Circles of Exclusion

Mismatch book cover

Circles contain. They unify. They’ve come to symbolize harmony, wholeness, cycles, woman, eternity and more.

Kat Holmes Exclusion
Image from Kat Holmes’s book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design

They also exclude.

I’ve been reading Kat Holmes’s book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design and because of Kat, circles have new meaning.

What is inclusion?

Merriam-Webster defines inclusion in a few of the following ways:

  1. the act of includingthe state of being included
  2. the act or practice of including students with disabilities with the general student population
  3. the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability)

So, if inclusion is “the act of including” or “the state of being included” or “the practice of including” this means something or someone is excluded, yes? Merriam-Webster seems to have covered all the bases with “people who have historically been excluded”.

Yet, Kat Holmes points out early in Mismatch that physical accommodations for people with disabilities such as ramps, modified doors and the like is not enough to be considered “an inclusive environment”. To be inclusive the “psychological and emotional” aspects of people must also be respected.

Even more, according to a Fast Company article, inclusion and diversity mean different things to millennials, gen-Xers and boomers. Millennials believe “inclusion is the support for a collaborative environment that values open participation from individuals with different ideas and perspectives”. Some argue that inclusion isn’t the best as efforts to include may backfire and exclude. Hmm…


So, damned if you do, damned if you don’t? My sense so far is that Kat wants us to start somewhere. To be clear, “exclusion isn’t inherently bad, nor inclusion inherently good”. Mistakes are inevitable and to come away with greater insight with more people contributing to the conversation is priceless. Asking questions she believes is the best way to make progress; asking people who have been excluded is the best place to begin because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Inevitably, someone is excluded. Inclusion is on-going; however, she urges “responsibility for inclusion as a matter of intentional choice, rather than risk an unintentional harm”.

Image from Kat Holmes’s book, Mismatch.

“Invisible by Omission”

Several years ago, a friend’s 80-year-old father and I were sitting in his living room chatting, about what I no longer recall but, one thing he said to me that honestly shocked me at the time: “When you get old, you become invisible”. It was honest. Real. This became a conversation about how we as a society view the elderly and aging. We glorify youth and diminish pretty much anyone 40 and above. Why is that?

Kat briefly writes about how we categorize people. People are “multifaceted” so how do we determine which aspects we design for? Categories are simplified, typically binary and while they make things easier for us she warns us that there will always be people we leave out. We automatically prioritize some over others and essentially erase their existence.

Bias and Assumptions

Think about how we exclude based on healthy or not, with disabilities or not, ethnicity, economic status, religion, pedigree and more. As designers, it is important to ask ourselves: who are we excluding with the decisions we make? Remember the circle? Who is in and who is out?

We love to categorize. So, when it comes to data, I’ve been thinking: how are we collecting it? What determines our categories? When it comes to data, how are people excluded and therefore never counted? When it comes to data and training machines, how do we exclude? How are we creating bias in the algorithms we design?

What “mind bugs” have we acquired over the years that allow us to look for the easy answer or perhaps the most comfortable solution? Exclusion, according to Kat Holmes is how we learn to be inclusive. When is the last time you thought about what you exclude? How often do you question the status quo?

For better or for worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly.

Kat Holmes, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design

These are some of the questions moving through my mind.

So, what are designers to do? First, check “sympathy and pity” at the door. Then, open your mind to ideas that may counter your beliefs. Inclusion isn’t about you.

Three inclusive design principles by Kat Holmes

  • “Recognize exclusion”. This is the big first step. Recognize your own biases, assumptions and fears. The real work begins here—the truth.
  • “Learn from diversity”. Look to each other when doing the work to change.
  • “Solve for one, extend to many”. What is universal? Identify the thread that binds us together.

I’m looking forward to the rest of Mismatch. I have my own experiences of being excluded and watching those I care about be excluded. Kat has given me a lot to think about.

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