What disability can teach us about being better at design

Roger Coleman’s friend developed multiple sclerosis in her thirties. As a young woman Rachel led an ordinary independent life: going out with friends, meeting new people, enjoying jazz clubs. Unfortunately Rachel’s condition deteriorated meaning she could no longer live by herself at her flat and she had to move into a council care home. But the care home was completely at odds with Rachel’s normal 30-something life. For starters she had to be in bed by 9pm. Rachel was stuck: the care home was damaging her otherwise independent life, but she couldn’t live at home and nor could the council fund more tailored care.

Luckily Roger Coleman is a designer. In a great interview he explained how his team tackled the problem. The council had said:

“Rachel can’t live at home, therefore she needs to be in our care home. But we can’t afford to change how the care home runs. What are we supposed to do?”

Coleman twisted the question round:

“Why can’t Rachel be in her flat, her real home?”

He met up with Rachel and found out the problem was more logistical than anything else - Rachel couldn’t get around her flat in her wheelchair.

Coleman proposed that Rachel’s flat be restructured, primarily with a new kitchen. This would enable her to stay in her own home.

The council were reluctant at first. Restructuring homes isn’t how they usually work. But refitting the kitchen was cheaper than keeping Rachel in care. And Rachel maintains her normal, independent life. It was a clear win-win, and eventually the council were persuaded.

In a wonderfully British twist, when Coleman’s team designed the kitchen they asked Rachel what was most important and expected an answer along lines of functionality - to reach this cupboard, to grab that handle etc.

Rachel answered:

“To make my neighbours jealous!”

Three important lessons

Good designers never just answer the question

Coleman questioned the council’s assumption that Rachel had to be in the care home, allowing him to reframe the problem. Challenge the brief. There’s a good reason you learn this early on in design school. A client telling you ‘we need an e-commerce site’ isn’t enough. Interrogate them. Get to the route of the problem. Explain that you just need to know problems: it’s up to the designer to come up with solutions, not the client. “We need to increase sales” has many more answers than just “Let’s build an e-commerce site”.

Good designers are diplomats

Coleman had to convince the council that restructuring Rachel’s home was the best investment despite it being unorthodox. Often you’ll have to fight for change. Clients can be afraid of change. Big organisations might be reluctant to adjust: ‘that’s not the way things are done.’ Some people are just plain stubborn and don’t enjoy seeing things disrupted. Children don’t like to eat their greens, but parents know what’s best. As designers, we’re responsible for convincing clients to do what’s best* (spoiler: it always involves change).

Aside: This is a big advantage of working with freelancers/consultants: we can look at a problem from the outside, without being constrained by engrained culture.

* I don’t mean ‘clients think X, we’re here to convince them that Y is in fact better.’ Good designers work with clients to figure out the best solution; but even when clients agree on what’s best, they often still need a push to implement. That said, good designers do often open clients’ eyes to new approaches.

Good designers are detectives

Coleman’s team didn’t expect Rachel’s most important objective to be to impress her neighbours. Don’t assume the brief tells you the full story. Even if you research a project in detail and set what seem like sensible goals, you might find the client still isn’t happy with your proposal. You might think your client’s website needs to generate more enquiries. Your client might even say this is the aim. But it could turn out that the client is hoping to be bought out by another company and their main goals is to woo their buyer. Take the time to speak to all stakeholders, dig for details and read between the lines.

This bring up the interesting debate of serving clients’ business needs vs serving users’ needs. Paul Boag has some strong views on this - most of which I agree with - which he discusses in this podcast.

I think Coleman’s team did a great job and Rachel’s life was improved dramatically as a result. This is the power good design can have. And good design requires much more than technical proficiency.