new. However, New York-based Open Style Lab, this year's winner of The National Design Awards in the "Emerging Designer" category, does not only support to design adaptive clothing but also pushes awareness of accessible design further and provides innovative ideas for more broad communities.

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Open Style Lab’s board of directors at the National Design Awards ©︎ Cooper Hewitt

Open Style Lab

Open Style Lab is a nonprofit organization that assists clients (who are people with disabilities) to use fashion and technology to create adaptive apparel and accessories that support their independence and express their style. They started as a project at MIT and spun it out their project into a life-long mission: to wit, several of their team members are past clients and/or identified as having a disability.

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Open Style Lab 2019 Summer Program Final Showcase ©︎ Open Style Lab

This time, I could talk with Christina Mallon, who Chief Marketing officer of Open Style Lab, and asked her about their competitive advantages and inclusive design as a professional.

Find a solution by the human-centered approach

What they differentiate themselves is diversity and the approaches to their practices. Unlike the typical fashion brand creative team, they are the team of designers, engineers, and physical and occupational therapists. Through a human-centered design approach, the client remains a core participant throughout the term. Open Style Lab not only works for projects for individuals. They offer to compile accessible design research for manufacturers, more in-depth consultations for brands and businesses. In terms of counterpart, it might be different though, all of their projects are for the people with disabilities. Therefore, in that sense, clients for them are always people with disabilities. 

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Workshop at National Design Week, Design Festival ©︎ Open Style Lab

Work begins as clients educate teams regarding their disability and specific needs, not just through interviews but also via shadowing clients throughout their daily lives, at home, work, and out and about in their local communities. From there, teams begin to brainstorm wearable solutions and create multiple prototypes, which they test every step of the way with clients. Projects culminate in a final presentation and a usable product that clients can keep. According to Christina, clients are the best person who feels the power of this approach and get inspired. She is one of the people who was inspired by their approach and ended up joining the organization. Through the project, she felt that rather than feel discouraged as people with disabilities, she recognized the opportunity to grow disability awareness and make a meaningful impact in building a more open society at large through the organization.


Hackathon event, “Friends with dressing challenges” toolkit @ Open Style Lab

Inclusive design is a methodology and outcome of that is accessible design.

Accessible design and inclusive design are not new concepts. However, they seem to be especially hot topics in recent years. Along with other human-centered concepts, the companies or brands in various industries move towards designing for the people who use the things that they design to improve customer experience. I have often seen these terms used interchangeably. Therefore, I asked Christina how can I distinguish those terms and how they use it in their practices. She explained that an important distinction is that accessibility is an attribute, while the inclusive design is a method. At Open Style Lab, accessibility and inclusive design work together to make experiences that are not only compliant with standards but genuinely usable.

What I learned from Open Style Lab is that the Inclusive design should always start with a solid understanding of accessibility fundamentals. Moreover, without the user in the core, designers cannot create any inclusive solution.