The worlds of digital, product and service design are familiar with having end-users and customers involved in defining, testing and developing inclusive and accessible experiences. In brand identity design such involvement may be much less common but I don’t believe that that should remain the accepted norm. Always open to learning and developing my processes, I’m on a journey of discovery – exploring how I can ensure that The Co-Foundry takes a truly inclusive approach towards creating brand identities fit for the 21st Century.
Many might not be enough
Solving a branding brief can be done in any number of ways – there is never one single solution. But despite there being multiple angles and possible approaches, it’s not unusual to find that insufficient differing perspectives get explored during the strategic and creative stages of a project – something which can result in assumptions being perpetuated and generic solutions being delivered. And although no one sets out to deliberately exclude underrepresented voices, that thing where you assume your knowledge is all knowledge, is an easy trap to fall into.
Socially-conscious, human-centred businesses, institutions and organisations already understand the importance of listening to more than just the loudest and most dominant voices. They actively cast their net wider and ensure that individuals and minority communities get heard too. As brand strategists and designers, we should make creating space for, and listening to these diverse and underrepresented voices, an integral part of our practice too.
In this post I want to track the stages of a ‘typical’ brand project, identifying where we can embed inclusive practices and, in this way, exploring how brand designers, strategists and their clients can take practical steps towards a more inclusive approach.
Considering how brands are experienced by a more diverse range of customers and potential customers in the real world will lead to insights that then help create more meaningful and more widely resonant brand identities. These can, in their turn, contribute to extending brand reach and improving a brand’s accessibility and appeal across, for example, demographic divides, divergent thinkers, abilities and religions.
What’s the problem?
A 2022 study by the Design Council found the UK design industry in good shape but with a buoyant growth trajectory not being matched by a growth in diversity. More recently, speaking at Clerkenwell Design Week, Design Council CEO Minnie Moll spelled this out, saying, “only 23% of designers in the UK identify as female” while “88% of design managers identify as white”. It’s something I’ve written about on The Journal over the years here and here.
Inevitably, we’re all sometimes guilty of only viewing the world we live in from our own limited prism. So how can we ensure that the light we refract takes in the full gamut of possibilities and experiences, and not just a limited palette? How can we shine a light on underrepresented communities, reflecting life as it really is and ultimately driving change?
The False-Consensus Effect: Designers, developers, and even UX researchers fall prey to the false-consensus effect, projecting their behaviours and reactions onto users – this is an illuminating read that differentiates between accessibility, universal and inclusive design
Why does inclusivity matter and how can it benefit your brand?
Apart from being an ethical, respectful, empathetic and positive way to design, there are several strategic reasons why inclusivity matters. In UX and CX design there is already a broad consensus around inclusive design extending market share and accelerating innovation, so how can inclusive brand identity design benefit the brand, and the audience it serves?
Key benefits of adopting inclusive practices include:
- Your brand becomes accessible (in the widest sense of that word) and relatable to more people
- You develop a deeper understanding of the people you serve
- You break out of category assumptions and create something more innovative, differentiating your brand in the process (something that’s a powerful brand attribute)
- You build stronger brand loyalty by fostering a sense of belonging
- You address your audience’s needs and increase your credibility
- You increase market share – for example, 20% of the UK population has a disability
- You attract the very best talent from the widest pool in an authentic and not merely performative way, building an inclusive brand identity that mirrors your pledge to diversity.
In other words, from a commercial perspective, you increase your brand value and drive higher brand engagement.
How to integrate inclusive practices into the project process
An inclusive approach starts not just with knowledge of your audiences but with knowledge of yourself.
The path to greater inclusivity starts with asking yourself: “Who might I be excluding with my design decision?” (Jeff Zundel, LinkedIn’s Inclusive Design Advocate). We need to recognise and acknowledge our own unconscious bias and begin with an open mindset, whether that’s through unconscious bias training or simply respecting and being open to the opinions of others.
So, start with the question: “Who are we not reaching or serving?”
Educating yourself on how current events and public discourse impacts the people you intend to reach is important too, but nothing beats actually consulting and working alongside your stakeholders.
Let’s look at this from a ‘typical’ brand design process and see where we can bring voices that may have previously been left out, in.
Define the problem you need to solve:
- Who do you serve and who on the client or creative team is under-represented in that audience.
- What it is that you want to find out.
- Where are the gaps in your knowledge?
Listen & learn
Find out what perceptions and misperceptions people may have about your brand. Use this step to build clear personas for designers to reference when designing, gather insights and plan how your brand can take those people’s needs and perspectives into account. To do this recruit a diverse and representative group of participants. Carry out your consultation using methods appropriate to the participants, for example, focus groups, 1:1 interviews and workshops.
Take care to ensure that the methods and media you use are accessible to everyone, including those who have disabilities or are neuro-diverse. This might involve providing alternative text for images, including breakout groups or 1:2:1 interviews. These meetings can take place online or in person. (More detail on this in the Appendix.)
Co-author and cross-check
Co-author and cross-check the brand strategy
Look for alignment in defining your vision, purpose and values. Do your audiences share your vision and values? Might they feel that your day-to-day actions contradict the ideals you espouse? This step is important because your audience will rightly call out hypocrisy, and it’s better to discover and address this now, rather than later when the refreshed brand is launched.
Develop your brand’s value proposition, focusing on your audiencs’ pains and gains, and how they are resolved by your offer.
Provoke a response by providing stimulus (sketches, moodboards and competitor reference). This step is not about validating ideas but about provoking a response and using that response to write a brief.
Be specific in your brief, it’s not enough to say, for example that “this project should be ‘diverse and inclusive.’” Instead, you might say “20% of the brand’s audience in the UK are from a non-white background, the overall demographics of our branded content should reflect this.”
Design & content
Avoid limiting and excluding imagery. (See notes in the Appendix.)
Consider visual and verbal sensitivities, for example, gauge the power dynamics of your message – take care not to make your brand the saviour or the hero.
Test the resonance of the design and messaging, and be willing to make changes based on stakeholder feedback.
Check all text is accessible in the brand colours. Provide guidance on typography, for example, rules for use of fonts for people with partial sight and dyslexia.
Consider providing a language lexicon of exclusive language as part of your tone of voice guidance.
Create and curate an inclusive image library that creative partners and staff can use to stay on brand. (See more on this in the Appendix).
Ensure people remain the mainstay of your design and content process even after you hand over the guidelines. Consider setting up a steering group of engaged stakeholders to review collateral as you roll it out.
In short, design with stakeholders, not just for stakeholders.
We need to remember that, “If we have privilege (white, male, cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied, etc.), we bear a larger burden in listening with empathy and responding with humility.” (Real the full article that this quote is taken from, here.)
It’s time to pass the mic to those who have, for far too long been marginalised and excluded, and amplify their voice so that we produce more progressive brand experiences where inclusivity is a core practice.
Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a practice, equity is a goal.
Dereca Blackmon, President, Inclusion Design Group
Do you have anything to add?
I know there’s still a huge amount of work to be done and I’m far from pretending to be an expert on the matter but I am committed to continuously improving and using my position as a brand consultant to encourage an inclusive practice in research and creativity. I know many people reading this will have advice and experiences to add, so please do share them with me and I will come back and update and add to this post.
Running inclusive workshops
Facilitate the sessions in such a way as to ensure that everyone has a voice, or you may end up only listening to some of the participants. Many participants will find themselves more comfortable discussing in smaller groups, so consider using breakout rooms.
Use a Parking Lot – a space where the facilitator can ‘park’ ideas and points on post-it notes. This prevents any one/more attendees from dominating a discussion. State at the start of the session that you have limited time and may use the Parking Lot to keep things moving.
Consider a method of feedback for people who are more introverted, for example a box for them to post their thoughts throughout the session.
Keep a note of particularly engaged and enthusiastic attendees, you may want to approach them further down the line to cross-check, validate and test.
Commissioning or sourcing diverse Illustrations
Illustrators sometimes bypass the representation of skin colour or ethnic diversity by avoiding it altogether or using unnatural skin tones. The intention behind this approach is to be inclusive but the result is quite the opposite. By omitting natural skin tones, these illustrations inadvertently look like white people which excludes everyone else.
Unless there is a stylistic reason that makes non-human skin tones necessary, choose human skin tones. Thankfully this homogenous trend, dubbed Corporate Memphis is less prevalent now, and brands like Hinge have moved away from this style.
Inclusivity is about so much more than race – hair, facial features, body type, environment, clothing and activities all contribute to expressing one’s identity. For instance, the environment the characters are depicted in can convey their socioeconomic status. Consider all of these aspects.
Google are leading the way with their work on inclusive marketing, an example here:
By selecting carefully and sensitively, you can enhance the emotional connection of your audience. Seeing themselves in the images you use, may help them connect with you on a deeper level. While on the one hand, designers mustn’t avoid diversity, it’s equally important not to overplay it. Be representative, if the audience you serve is mainly white, in a mainly white region, don’t feel you have to depict diversity for the sake of it as this can end up feeling forced and unnatural.
When budgets allow, commission a professional photographer. Or look beyond the mainstream stock libraries – see the library of links below.
Try to capture moments in real life, avoiding glossy, unattainable settings and being mindful that camera angles and poses can communicate power dynamics.
Consider whether your music selection reinforces stereotypes or is culturally appropriated from another group. Make an effort to consider artists from underrepresented groups.
Implement measures to ensure that individuals with disabilities can fully access and understand the content. More guidance in the links below.
Considering the needs of people who are visually impaired is essential but not exclusive to website UI design. You need to ensure that your designs are accessible in all media to people with colour-blindness, dyslexia, low vision etc. This may include considerations around paper stock and contrast, and for the client, the provision of black and white, large type alternatives.
Branding can’t be inclusive if it’s not accessible to everyone. There are numerous resources available for websites and digital products but research guidance for print and wayfinding is harder to find, see link below.
Inclusive language & content
Involve your audience in originating content.
Use inclusive language. If you don’t know someone’s gender or if you’re talking about, or referring to a group, adopt gender-neutral language where, for example, policeman > police officer, salesman > salesperson. Numerous idioms and expressions may appear harmless at first glance, but in truth, their origins can be harmful and divisive. For example, the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist” derive from discriminatory metaphors related to race.
Consider how appropriate your brand tone of voice is, might there be instances where it excludes? Does it take too lighthearted an approach or is it too formal and academic in tone, for example?
If in doubt, test it with your audience or have it proofed by a Sensitivity Reader.
Useful resources & further reading
Audience insights for eliminating stereotypes in your creative:
Learn how bias, discrimination and inclusion impact different communities:
Insight: A Guide to Design with Low Vision in Mind:
Sensory Trust Designing with clear and large print:
Audience insights for eliminating stereotypes in your creative:
Video accessibility guide for content creators and viewers:
Keeping up to date with inclusive language:
People with disabilities:
Stock photo libraries
Getty Images disability collection:
Various diversity collections covering age to unretouched imagery:
The Gender Spectrum:
Getty Images Lean-In Collection:
LGBTQ+ on Pexels:
UK Black Tech:
Shopify Burst Women Collection:
TONL Diverse Stock Photos:
AllGo Plus Size collection: