Design Education: An interview with Valerie Fletcher

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  • An edited version of this interview appears in Chapter 11 of A Web for Everyone.

    Photo of ValerieValerie Fletcher, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Centered Design since 1998, helped shape the Principles of Universal Design. With many years of engagement in advancing accessibility and universal design in the public and private sectors, Valerie has a deep knowledge and clear perspective of the challenges and opportunities that exist in moving forward the agenda of universal design for web accessibility.

    We wanted to learn what she considers to be the greatest challenge in integrating accessibility into the practice of web design.

    The state of accessibility and universal design

    Valerie Fletcher has been Executive Director of the Institute of Human Centered Design since 1998. That year the Institute, at that time called Adaptive Environments, took the lead and collaborated with the Center for Universal Design in Raleigh, North Carolina, Hofstra University, and the Universal Design Newsletter, on sponsoring the first International Conference on Universal Design, called “Designing for the 21st Century.” It was at this conference that the Principles of Universal Design were disseminated for the first time to an international audience.

    The Institute of Human Centered Design was a key partner is developing and promulgating the principles, and has been instrumental in promoting universal design through training, education, and by its multi-disciplinary design services. They provide consulting services that include accessibility compliance and design solutions that integrate universal design features in built environments, products, and Information and Communication Technology.

    With many years of engagement in advancing accessibility and universal design in the public and private sectors, Valerie has a deep knowledge and clear perspective of the challenges and opportunities that exist in moving forward with the agenda of universal design for web accessibility. “I have both tremendous optimism and tremendous anxiety that we’re never going to get anywhere. Good ideas don’t thrive just because they are good ideas. But still, I feel more optimistic than I did five years ago.”

    Trends transform the practice of design

    Design responds to trends. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, architects were thinking about such challenges as designing affordable housing so people could live in peace[md]so they would not deface walls or be at war with their neighbors. This notion of “behavioral design” focused on the function and power of design[md]on how design could be put to the task of creating better living environments.

    In the 1990s, functional or environment/behavioral design was replaced by “form as the ultimate good.” “Function became the thing you had to live with because the law required it.” And the field of architecture became one for “lone wolves who felt they had to be more creative, more brilliant than others to succeed.” Much was lost in the shift from human-centered to designer-centered design, including attention to the power of architecture to influence human experience.

    In architecture, Valerie notes, “The only time an architect is likely to touch accessibility in a serious way is during licensing. Most commonly in the U.S., the only time one is taught anything about accessibility, let alone universal design, is likely in the context of an introduction to code requirements that teach plumbing code, electrical code, and accessibility. Is it any wonder people think [accessibility and universal design] is about cutting into your creative brilliance?”

    Education is a catalyst for change

    Education often drives design trends.  Students identify with what they are taught, and how they are introduced to their field. If they are taught that form is paramount, then more functional concerns, such as accessibility, will always be secondary.

    Today’s design curriculum does not do an adequate job of covering accessibility and universal design, and the information that is provided is geared toward meeting compliance standards. This approach results in a “just tell me what I have to do” approach to accessibility, which, in turn, produces inadequate designs. “Just tell me what I have to do has not resulted in the kind of creative energy and true innovation we need to make progress in this area,” says Valerie.

    What is needed is for universal design to be integrated into the practice of designing buildings, spaces, communications, products, interiors, and software into the design of the things we use, the spaces we inhabit, and the way we learn and communicate.

    Building a curriculum in universal design and accessibility

    Valerie sees design education as the critical component, but notes a lack of rigor in the curriculum requirements, and a lack of commitment from the instructors. “There is a readiness among the students that is not quite met by the readiness of the faculty, but it is a short bridge. I think they can get there especially in light of the adoption of the value of environmental sustainability.”

    Universal design needs to be adopted by faculty and then taught to students. With students, universal design needs to be intrinsic to their practice[md]fundamental to how they brand their work and pitch themselves professionally. “If we miss that opportunity, then it becomes a case of the one-off student[md]the one who, against all odds, persists.”

    And she sees responsiveness in the students. Because universal design and accessibility have not been perceived as significant elements of the curriculum, schools do not have faculty teaching the subject. This is where the Institute for Human Centered Design has stepped in, teaching class sessions and seminars on accessibility and universal design. Valerie has found a great deal of receptivity among the students. “With every year, the students have become more and more interested.” Many students seek internships with the Institute.

    She also sees a rise in attention paid to accessibility by the accrediting organizations, especially for interior design and architecture. The fields of interior and industrial design are the most progressive today, whereas architecture has historically fallen short. It’s reported that a dominant shortcoming in schools of architecture during accreditation visits is the availability and quality of instruction for accessibility and universal design.

    Accessibility guidelines set the baseline

    Regarding the accessibility of the digital environment, Valerie notes that there are good efforts underway worldwide. She notes in particular the work of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the Worldwide Web Consortium in promoting web accessibility through the development of standards, guidelines, and best practices that is clearly the most widely accepted global source. She also notes that web accessibility has more policy supporting its efforts than other design fields. There are many examples of organizations and institutions adopting a policy of meeting accessibility or universal design standards, even when it’s not a legal obligation. With reliable guidance such as Section 508 in the United States or the W3C/WAI, “mandating policy for inclusive design is a choice any organization can make.”

    But Section 508 and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are in some ways equivalent to building codes in the build environment. They help in establishing “a floor of accessibility and, in the case of W3C/WAI, beyond that to a high standard of usability.” However, design and designers are too often not part of the discussion, and Valerie sees this as a major failing. “There’s still a big gap in being able to identify great websites that look as good as they act. A lot of designers have yet to be convinced that you can get great design and great usability performance in a single site.”

    Great examples inspire great designs

    Bringing universal design to bear adds a whole new dimension to the discussion. “You need to drive the conversation by capturing people with great case studies, great examples, great leaders, and bringing in a global perspective. You will see better outcomes if you inspire and catalyze.”

    Take, for example, the NAO robot and the iPhone and iPad. NAO is a programmable humanoid robot that is being used for such tasks as providing assistance to people with significant dexterity and mobility limitations and teaching social interaction to children with autism. Apple’s mobile devices offer a wide array of interaction modes, including speech recognition and text-to-speech, so people can interact with software on the device in whatever way suits their context. As Valerie notes, “People learned a lot about design that is user friendly from Apple.”

    Looking ahead, Valerie sees the demand for customization and personalization of technology products and services as a catalyst for adoption of accessibility and universal design concepts by designers. “If you take ‘we’re all different’ as the starting point, and then train designers to respond to that reality, then you hit the sweet spot.”