Exclusive Design

Vasilis van Gemert

Let me start this thesis with exaggerating a bit: Roughly said, in the past 25 years we have been designing websites mostly for people who design websites. This means there is an incredible body of knowledge when it comes to designing for people who use their computers in a similar way as we do.

But if we want to create truly inclusive websites, expertise in ourselves is not enough. We also need expertise in designing interfaces for people who are excluded. This expertise is lacking. In this research at the Master Design at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam I have worked with the question

What if we design websites exclusively for people with disabilities?

In other words, what if we flip the so called ability bias, and start creating tailor made experiences for, and with real people with real disabilities?

I tried to find an answer to this question and its subquestions by working with a set of Exclusive Design Principles. I created these principles when I was studying a set of inclusive design principles. It turned out that the exact opposite of these inclusive principles was the perfect starting point for my research.1

The exclusive design principles are:

Study situation

I used this principle because I wonder if we understand the different contexts of people with disabilities well enough?2 My assumption is that we don’t. So in order to become a specialist inclusive designer I studied a few individual situations of people with different disabilities.

Ignore conventions

The original inclusive principle says that you should use conventions that people know. But I couldn’t help but wonder: Do the current web design conventions work for people with disabilities?3 Simply said, the current conventions are designed by, and thus for, designers. Not all these conventions work for non-designers. If we want to include non-designers, and especially people with disabilities, we should reconsider these conventions if needed, after we studied their situations.

Prioritise identity

Observing the situation of people with disabilities, and designing things especially for them is of course a good first step. But what if we let people with disabilities play an active role in the design process?4 Next to designing for people I have also designed with people, combining the insights and ideas of excluded people with the skills and knowledge of me as a webdesigner.

Add nonsense

One of my main concerns is how can we lift accessible web design beyond the functional?5 I have tried to answer this question by allowing the people I worked with, and myself, to add nonsense, in order to try and come up with ideas that live on a higher conceptual level than the obvious. This has resulted in some interesting — and fun — new ideas and projects.


For me the most important reason we should be designing inclusive websites is because we can. And the effects are big. Creating inclusive websites enables people with disabilities to lead a more independent life. This should be more than enough reason in itself. But there are other pressing reasons why we need expertise in inclusive design.

In Europe, including the Netherlands where I live and teach, we have signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and new laws are in place to enforce this. This means that all new government websites must be accessible. All of them, from small municipalities to large departments. This means that the design teams and design contractors that work on these websites must have accessibility expertise.

There is also a simple argument to be made that inclusive websites are a good idea from a business point of view. If more people can use your site, more people will use your product. And there are more financial reasons to design inclusively.

In the United States there is a culture of suing. Recently Beyoncé was sued because her website violates the Americans With Disabilities Act: It fails to accommodate visually impaired users. In the past these kinds of lawsuits have been settled for millions. In the Netherlands we don’t have a suing culture, but the government could fine websites that break the new accessibility laws.

While indeed these are all valid arguments, I prefer the first, more positive reason to create inclusive websites. We should create inclusive websites because we can.

And that’s what I did. Or to be more precise, I have done the exact opposite. I have designed and created tailor made websites, exclusively for individual people with disabilities. But before I write about these websites I think I can better start with writing about the weird, weird web, and by explaining Everybody's paradox.

How to read this thesis

You can read this thesis in a logical order, which is the way that I wrote it. It starts with a few articles that explore the context of my research. It then continues with four chapters in which I describe the things I did. I end the thesis with four posts with findings, conclusions and recommendations. I have tried to write all articles in such a way that they can be read independently as well. In that case you should start with Everybody’s paradox.

But the thesis can be structured according to the exclusive design principles as well.

  1. More on these principles in the chapter called Flipping things  ↩

  2. I have grouped the articles that dig into this question on this page called Study Situation  ↩

  3. The articles in which I explore this question are grouped under the moniker Ignore conventions  ↩

  4. The articles that document this idea of actively involving people with disabilities in the design process are collected in the theme Prioritise identity  ↩

  5. The articles about this question are grouped in the fun sounding principle Add nonsense  ↩