Assumptions Embedded in Design(s) – Part I: Bodies

This past June I had the privilege of attending the Sketch Model Workshop at Olin College. The workshop brought together practitioners across engineering, art, design, and the humanities to discuss our “dissatisfactions” with engineering education. We worked in groups and individually to brainstorm ideas to improve upon existing practice through, among other things, integration with the arts and humanities. My dissatisfaction, which I plan to channel into a course at Swarthmore College in Spring 2020, was that engineers design for the “default” in an uncritical, unintentional way. Assumptions about a user and society more broadly are embedded into the technology we build (and that we don’t). I grouped the assumptions into three major categories: those related to bodies, those related to identities, and those related to societal values. In the next few blog posts I will discuss exactly what I mean about each of these different categories, and talk about design interventions that challenge the status quo.


Assumptions about bodies refer to 1) physical traits of someone’s body (e.g. their calf circumference, weight, height, etc.)  and 2) that individual’s abilities (e.g. walking certain distances, lifting certain weights, seeing certain objects/distances). For example, if we consider a wrist watch, the different sizes of the watch band are driven by the expected size of individuals, and the designers assume that the user is capable of interpreting the watch face. Sometimes these design decisions are made intentionally (and that can be a good or bad thing), but often not. Many designers unintentionally design for a “default” user, and this lack of critical thinking can prevent certain people (often those with less privilege in some way) from using their products.

Universal Design has emerged as an intervention to move technology away from only working for “default” bodies. From the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design website:

An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design.

Universal design situates the body and that body’s abilities as key considerations for good design. Everyone should be able to use a given technology or tool.

A classic example of universal design is the origin story of the company OXO. Sam Farber’s wife Betsey had arthritis and was having difficulty holding a vegetable peeler. The two then worked together to design kitchen tools that don’t hurt your hands. Since then, the vegetable peeler and other OXO kitchen tools have won numerous design awards. It turns out that not only did the new peeler improve access for those with arthritis; the peeler was better for everyone.



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