I have seen design fail people. And not just when the screens on their iPhones break, cutting their fingers as they attempt to communicate. Rather, when design fundamentally fails to consider the basic needs of its users. Bad design exposes peoples’ vulnerabilities by ignoring them. Good design embraces diversity of ability and broadens one’s understanding of the familiar, opening up the conversation to include different experiences and ways of thinking. Only with these considerations will you effectively return to a user the sense of confidence and control necessary for one to be at their best.
In my practicing life as a designer I’ve seen group after group of seemingly well meaning designers fail to see as Richard Buchanan calls it the “wicked” design problem. When design is done well you don’t notice it; it just works, supporting the user seamlessly as they interact with it, enabling them to move on with their individual lives. Throughout my time working as a design researcher in Boston I had the opportunity to work with populations that are largely overlooked by the design community and often subjected to institutional power that subordinates people because they are outside of a perceived norm. In my work, I explored places, things, and systems through the eyes of individuals with a variety of disabilities—everything from physical, to sensory, to brain-based conditions. These people are the canaries in the coal mine when design fails and are thereby best positioned to identify design that works.
Two core beliefs drive my design thinking. First, disability is ordinary. Everyone on the planet who is lucky to live a typical lifespan will experience a functional limitation at some point. Designers, shapers of the human context, need not only acknowledge this truth, but celebrate it and use it to inspire truly innovative solutions. Second, only by bringing a diverse group of voices to the design table, working hand in hand with people who have lived a drastically different life then my own do you stand a chance to see past the “easy” solutions to address the larger problems at hand.
Wilhelmina (Willa) Crolius grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where she was first introduced to art and design through her work on collections management for the Yale University Art Gallery. After a year at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, studying politics pertaining to political activism and photography, she transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) where she earned her BFA in Industrial Design. While studying in Chicago, Willa worked with a variety of community organizations in her first experiences with human centered design practices and user/experts. A user/expert is a person who has developed expertise by means of their lived experience in dealing with the challenges of the environment due to a physical, sensory or cognitive functional limitation.
During her time at the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston she worked on projects ranging from the analysis of community programs, historic sites, public parks, as well as on a mix of products ranging from medical equipment to watches and pens to technology from websites to apps. She worked with the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s UP Innovation and Learning Networks conducting user/expert reviews of ten cultural organizations with the greater goal of making inclusive cultural practices a staple of the cultural experience of Massachusetts. She designed and led training programs on how to build capacity through the engagement of user/experts with Perspectiva, an NGO in Russia and traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg several times to consult on inclusive culture and education practices. In 2013, she presented a user/expert analysis of medical equipment to the US Access Board, a federal agency in Washington, D.C., that promotes equality for people with disabilities.
Currently Ms. Crolius is pursuing a double master’s degree at the Royal College of Art (Ma) and the Imperial College of London (MSc) in Innovation Design Engineering.