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Research & Insight

Unintelligible Spaces: Design for Authentic Inclusivity

Reading time: 4 minutes

We recently hosted architect, artist and designer Martha Summers who shared their experiences of designing environments for queer, trans and feminist communities in London.

Summers' practice explores methods of resistance, disruption, and world-building alongside themes of identity and domesticity. They are a 2023 RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Rising Star.

Martha's insights offer valuable lessons for the retail industry on approaching inclusivity with depth and authenticity. 

Challenge Binary Thinking

"Two thirds (65%) of Gen Z's think their shopping experience would be improved if there was a "gender neutral" search option online"* and Summers emphasised the importance of moving beyond strict gender binaries in retail spaces: "segregating apparel is a tricky one… a good approach to that can be kind of clustering things together rather than having a complete binary separation."

“Spaces can be a place where the gender binary is produced, and they can also be doing the work of reproducing the gender binary every day”

- Martha Summers

Design for Diversity Within Communities 

"If we're not thinking about queer people who are particularly marginalised, we're not catering to all queer people," Summers noted. They highlighted the importance of considering intersectionality - how different aspects of identity like race, class, age and disability intersect with queerness.

For brands and retailers, this means going beyond surface-level inclusivity to truly consider the diverse needs and experiences within marginalised communities. 

Create "Third Places"

Summers discussed the concept of "third places"— spaces that are neither work nor home and where community connections can flourish. With many public spaces disappearing, retail environments could step up to fill this gap.

Retail spaces can foster community beyond just selling products, instead catering to community events, providing meeting spaces, and offering areas for people to gather and connect.

Consider the Full Supply Chain

Summers emphasises that true inclusivity goes beyond the retail space itself and  encourages brands to look at the entire supply chain.

"We're all tied into these massive supply chains that are so much bigger than us - we need to think about the people who are maybe overseas working the factory, making the things that are being sold in the shop, and we should be asking where the raw materials are coming from and being extracted - how can a retail space be truly inclusive when tied up with all that?"

Moving Beyond Surface-Level Inclusivity

A key theme throughout Summers' talk was the need to take a deeper approach to inclusivity rather than make tokenistic or surface-level gestures.

For retail brands looking to authentically connect with diverse communities, this means moving beyond rainbow logos or gender-neutral language to rethink how spaces are designed fundamentally, products are organized, and communities are engaged.

Embrace "World Building"

Rather than just reacting to current conditions, Summers advocated for using design to imagine and create better futures: "how could we do something here with the budget, with the time, with the resources that we have that feels like we're stepping a little bit away from normal modes of operating?"

For retailers, this means reimagining what shopping experiences look like in a more equitable world.

Inclusive Design Roadmap:

01) Challenge gender binaries: Instead of strictly segregating products by gender, consider organising items by style, fit, or function. This allows for more inclusive shopping experiences.

02) Design for intersectionality: Consider the diverse needs within marginalised communities, including factors like race, class, age, and disability alongside gender and sexuality.

03) Create "third places": Design retail spaces as community hubs and event spaces - to truly give something back to the community. Including areas for events, meet-ups, or casual gatherings builds brand equity by passing ownership of the space to the user.

04) Consider the full supply chain: Extend inclusivity beyond the store. When making design decisions, consider ethical sourcing, labour practices, and sustainability.

05) Embrace "world-building": Use design to imagine and create better futures, not just react to current conditions. Think about how retail spaces could function in a more equitable world.

06) Go beyond surface-level inclusivity: Avoid tokenistic approaches to inclusivity. Instead, rethink how spaces are designed, products are organised, and communities are engaged.

07) Incorporate flexibility: Design modular and reconfigurable spaces that adapt to different needs and uses, allowing for more inclusive experiences.

09) Prioritise accessibility: Ensure that spaces are accessible to people with various disabilities, considering factors like mobility, vision, and sensory needs.

10) Engage with the community: Involve marginalised community members in the design process to ensure their needs and perspectives are genuinely represented.

Summers encourages retail brands to approach inclusivity as a fundamental aspect of design rather than an afterthought, leading to more authentically welcoming and diverse retail environments. By embracing these principles, retail environments can become spaces that not only welcome diverse communities but also help foster a more equitable world.

*source - Unidays, 2022