By Jack Stubbs
The focal point of an ever-expanding region, the Emerald City of Seattle has long been regarded as a leader when it comes to promoting environmental sustainability initiatives and increasing accessibility, inclusion diversity within the workplace. More generally, local organizations and members of the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) community have been working to better embody—and ultimately implement—a more wholistic design approach that encourages participation from, and use by, a broader segment of the population: increasingly, local and national companies are looking for ways to add a new dimension to the conversation in the Pacific Northwest.
IA Interior Architects (IA), a global firm that looks to design people-centric environments across several market sectors including corporate office, retail, healthcare and education, recently held an event that looked to move the needle around accessibility within the public realm.
On June 20th, IA hosted an event, called “The Future of Public Space: Universal Design Thinking Workshop” and held at The Riveter Coworking Space in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where the firm presented a hands-on approach to thinking differently—more inclusively and universally—about the design of public spaces in the built environment.
We recently spoke with Tanya Davis, senior workplace strategist at IA, about the event, what it means to implement more “universal” design thinking, and the increasingly important role that members of the AEC community in Seattle and the Puget Sound region have to play when it comes to promoting greater accessibility within community spaces.
What were some of the main take-aways from the prototyping workshop? What were some of the overarching objectives of conducting the workshop in the first place, and where did inspiration for the workshop come from?
Our overarching aim was to help people consider different points of view—to help them empathize with individuals who have a disability, and/or are from differing walks of life. One of the key takeaways was that a lot of people don’t present as having a disability, and it’s a high likelihood we all know someone with one. How do our spaces make them feel welcome and not make them feel completely alien?
As a firm, we’re committed to understanding what it means to design for diversity, equity and inclusivity. Part of that journey included our leadership going through a similar workshop about the importance of designing with empathy for users with different needs, building on an already strong base of knowledge and empowering us to take action in our community. It got us pondering how we could reach a wider audience and get them thinking differently about space.
More generally, why do you think this is an important time to be discussing trends around a more holistic approach towards “universal design” for accessibility in public spaces?
I think this topic has always been important, but some companies have started making huge strides towards a more universal approach. Starbucks opened its first café staffed by employees who are partially or fully deaf and capable of communicating through ASL. Microsoft started the Autism Hiring Program to expand their talent pool, and they’re certainly not alone in diversifying their talent pool. As these pioneering companies start setting the standard, it’s only a matter of time before others catch on and consider how universal design can be scaled appropriately for their culture and business strategy.
In your own words, what do you think is the key difference between “accommodations thinking” and “universal design”? Is progress still being made when it comes to enacting this shift in thinking?
“Accommodation” designs for end users with disabilities, whereas “Universal Design” aims to design for the greatest number of people. The latter will also encompass specific needs like wheelchair access, but this approach considers a wide variety of characteristics.I think we are making progress, and we’re starting to see a shift in how organizations consider people with disabilities. I am encouraged that more Fortune 500 companies are leading this effort. It gets media attention and sparks more conversations in different circles.
What are some of the potential future approaches that might be implemented when it comes to fostering more accessible and dynamic design approaches (both for individuals and the organizations of which they are a part)?
I could foresee a greater shift around technology and personalization. Part of the workshop included ideation around one of the biggest challenges for their end user and then prototyping what that solution could look like. Many of the ideas included apps to help users prepare for their experience as they go out into public spaces.
Imagine you had a condition that made it difficult to breathe and you needed places to rest or catch your breath. If this person ran errands at a busy shopping mall, it would be helpful if they had an app that could identify areas where they could rest and recharge during their shopping experience. Being able to pre-plan and identify your journey can significantly decrease stress and enhance the experience for lots of different user types—and this is just one of example of how not just design, but also way-finding can be enhanced by technology.
At a time when the city of Seattle and the broader Puget Sound region continues to grow and expand—allowing for a more diverse range of demographic and socioeconomic classes to call the city home—what is the added importance of advocating for this more “universal design” of public spaces?
As Seattle continues to grow, so too will its population of those with disabilities. If we don’t begin to incorporate principles of universal design today, then there will continue to be structural barriers that prevent these individuals from flourishing within the built environment.
Is your hope that events like the prototyping workshop will set a precedent for other like-minded events in the city of Seattle and the wider region? What is the importance of providing a more hands-on, practical approach—rather than a more conceptual one—to investigating these topics?
People learn in different ways, and prototyping takes a more tactile approach: this method opens up a creative outlet for ideas they might not have otherwise considered. It brings people from diverse backgrounds together to find innovative solutions in a fun, crafty way. Also, the workshop has built in time constraints, which encourages participants to focus on sketching out “good” ideas without having to stress about making them “perfect.”
In some ways, the event represented an interesting intersection of industries (IA as a design firm and The Riveter as a co-working space)—do you hope that partnerships like this will create further forward momentum when it comes to creating new strategies and tools around design and accessibility?
Absolutely. Industry intersections such as this can help us gain momentum in making change [and] universal design is applicable to just about every industry. Creating new partnerships helps us to reach a wider audience and get more people to consider their own organization and how inclusive they are. I foresee these intersections and opportunities for collaboration increasing as the concept of diversity and inclusion becomes part of the mainstream discussion in the global market.
Increasingly—and especially with the advent of AR/VR/AI technology—physical and public space is perhaps viewed as more dynamic and less static than it was in times past. Have you seen considerations around design changing over the last several years? How do rapidly-advancing technological tools continue to change the way members of the AEC community and city residents think about more accessible and inclusive design?
VR can be a great tool to help people visualize space from different user-perspectives. Designers can create a VR environment that allows viewers and end users to experience the space from the lens of someone in a wheelchair or with a hearing impairment. Our workshop lets people use their imaginations in this way, and more, with certain visual aids.
In fact, one of the key pieces of feedback from the workshop was that it opened up people’s eyes and minds to how different individuals experience space. VR could only further enhance this experience by allowing people to have total immersion in a space as if they were someone else with a disability.
What are some of the future challenges involved when it comes to moving the needle around issues like economic equality, diversity and inclusion—particularly when it comes to the design of public space? What are some of the challenges ahead maintaining this positive momentum?
One challenge will be to demonstrate the financial return of implementing Universal Design principles. Though most will argue that it’s the right thing to do, the reality is [that] for many decision-makers, it also has to make financial sense. As a firm, we’re studying how simple design decisions can make a big impact for organizations of different sizes. One possible solution could be different levels of investment that allow organizations to take incremental steps. Our firm will continue to ideate and strategize, as it is important for us to not only be part of the conversation, but part of the solution as well.
Is there anything else that we should be discussing, or anything else that you would like to add?
We all age and a lot of us suddenly find ourselves physically or mentally altered and in need of spaces that can support us. If we are to design built environments for humanity, we must seek to incorporate spaces that honor and serve the needs of each of the various life stages that come with it.