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April 2004   Volume 1, Number 1 

F001:  Feature: Diversity in Design: The Journal of Inclusive Design Education

Beth Tauke and Alex Bitterman


What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity.

Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude


The term diversity seems to be everywhere these days. It is peppered throughout university websites and design magazines. It can be found in the NAAB student performance criteria and has even been spotted in a few studio project statements. More and more, design competitions are including the term in their briefs. This year, it is the theme of the 20th National Conference on the Beginning Design Student at Hampton University and a focus of the Social Xchange symposium at the Rhode Island School of Design.

The term ‘diversity’ has established enough potency to hold a place of influence in our contemporary vocabulary, and, therefore, one might argue, it warrants further attention and study. What are the underlying concepts of diversity that relate to our designed environments? Do we really understand the complexities inherent in these relationships? Is diversity a necessary component of the content, process, and participants in design? What are the consequences of the diversity agenda, particularly in education?

The term ‘diversity’ can be traced to the Middle English divers(e) meaning ‘sundry’, ‘several’, ‘many’ and to the Old French divers and Latin diversus meaning ‘different’, ‘contrary’, ‘separate’, ‘to turn aside’, ‘divert’.[1] Because of this paradoxical history, we’ve inherited a term that now has multiple and often contradictory interpretations. One the one hand, diversity is considered to be variety and multiformity; on the other, it is identified as the fact or quality of being different. The ‘group’ component of the term refers to arrays, ranges, assortments, collections, and multiples. The ‘individualistic’ notion of diversity suggests distinctness, disparateness, uniqueness, unlike others. The incongruous development of the term has put ‘diversity’ in a ‘both/and’ situation that challenges the ways in which it is incorporated into design language, research and practice.

The complexities in diversity and design relationships, perhaps, stem from this set of oppositional definitions. Not only do these definitions refer to noticeable heterogeneity, but also diversity can be the more active condition of the change process itself. It follows that design then assumes at least two roles in these relationships: it can build assurances of variety and choice into its processes and products, and it can also be the source or catalyst for change.

Diversity is an important component in design and design education because, as the website for the next Design for the 21st Century Conference states “we are now more diverse in age and ability than ever before.”[2] This increasingly diverse population will be participants in and recipients of all of our design thinking and making. However, as Pentagram designer Michael Beruit claims, “Modern design education, on the other hand, is essentially value-free: Every problem has a purely visual [and formal] solution that exists outside any cultural context…. Until educators find a way to expose their students to a meaningful range of culture, graduates will continue to speak in languages that only their classmates understand.”[3] Moving beyond these self-referential modes could assist designers and design educators to develop processes and work that resonates with the broader population, that contains meaning for more people. As designers, if we imagine the wide array of possible values, we can uncover an equally wide array of possible design approaches and solutions that might manifest and support other ways of thinking and being. And that might be the way design becomes a primary catalyst for social and cultural change.

While these idealistic notions are encouraging, it is important to remember that the consequences of considering diversity and difference as a fundamental component of design education have yet to be fully determined. Nonetheless, we do know that learning about and intelligently contributing to our constantly changing and multiple designed environments requires remarkable flexibility on our part. Making design choices that ensure both sensitivity and the possibility for challenge and enrichment for others and ourselves involves a level of tolerance—a willingness to explore ideas and ways of being that we don’t necessarily believe in or admire. Developing the ability to explore and understand issues in as many contexts and from as many points of view as possible is a crucial part of this endeavor. Equally important is an ability to comprehend the ‘connectors’ between these vantage points. Understanding differences and the ways we connect are as fundamental to design education as classic principles that concentrate on formal outcomes and conventional linear processes. It follows that a broader notion of scholarship focused on multiple notions of design and their attendant consequences can establish a set of frameworks through which this education can take place. Relevant contemporary design education and practice enables us to make critically sound and socially conscious choices in complex situations. It fosters actions that:

a) take the viewpoints, needs, and desires of ‘the other’ into consideration;

b) encourage thoughtful navigation between states, media, and disciplines;

c) relate various languages, systems, and cultures;

d) bridge data and knowledge; and

e) broaden and deepen the comprehensibility and accessibility of our complicated multi-environments.

To address these issues, the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access has initiated Diversity in Design: The Journal of Inclusive Design Education. This new online journal is a forum for in-depth and timely analysis of scholarly issues related to diversity, and, particularly, issues related to inclusive design. It focuses on the changing roles of the designer in increasingly diverse societies. Through peer-reviewed articles that examine diversity issues in design and interviews with leading scholars/educators, the journal encourages a global community of designers and educators to create new knowledge and partnerships in inclusive design education. The content of the journal challenges the meanings of design in situations where traditional notions have been broken or reconfigured. It advances the critical examination of who is doing the designing; what is being designed; where ‘design’ is taking place; why certain types of design are being promoted; and how these images, products, and environments are designed, produced and consumed. It explores the ways that various diversity groups have affected the design disciplines and, in turn, the ways that these disciplines have affected various diversity groups.  Diversity in Design is dedicated to the task of promoting and sustaining critical investigation into all of the design fields and the ways that they address social and cultural differences.

The journal is an initiative that employs current information delivery technologies to ensure seamless information retrieval in a fully accessible W3C compliant format. Developers of the site have strived to make the site usable to as many participants as possible, regardless of browser or format.

You are invited to subscribe to this free online publication and, equally important, to submit your scholarly and design work for consideration. Articles will be double-blind peer reviewed and posted on a monthly basis, as well as e-mailed to those on the subscriber list. Please contact co-editors Beth Tauke at tauke@arch.buffalo.edu or Alex Bitterman at aeb1@ap.buffalo.edu if you are interested in submitting your work for review.

We hope you will consider participating in this important project. It is through critical study of the ways that our systems include or exclude meaningful developments of diversity in design that we transition from supporters of the status quo to arbiters of change.


[1] The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. ed. T.F. Hoad (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1986). 130.

[2] Adaptive Environments, D ‌‌  21 Designing for the 21st Century: An International Conference on Universal Design. January 2004. <http://www.designfor21st.org/>

[3] Michael Beruit. “Why Designers Can’t Think,” Looking Closer, Critical Writings on Graphic Design.  ed. Michael Beruit, William Drenttel, Steven Heller, and DK Holland (New York: Allworth Press. 1994). 217.




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