How to Get Started with Inclusive Design

The words “Inclusive Mindsets” with three people walking underneath.


As you grow in your personal practice of design thinking, it is critical to develop inclusive mindsets to understand your own perspectives, the perspectives of others, and how they influence collaboration in design.

Here are 4 inclusive mindsets from our Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate, which can help you to adopt a responsible design practice. Listen to the full episode on the Creative Confidence Podcast to hear us dive deeper into the inclusive mindsets and why they’re an important part of any designer’s toolkit.


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Why Inclusive Design is Important

“Inclusive mindsets take a lifetime to develop, and our work and approach is a constant work in progress.” — Nusrat Ahmed

People make design choices every single day. However, design is not neutral.* When you’re designing with and for others, you’re bringing a lifetime of personal experiences and biases that affect how you see the world. Our attitudes can disproportionately favor some groups of people as well as lead to exclusion and harm to others.

For example, it’s very common in the US for work teams to design and host after-work cocktail events for team building. This may be a great experience for people who are of a certain age and can drink, but it can exclude those who don't drink for health or religious reasons, plus parents who have to find after-work childcare.

It’s important to develop inclusive mindsets in order to understand your own perspective, the perspectives of others, and how they influence collaboration in design. Inclusivity happens when we design solutions that consider people of all backgrounds; and mindsets are the ways we approach people—our posture, our expectations, and the attitudes that we hold towards them.

At IDEO U, we still have a lot to learn about inclusion and design, especially from our global community of learners. Inclusive mindsets take a lifetime to develop, and our work and approach is a constant work in progress. While this article is not a comprehensive overview of inclusive mindsets, we’re sharing these as one tool to use to get started with incorporating them into your design practice.


*We use the words “design” and “designer” in this article to describe anyone who plays a role in making decisions or creating change in service of and with others. You might be a project leader at work, a member on a school PTA board, or a decision-maker at work or in your community. We think of designers in an intentionally broad way that’s accessible for a variety of contexts.


Mindset #1: Collaborative Relationship-Builder

A person handing a block to another person.

A collaborative relationship-builder intentionally creates situations where stakeholders are treated as peer collaborators. Some ways of doing this are compensating collaborators for their time and asking them for permission to share their stories. If you successfully adopt this mindset, all of the people involved in the project form authentic interpersonal relationships, and any interventions that come about remain relevant past the end of the official project.

The shadow mindset, or opposite of the collaborative relationship-builder, is the extractive visitor. This is someone who doesn’t give collaborators enough context for the project and doesn’t orient them to their role in the design process. Instead, they simply extract information from collaborators, don’t follow up on how their insights have informed the project, and ultimately develop a negative reputation.

Get started:
Present your findings to collaborators so they see their impact. For example, an impact postcard is a follow-up message that connects the dots between an individual’s contribution and the impact that it created. Be intentional about bringing curiosity and care into your relationships with collaborators.


Take the Inclusive Mindsets module in our online certificate Foundations in Design Thinking.


Mindset #2: Conscientious Advocate

A person with a megaphone and toolkit, with another person standing behind.

A conscientious advocate actively looks for opportunities to balance power and remove barriers that prevent fair participation. In this context, power is defined as the ability to influence other people and situations, which is impacted by race, gender, age, and other factors. Conscientious advocates identify when some collaborators have power over others and when there are unequal dynamics that can cause harm—and they do whatever they can to bring in those who are left out.

You’ve successfully adopted a conscientious advocate mindset when you understand power differences and how they impact the lives of people in the system, and when you design solutions that help break down unequal systems of power and center those with less power.

The shadow mindset of the conscientious advocate is the complacent bystander. A complacent bystander simply accepts the way things are, even if there are unequal power dynamics between collaborators, and this perpetuates existing dysfunctions and further entrenches inequality through complacent design.

Get started:
Be mindful of the ratio between when you’re speaking and when others are speaking. If you are in a position of privilege, think about when you need to step back and invite others in. You can try scheduling separate meetings with different groups to better understand group dynamics, as well as allowing for heads down time so those who may not share thoughts on the spot have time to prepare. 



Mindset #3: Informed Partner

A person sitting down with a laptop.

An informed partner does research on the stakeholders’ context prior to interacting with them. They come in with an understanding of the local history, current events, economy, politics, and other important conditions surrounding their collaborators. Although informed partners come prepared, they respect their collaborators’ expertise and lived experiences over their own research.

The shadow mindset of this is the unprepared beginner, who feels as if they have discovered new information when in reality the information is only new to them, and doesn’t realize that they’re benefiting from the labor of those who educated them.

Get started:
Before starting a new project, educate yourself on the local events, history, and conversations happening in the community. You can conduct research through books, online articles, social media, and local newspapers. Once you meet with your collaborators, you can ask deeper questions based on your initial research.


Mindset #4: Curious Researcher

Three people walking with a flag, megaphone, and paper report.

A curious researcher is open and curious about the lived experiences of all collaborators. They try not to bring their own assumptions into the situation, such as by asking questions that they think they already know the answers to. Curious researchers take the time to understand things from their collaborators’ perspectives, and work to find unexpected opportunities together.

The shadow mindset of this is the unobservant savior, who makes assumptions about collaborators based on their own preconceived biases. This can lead to an incomplete understanding of people and their needs as well as an impulse to save them through prescribed solutions.

Get started:
Spend time with your collaborators to get to know them better. Instead of relying solely on your personal beliefs and drawing conclusions quickly, take a step back and ask questions. Approach conversations and interactions with curiosity and openness.


About The Speakers

Coe Leta Stafford
IDEO Partner & Executive Design Director, IDEO U

Coe Leta teaches global audiences the skills of design thinking, human-centered research, rapid prototyping, and storytelling. Since joining IDEO in 2006, she's led numerous creative teams across diverse organizations including Microsoft, Target, Intel, Wells Fargo, Ford, eBay, Hasbro, Sesame Street, and Government and Healthcare groups. Known for expertise in digital design, play, and data, her work has won international awards, patents for clients, and been featured in the New York Times and Wired. Coe Leta has a Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley and guest lectures at Stanford University's d.School. Coe Leta is an instructor in IDEO U’s Insights for Innovation course.

Nusrat Ahmed
Senior Learning Experience Designer, IDEO U

Nusrat takes a human-centered design-thinking approach to developing new courses for IDEO U. She has a background in learning design, finance, UX, entrepreneurship, community organizing, and match-making. She earned a degree in Anthropology from Princeton University and is currently studying Cognitive Science at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Nusrat has a deep love and interest in cognitive science, psychology, and hacking human performance. She hopes to help improve human potential by teaching how to learn and remember, not just what to learn.

If you’re interested in learning more about inclusive mindsets, check out our online certificate Foundations in Design Thinking.

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