What might happen if examples of inclusion were more visible throughout a child’s education?  The One Workplace team recently explored this question at the IIDA Design Forum where we learned more about the impact of inclusivity in design.


A student’s learning and social experience in school has a direct impact on their personal success and advancement.  The more positive the experience, the more supportive and accepting the environment, the more likely the student will likely continue in their education.  So, how might we design a student’s experience to be and stay inclusive of all genders, races, and abilities so that we promote acceptance of each other?  Differences in race and gender rarely affect a young child’s approach to everyday interactions.  Later, we learn biases and stereotypes that change this way of thinking.  A recent study suggests these learned prejudices may begin as early as 3 years of age.   Unsurprisingly, those biases are reduced when children are exposed to situations that foster equality.  How to provide an inclusive and accepting environment was discussed at a recent IIDA industry panel discussion.

Recently The International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Northern California Chapter hosted a design forum with panel discussions geared towards designing for empowerment.  This series of events has been insightful and has touched upon the healing powers of our environment, design in motion, and the power of space.  The most recent event was titled, “Gender Inclusive Spaces” and included panelists from higher education and the LGBTQ and design communities.  Among the panelists were Bonnie Sugiyama, Director of the San Jose State University PRIDE Center and Gender Equity Center, Kerra Macdonald, Brand Designer at Gensler, and Gabrielle Antolovich, President of the Billy Defrank LGBTQ Community Center.


The panel conversation prompted insightful perspectives on designing spaces with gender inclusivity and universal design principles.  One of the first ways to address inclusion in design is to understand the differences of equity and equality.  Equality in design is using the same treatment and solutions on all projects and spaces, no matter the user. This not only has a negative human impact, but it likely causes more problems than it solves.  For example, if you used the same table height throughout the classroom, students in wheelchairs could not access the table in the same manner as a student without a wheelchair; by treating all students the same, we consequently cause exclusive circumstances.  Equity in design considers all end users, their abilities, shapes, sizes, and purpose of being in the space.  How each person uses a space is paramount to understand before any solution is put into place. Perhaps a student needs to feel safe and quiet in a space while others need to collaborate.  These two potentially conflicting ideas need to be solved for within the same room, which is important to understanding prior to designing. In this way, we can solve these issues with inclusivity and not polarity.

On the surface, designing for equality sounds fair and just, however, it excludes many and assumes all users of the space are alike.  Designers need to be planning for equity and inclusion by providing solutions that, at the very least, should consider and include as many people as possible, no matter the ability, disability, race, sex, age, or gender.

When we design for equality, we are designing for the “typical” user. In classrooms, those users have historically been stereotyped as auditory learners.  Classrooms were generally are designed for educators who teach in a lecture style format with students in rows and columns neatly aligned.  Here individual students receive equal access to the same lecture, in the same style desk, and are tested in the same manner.  As we’ve learned through a number of research and studies, students are best engaged when they have a voice and a choice in shaping their learning experience.  This can come in many forms including Learner-Driven classrooms or something as simple as flexible or adjustable furnishings.

By providing equitable design solutions, we can solve for many types of learners, inclusive of all gender expressions.  A recent example of designing for equality and not equity can be found in a recent change at Target stores.  Target recently undertook efforts to “phase out” gender-based signage and pink/blue color referencing in the toy sections of their stores.  While this effort makes a progressive attempt at solving the challenge of gender stereotypes – this solution achieves equality by removing visual interest and treating all toys the same (note that this does nothing to address the stereotypical nature of the toys themselves).  The neutral backdrops that now replace the previously installed colorful blue and pink one’s sacrifice design elements that might otherwise provide opportunities for fun and playfulness. Consider, what might happen if the toy section had been redesigned for equity instead?  How might that solution maintain fun for all children, regardless of what types of toys they are drawn to, without designing for the lowest common denominator?  (Update: Target has just announced an all gender clothing and accessory line; a solution for equity and not equality.)

Equity, when applied to educational spaces, can allow all users of the space need to feel included and accommodated. By making small yet impactful modifications and adjustments in early educational design, and adapting all other public buildings to these values, we can keep the inherent inclusivity mindset in children and young adults.

Education solutions by Steelcase


How might we create spaces for students to ensure equity and inclusion in education? The following are several suggestions for designing for equity in education.

  1. Universal Design: Educational spaces are particularly important for universal design principles. Ron Mace, the founder of the Center for Universal Design at NCSU, defines Universal Design as, “[…] the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Designing for all genders allows children to associate inclusion with space at an early age.  It is important that when we design spaces in education, we take into account all users, in the beginning, to avoid students feeling left out as well as post-implementation modifications.
  2. Choice and Control: Classrooms, libraries, common areas, outdoor areas, breakout spaces, and “in-between” spaces should be provided within a school’s campus. It is vital to have different places for students and teachers to go to for different tasks.  If the student has the choice and control over where they sit and consequently how they interact with other students, this promotes comfortability.  If students feel that they have control of their learning and how they learn, they are more available and free to be themselves – which is an important value to learn at a young age.
  3. A variety of Options and Postures: Not only do different postures accommodate persons with disabilities, but it is also more comfortable for all students in your classroom. Lounge seating or bean bags on the floor, regular height tables and chairs, along with standing height tables and stools allow for students to sit/stand where they’d most like to learn, collaborate, or work independently.
  4. Mobile, Flexible Furniture: Students needs vary from day to day and class to class. Furniture needs to be able to adapt quickly, quietly, and efficiently to accommodate those needs.  If students can mold and form their own environment, they feel in control, more comfortable and confident throughout the day.  Students can become more self-aware of how their interactions or lack of interactions with peers may are influenced by how and where they choose to work.
  5. A Quiet Space: This is needed for all users of the space. If students feel uncomfortable, left out, or just need some time alone to reflect or collect themselves, we need to provide a space for them to do so.  This space should be comfortable for anyone to use and feel like they are safe. Feeling safe is something that a lot of students don’t have in current schools, especially if they are in the LGBTQ community.  A warm, comfortable space with some visual and acoustical privacy to think is vital to a student or teacher’s well-being and health.
  6. Round, Curvilinear, and Organic Shapes: Studies show that sitting in a circle is the best way to encourage sharing and collaborating. Shapes that are circular or round in nature feel and act more inclusive. Square or rectangular tables have sharp edges, defined boundaries, and could promote cultures like, “the head of the table” or “my side vs. your side”.  These are all eradicated with a circular shape where everyone feels involved and a part of the conversation.
  7. A Space to Wonder and Explore: We should be encouraging student wonderment and exploration, to ask “why?” often and have the determination to go and find out. It is important that students recognize the differences that we have as human beings.  Not one person is made equal or the same, and so questions about why there are different skin colors and why others speak a different language, as well as inquiring about different cultures should be celebrated.  It’s when we ignore the fact that we are different and design for equality where we make our biggest mistakes.

Education Solutions by Steelcase

The most important aspect of designing for gender inclusivity is to realize and consider that minority populations are not the only ones benefiting from diverse design.  The more the design varies in layout, options, and choices, the better outcome each individual will have with that space.  Diversifying how students are taught and how they can apply what they’ve learned includes all various learners and highlights their strengths as individuals.  This approach allows all students to be comfortable with the work they’re completing and encourages engagement through personalized learning.

When we walk into a space designed strictly for the needs of one type of person, there is a greater likelihood of feeling uncomfortable or exposed.  This rings true in education when we provide the same desk and chair combination for every student, or restrooms only for “men” and “women”.  Students feel that they have to conform, that they do not have choice, control, or say in how they fit into the classroom environment or socially amongst their peers.  We can design for inclusion when we consider needs for a wide array of students, keeping in mind a variety of learning styles, and social behavioral norms.

As educators and designers, we should constantly address and consider the design/redesign of educational spaces and how students respond to them.  Do you observe anyone feeling left out? Who are we not accommodating?  These are important questions to be asking every year as students grow, learn, and change.  Pursuing equity over equality benefits everyone and promotes the ideals of inclusion in children as they develop.  Designing for diversity within learning environments is one way to work towards a more inclusive society for generations to come.