Coders should learn how to design

When I started my Master Design course, there was a fellow student, an engineer, who is specialised in air circulation systems for large indoor sports complexes. She had worked on quite a few of them. She explained the process as follows: when a new sports complex is to be built she receives the numbers: numbers about visitors, numbers about budget, numbers about size. With these numbers she looks at current systems and comes up with a few options.

The reason she started this Master Design is because in all those years she had never spoken to a single visitor of the buildings she had worked on.

This reminds me of the web design practice.

Component based engineering

In recent years more and more websites are based on generic component libraries like Bootstrap and React. If you want a navigation, you simply add the navigation module to your project. If you need a form, you use the form the library offers you. If you need layout, you can use the layout module.

Websites nowadays consist in large part of these ready made components made by others. We simply copy and paste things that others created — for entirely different contexts — into our own contexts. In the description of his talk Stephen Hay says it like this:1

When thinking about how to solve our design problems, we often look to what others are doing[…]. We call this “inspiration”. But at the heart of it is a focus on solutions rather than problems. We fall in love with a solution to someone else’s problem and try to make it fit our own. We contribute to design sameness, and confuse it with reasoned convention. In making things easier for ourselves, we might miss opportunities to really make a difference.

We really need to make a difference when it comes to web accessibility.

Design Meets Disability

In the summer of 2017 I was struggling with my research. Léonie Watson had just given her talk about (the non-existence of) pleasurable user experiences for screen readers. I knew I had to investigate pleasantness in some way. That summer I read the book Design meets Disability by Graham Pullin. In this book Pullin argues that adding a layer of design to products makes them more human.

Pullin explains that current products for disabled people are mostly engineered: when they work, they’re done. The focus is solely on the functional.2 Things like emotion and personality are not considered. He gives the simple example of what happened when designers started designing glasses. 30 years ago, it was completely uncool to wear glasses. They were pieces of glass in iron wire. With a bit of luck you could choose the colour of wire. Kids got bullied if they had to wear glasses.

In the 90s designers started to treat glasses as fashion accessories. You can now buy a pair of glasses for every other occasion, matching glasses for each shirt. And all of a sudden it’s cool to wear glasses. My kid cheered when she found out she needs them. Thirty years ago it would have been drama.

You could argue that this is wasteful luxurious design. Who needs more than one pair of glasses? But there are other examples. For instance, Pullin shows an example of different prosthetic legs, all for different occasions. It makes complete sense to wear different legs for running and other legs for partying. Again these are luxurious goods, tailor made and probably expensive, but they definitely lift the quality of life.

Prosthetic arms for kids

If you need more convincing of the power of design: This is the wonderful example of Team Unlimbited. They work from a shed in their backyard where they create cheap, yet tailor made prosthetic arms for kids. If these prosthetics had been purely functional it would have been wonderful, but what really makes this project stand out is the fact that the kids can choose their own colours. Now all of a sudden they are not simply functional things, they turn into something cool.

Photo gallery on the Team Unlimbited site.
Of course you can have a Wonder Woman arm if you want one! © Team Unlimbited

Design can help if we want to lift digital experiences for people with disabilities to a next, more personal, more emotional level.

Next to the web accessibility engineering expertise we need more inclusive design expertise. Copying code examples and commonly used patterns will not answer complex questions like how do you add emotion to screen readers? How do you make keyboard navigation pleasant? How do you translate the tone of voice from an audio podcast for someone who is deaf?

These are examples of complicated design questions that can’t be solved by engineering alone. A different design attitude can help. As Kat Holmes explains, it all starts with recognising exclusion, and actively working together with those who have been excluded.3

The exclusive design principles are a good way to start with this. Studying situation helps in recognising exclusion and understanding the needs of the excluded. Prioritising identity helps in actively involving excluded people into the design process. And ignoring convention will help if it turns out they don’t work after all.

And then, as Pullin explains, we need to add a layer of creative thinking and doing on top of that. And finally, if it’s up to me, we should add a layer of nonsense to the mix as well.


  1. Stephen Hay. I don’t care what Airbnb is doing. (And neither should you. Conference talk. 2018. noti.st/stephenhay/nLABeP/  ↩

  2. Graham Pullin. Design Meets Disability. MIT Press. 2009  ↩

  3. Holmes, Kat. Mismatch, How Inclusion Shapes Design. The MIT Press, Hardcover  ↩