Inclusive Design Communities


Firstly, if you want to skip to the crux of it: Inclusive Design Communities is well worth your time. Read on for my personal take, and how I viewed some of the lessons through the lens of my own life experiences.

Inclusive Design Communities

A gatefold cover makes for comfortable reading

I have been following Sameera Kapila on social media since early 2013, and over the years I have enjoyed hearing her perspective on our industry. Broadly speaking: design, development, usability, etc. When I heard about her book Inclusive Design Communities, I made a mental note to check it out once it became available. Having recently finished reading it, I must say that Sam's writing is simultaneously easy and difficult to read.

Easy, in that she communicates with a certain fluidity that makes engaging with the content feel like having a natural conversation. Difficult, because it shines a light on some of my underlying assumptions around design and our collective use of exclusionary language. It can be sobering to reckon with the knowledge that something you have said in casual conversation actually has more pernicious roots. Consider the following example.

Identity is sewn into the very fabric of our language. American idioms I've heard my whole life often have a troubled past — like the term "grandfathered," which shows up in conversations from everything about phone and internet billing plans to leasing agreements and laws. It originated with the "grandfather clause," a group of statutes in the 1890s that granted voting rights to direct descendants of anyone who have been eligible to vote prior to emancipation — automatically registering white men while requiring newly enfranchised Black men to pass tests or pay poll taxes in order to vote.

(page 8)

The following are a few of the overarching themes that stuck out to me, but this list is not exhaustive. There is more quality content than I could adequately summarize.


Reading the section on microaggressions (page 10) brought to mind an interesting story that I have not shared publicly before. It was not terribly hurtful, but reinforced in my mind that some otherwise well-intentioned individuals are simply products of their environment. I will depart slightly from the book review here and share that briefly.

When I was in grad school for my MDiv, a friend's parents were visiting from out of town. I ended up dining with them at the school cafeteria one evening, where the conversation went from general pleasantries, to me opening up more specifically about my life and upbringing.

I shared that my family has the last name Smith because my dad was adopted. He was born in Japan and through a series of circumstances he and one of his sisters found themselves in the care of an American military family. My dad eventually joined the military too. As such, I grew up all over the continental United States and consider myself pretty well-rounded in exposure to its various walks of life.

All of this was conveyed to my friend's parents who seemed genuinely interested in our dinner chat. So, it came as a mild shock to me that after they had left campus, another student told me this.

When his dad heard you singing, he said to the rest of us: "Nate can carry a tune pretty well, for a Chinaman."

I was not terribly offended. Yet it struck me as an odd thing to say, considering these facts.

  1. He knew that I am half Japanese. If you are going to use a cultural slur, at least make it accurate.

  2. We had a conversation about me being born and raised in the US. Obviously, I am fluent in English.

I do not think he meant any harm, nor said it with malice in his heart. He probably assumed he was making a joke at my expense amongst like-minded thinkers, aka: in the safe company of other white folks. Such is the subtle nature of racism, even (especially?) good Christian people can harbor deep-seated prejudices.

But I digress. Suffice it to say that Sam gives several comparable examples that I am sure will seem familiar to anyone who has received backhanded compliments about their abilities.


Several years ago, a long-time friend and I parted ways after reaching an "agree to disagree" impasse. At the time, I lacked the vocabulary to explain to him what I meant. That is something I think back on from time to time, and regret not being able to better articulate my point.

He insisted that white privilege is not real, because he worked hard for everything he has. I was trying to help him realize that I was not accusing him of accepting a handout, rather that the metaphorical wind was in his sails whereas people who did not look (or sound) like him had to paddle upstream against the current.

Sam said it even better.

For example, every time I get coffee or tea at a shop nearby, I don't have to worry about whether I'll encounter stairs. But for someone in a wheelchair or who uses crutches after an injury, stairs are physical obstacles that put them at a disadvantage if there isn't a ramp available. In this scenario, I have privilege; the coffee shop isn't as accessible to others as it is to me.

You might find yourself feeling some level of guilt because of the privileges you have. We must confront such guilt head-on and acknowledge that it exists, rather than letting it pull us back into self-absorption and hinder us from doing the critical work of self-improvement. It isn't helpful to feed the narrative that you can't help what you were born into. Instead, understand that guilt is a powerful motivator, telling us where we have opportunities to make things better. Use your privilege (or guilt) to elevate others who have been historically marginalized and oppressed. At work, you might intervene in a tense meeting or shine light on others who get spoken over frequently, asking the interrupting party to let the other person complete their thought.

(page 21)

Active listening

I have heard it said that being a good listener means more than just waiting for your turn to talk. This is something I can be guilty of, as I am occasionally — let's be honest, most of the time — too eager to throw in a one-line zinger or bad pun.

Sam outlines key tenets that are important to being an active listener. Hear what others are saying and resist the urge to interject your own opinions into what they are conveying. Also, repeat and rephrase what is being said. It helps avoid misunderstandings and shows them that you are absorbing the essence of the discussion.

This is a recurring theme in conversations with my wife. Paraphrased:

"I am telling you what happened, but that does not mean I need you to solve it for me."

Sometimes, perhaps more often than I am aware, being present in the moment is enough.

Curriculum & education

This is something I had honestly not really thought about before reading this book. Namely, that much of the curriculum offered in formal courses of design (and art) presuppose that all the best ideas stem from a particular culture and aesthetic. This is not to take away from some of the great art and design philosophies that originated in Europe, but that is a slice from the overall cross section of what humanity has to offer.

As a product of the US public education system myself, this squares with my experience. My grade school memories are foggy, but as I recall our concept of history could be summed up as: Europeans sought to colonize North America. They did. Then the colonists decided to become a country unto themselves. Oh, and we reluctantly entered the fight in World War II. You're welcome, Europe.

Sam describes her experience thusly.

At some universities or colleges, design programs exist within an art school. Students are taught how to use design software, explore foundational concepts like layout, color, and typography, and undergo periodic portfolio reviews. Like their fellow art students, design students often take drawing, painting, ceramics, photography, and art history classes. Starting around 2010, some programs added courses focusing on user interface and web design.

Art and design history classes are one of the few environments where we learn how art, design, and culture connect. In my experience, however, those history classes focus on a small aspect of art and design history: art celebrating empires, colonization, and European perspectives. The movements taught in most design programs — Modernism, Postmodernism, the Swiss Typographic Style, Gestalt, Bauhaus, and Constructivism — are all based on European culture.

(page 42)

Sam gives some examples of design beyond that scope, including a few of her favorites.

She also talks about keeping curriculum — in the form of course descriptions and required learning materials — flexible enough to adapt to new paradigm shifts in the design industry. That is, to structure a class with enough leeway to allow for updates to one's teaching workflow without having to go through reapproval due to somewhat rigid accreditation guidelines.

Additionally, she gives some great tips on how to best keep a classroom engaged. I think many of these also have applicability in conference speaking and/or communicating with coworkers as well. For example, allow time for note-taking and consider those for whom English may not be a primary language. When interpreters are involved, ensure there is adequate delay for translation. Also, make learning materials available in formats that best suit those consuming them.

I especially liked Sam's anecdotal story about being creative on her feet.

I once taught a class on HTML and CSS in which some of my students were deaf or hard of hearing due to being injured in combat overseas. The students, their interpreters, and I had to work as a team to translate HTML and CSS into plain English and American Sign Language, and vice versa. We made up a language we dubbed HTSL: HyperText Sign Language. We came up with new hand signals for some HTML tags, and they spelled out CSS lines each time, including punctuation. It may seem unconventional, but we were translating among four languages, and through our collective creativity, we made it work.

(page 51)

➡️ Aside: Whenever I give a talk, I always try to upload my slide deck a day before so that attendees can grab the PDF in advance. One time, this saved me because I forgot to bring my laptop to the venue. I ended up presenting my PDF from another speaker's computer. Phew!

Optimizing workflow

Sam calls to task companies who try to blame their lack of diversity on a "pipeline problem." She points out that so much of what is attributed to a lack of viable candidates is actually businesses inadvertently putting up walls that impede others from feeling welcome to apply. Such as, hiring only for "culture fit" — Would I share a beer with this person? Do they even drink alcohol? — or insisting that applicants be rock stars or ninjas.

Or worse yet, implying that hiring someone who is unlike the rest of one's employee demographic would somehow be compromising on quality. That perpetuates an insular culture. It can be bad for business because true innovation — and hedging against unforeseen competition — often relies on a collective diversity of thought. Likewise, we need to be cognizant of the fact that "talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not." Therefore, hiring managers ought to be willing to look anywhere and everywhere, beyond what has worked in the past.

Staffing a monoculture can have unintentional and potentially deadly consequences.

Women are 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash than men, and 17 more likely to die. Why? Crash test dummies were built to represent average male bodies. Differences in male and female stature translate to differences in how close or far our feet are from the pedals, where the back of our car seat has support against whiplash, where seat belts cross over us, and on and on. It's not that male engineers were purposefully excluding female bodies; their implicit bias simply created a fatal oversight.

(page 73)

In addition to talking about leveling the playing field when it comes to pay, often by being more transparent about pay bands across job functions, Sam also covers what might be considered intangible perks.

Remote-first companies can attract working parents with caregiving responsibilities, those seeking a healthier work-life balance, and those with far commutes, high transportation costs, or long shift hours. Work flexibility can help keep many women in the industry who've had to quit during the pandemic to take care of their families and other dependents. At the same time, don't assume that one way of working is a catch-all. Many people like going into the office, needing in-person collaboration or a quiet setting that their workspace at home just can't provide.

(page 86)

One aspect that is huge for me is remote work. Due to my own life circumstances, I would prioritize that as one of the top factors when considering a new job. My wife had a stroke (2019) and brain surgery (2020). She has since fully recovered and is adjusted to the new "normal," but has permanent hemianopsia; 50% vision loss in the left of each eye. That leaves me as the one driving parent in our household. Many of my evenings are spent shuttling our kids to/from their various extracurricular activities.

Having worked remotely for a few years prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, I cannot imagine going back to an in-office job. Each workday from 2:45 to 3:15pm, I step away from my desk to pick up my son from elementary school. My coworkers know that is a time slot I will not be at my computer, and everyone is cool with it.

Sometimes I chat with them via Teams on my phone, while I wait for his school to release all the students. My son always runs out at full speed, trying to sneak up on me if he can. Every time, he asks me: "Hey dad, how's work?" It always brightens my day. I would not want to give that up. We work hard for our kids, but what they will remember most is the time we spent with them.

Being an ally

This is a common thread throughout the book, but I think it deserves a specific mention. Sam reminds those of us who benefit more from societal stereotypes — for example: "white passing, cisgender males are natural leaders," or "Asians are good at STEM" — need to speak up for others who are not given the benefit of the doubt.

The responsibility of setting a cultural tone is on company leadership, but employees at every level have the power to improve the workplace for themselves and others. Even if you can't change certain processes, you can advocate for others, ask questions, and model behavior.

(page 82)

➡️ Aside: This is a topic for which Microsoft has specific training, and as a team we tend to be pretty good about inoculating ourselves against overriding dissenting voices or misattributing ideas from marginalized people to others. To the point where we will gently rib each other, in cases where it could be interpreted that way.

I was in a meeting recently where a (female) project manager made a suggestion as to the cause of a bug. I halfway dismissed it, not on the basis of her gender, but because looking at the code I did not see how it could be the root issue. Later on, a (male) software developer suggested in a roundabout way that perhaps it could be related.

Hilarity ensued. Paraphrased:

Her: "Wait, did you just totally revisit my initial idea and restate it as your own?"

Him: "Oh, sorry. I did not realize that. But it might be worth looking into."

Me: "You know, now that he said it… Maybe it has some merit?"

Her: (jokingly) "I hate you all, you're the worst."

I then went on to genuinely apologize. I explained that the reason I had not initially given credence to her input was because I had the project on my screen and could not fathom — at that particular moment in time — how the symptoms could have stemmed from that logic path. Yet by the time my developer coworker brought it up, the notion had ruminated in my head as a possibility.

Ultimately, it ended up not being a front-end related problem but data missing from an API. Still, we were all able to pause and take stock of our interpersonal interactions. Often, the best way to diffuse the specter of conflict is to introduce humor. She rightly stood up for herself, pointing out that the rest of us were not doing our proverbial jobs as would-be allies on the team.

Giving back

In addition to looking out for people within your own workplace, Sam recounts how as an instructor she encouraged professionals to help the next generation of students in their career pursuits. She reached out to practitioner peers in software design and development, inviting them to speak to her students.

I brought my advisory board members into the classroom in various capacities. Many wanted to get public speaking experience and enjoyed being able to guest lecture in my class or the department. They'd stay longer to answer questions and get to know some students by name. They'd recognize those students at meetups and continue to guide them as they prepared for graduation and their first job search. Others liked to come in for portfolio reviews, sit with students individually, and assess their résumés. This demystified so much of the working world for the students.

It benefitted the design professionals, too. Talking about their work with eager audiences rekindled their enthusiasm. They learned from students how difficult the path from school to career had become… They also saw first-hand how motivated and talented the students were, and hired many directly after graduation.

(page 112)

I had a ministry mentor who was fond of this Peter Drucker quote: "There is no success without a successor." Meaning, it does not matter what crowning achievement one accomplishes in an illustrious career, if it does not ultimately benefit those who follow in our footsteps. I appreciate that Sam showed the duality of how academia and industry influence one another. In exchange for sharing their time and expertise, those further along in their careers were able to scout talented up-and-coming individuals.


Buy this book. The end.

In all seriousness though, this was an excellent read. I would recommend it to anyone who aspires to a position of leadership, or considers oneself to be a seasoned and respected individual contributor. Though it is couched in the language of design — we all view the world from our own vantage point, so inevitably it would reflect Sam's life journey — it transcends being applicable to any single occupation.

In today's increasingly polarized social and political climate, being cruel is easy. For some, it has become almost second nature. It is base human instinct to selfishly look out for ourselves. But life is not a zero-sum game. Even if one person were to "win" by decimating everyone else, the outcome would inherently be a lonely Pyrrhic victory.

If only in the interest of our own longevity, I think it would behoove us all to be a bit more inclined towards inclusivity. Yet that outcome is not a predetermined eventuality, it will not just happen on its own. It costs nothing to be kind, but it requires intentionality to strive toward a more equitable future. I am thankful for luminaries like Sameera Kapila who light our way along that path.