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  • Writer's pictureTamara Makoni

The cycle of exclusion - lessons from an inclusive design expert

Where I live, July signals the start of the summer season for professionals. Like a game of dominoes, one by one colleagues' out of office messages go on as they abandon their (home) offices for a week or two (or three) of much needed sun, rest & relaxation.

If like me you enjoy reading, I recommend diving into Mismatch by Kat Holmes during your break. A designer, Holmes has worked with several companies - including large technology players like Microsoft and Google - on advancing inclusion in product development and digital experiences. In Mismatch she outlines the importance of inclusive thinking during the design process, and why this leads to better outcomes for everyone.

There's a lot to take away from Mismatch, but the main thing that stuck with me is Holmes' idea of the cycle of exclusion.


This is how we typically depict inclusion:

The circle is the defining element. All the dots (whose diversity is reflected in the different colours) are inside the circle. They are included. Any dots that exist outside the circle are excluded. Either they're in or they're out.

To include more dots we can:

  1. Bring any dots outside the circle inside the circle. In this instance, the boundaries of the circle remain the same.

  2. Expand the boundaries of the circle so that the circle is wide enough to cover any dots that are currently outside it.

To give an example in people terms, imagine that the building you live in is inside the circle. Everyone else who lives on your street but does not live in your building is outside the circle. If you want to include the other people who live on your street in your circle, you can invite them all to come live in your building. Or you can redefine the boundaries of your circle so that it now encapsulates every building on your street. Whichever you choose, the results are the same: you have included more people in your circle.

The cycle of exclusion

Holmes offers a different way of looking at inclusion/exclusion: as a cycle.

Why? Because, she tells us, exclusive practices are constantly reinforced by our choices. We may like to believe that things have been set in motion and we're powerless to change them, but that's simply not true. And by thinking in this way we are abdicating our accountability - i.e. denying the power and agency each of us has to disrupt and bring about change.

'Rules were initially written by human beings and can be rewritten. Those of us who are now playing the game have a responsibility to adapt it as needed. If we don't, we are accountable when someone's left out. We can respect the intent of the game, but also adapt the rules to make it more inclusive.'

It's easy to fall prey to what she calls 'exclusion habits'. Overcoming this requires learning new habits that prioritise inclusion and adjusting our behaviours and mindsets. It's just like learning a new language: fluency can come, but it won't come overnight.

Choices, not circles

This idea of a cycle resonated with me because it offers a lot more of nuance than the circle concept. For one thing, it better reflects three fundamental truths:

  1. Being inclusive (or not) is a choice

  2. Inclusion is deliberate

  3. Inclusion is a continuous process

There's no 'one and done' when it comes to inclusion, which the circle concept can be seen to suggest (invite everyone into the circle and then everything will be fine!). Instead, inclusion is the result of a series of actions that are done with a clear intention. Every time we do something we are presented with the option of including others, and we either do or we don't. That's a choice. Then the cycle continues as we are confronted with the same choice again during our next action.

So there you have it, my two cents on something to enrich your summer* reading list. Enjoy - and have a good break!

*winter, for our friends in the southern hemisphere :)


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