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We Need More Inclusive Design In Nigerian Architecture

Everyone matters.

Inclusive design refers to a design process where a service, product, or space is enhanced to accommodate the needs of every possible person that one could expect to use it. Contrary to popular thought, inclusive design is not restricted to technological interfaces and experiences but every single environment or product designed for use and consumption.

In a world that caters primarily to abled, neurotypical people, inclusive design aims to challenge the status quo and extend ease of access and enjoyment of various services to those overlooked in the design process. These include marginalised demographics such as the physically disabled, people with mental disabilities, and the economically challenged.

Nigerian society still appears lightyears behind other nations in incorporating inclusive design, thereby creating an environment that is not enjoyed by all. To understand this better, B.Side sat with Kemi Agbato, an interior designer and head blogger at to discuss the obstacles to inclusive design in Nigeria and possible ways forward.

B.Side: Good day, Kemi, and thanks for speaking to us today. Before we get into the main gist, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came into design?

Kemi Agbato: Yeah, my name is Oluwakemi Agbato and I am an interior designer and a blogger. I am also learning the ropes of product design. My journey with design started almost two years ago, in the last few months of 2019. I have always loved making things. I've designed jewellery, bags and other accessories. I always dreamt of creating my own space; I had a million and one images of spaces on Pinterest but it never occurred to me that I could pursue it as a professional career path until two years ago when I watched Interior Design Masters – an interior design competition.

So, you have made all this progress in just two years?

Yes, but it feels like I have squeezed a lot of years into these two. Since then, I have had two design internships; I run a design blog and work as a design assistant. It has been a learning and humbling process because design, for me, is where beauty meets function and [creates] solutions to problems. It’s fascinating when you consider the fact that everything is designed, from cutlery to toys and typography to the more common ones like fashion and interior design.

Wow, that's impressive. So, what is design, and what is inclusive design to you? Sometimes, I feel the demarcation is not necessary because all designs should be inclusive from the jump. But some members of society are not considered at the beginning, and features to aid them are basically afterthoughts. What do you think about this?

Well, design is a huge word, to start with. It literally means fabricating a new thing, and that is very broad. For me, as I said earlier, it’s where function meets art. I don’t think good design has to be cold or mechanical, but it has to serve a purpose, solve a problem, or meet a need aside from being beautiful. It cuts across different fields, from car design to architecture, but the common thread is that it creates function for us regardless, and that is what design is for me, creating function.

Inclusive design? I like to use Kat Holmes’ definition; she’s a thought leader in inclusive design. She says that inclusive design is creating a variety of ways for people to participate in an experience, and that’s what I think it is as well. Most times, when you think about how people use a product, there’s going to be an overlap, and while universal design is refining a product continuously until a large percentage of the population can use it, inclusive design is about understanding that people are still going to be excluded no matter what, so it focuses on creating multiple ways for one product to be used. That way, there is an avenue for various people, not just those we generally consider physically disabled, but for any kind of marginalised demographic to use it; from people who have intellectual disabilities to those who are poor or economically disadvantaged.

As it relates to the part of design I currently work in, inclusive design is creating a built environment that can accommodate everyone. Again, this is a broad definition because it cuts across various levels like interior design, architecture and even urban planning.

That actually makes a lot more sense. Having various ways to do a particular thing has never been a bad idea. But let us talk about you practising as an interior designer in Nigeria; why do you think inclusive design is not common here? Is it a cultural thing? We all know that Nigeria is not the best place for disabled or marginalised communities already, but why is it not actively pursued?

I think that when we hear the word “design” over here, we think of it mostly as a foreign, Western thing. The words we use to describe design processes can seem formal and foreign sometimes. But the truth is that people in Nigeria are always creating something in respect of local problems. Take Nifemi Marcus-Bello for example, and his handwashing station inspired by local “meruwas” who transport water to areas that lack access to water. I like this because when marginalised groups see they are not being served, they create solutions with familiar or relatable objects and materials. That is the essence of inclusive design: making things easier for people to use.

I agree that the Nigerian built environment is not functional for disabled people. To be honest, it’s not even functional for abled people most times, but those that are disabled have it worse, and it can be very alienating for them. You think of things like ramps and staircases, but you don’t even consider their lives outside of buildings, like, there are no walkways by the side of the road, manholes, and canals that are not covered or closed off. They can’t actively enjoy their surroundings without constant reliance on other people, and that is just uncomfortable.

But, I don’t think it’s a cultural thing. You have to understand that the Nigerian built environment is a colonial legacy. The way we view buildings and spaces is influenced by the colonial masters and their architectural styles, which is basically a throwback to the industrial revolution where products were made for the average person, not every person, to maximize profits. And as other countries move past this, we are still stuck in the past. We also have a general problem of unenforced regulation, so even laws enacted to make places accessible are ineffective. Lastly, discrimination cuts across all societal groups and is not unique to Nigeria. It's our job to see how to do better and take steps towards that.

That is true. To digress a little bit, do you think a problem with product design is that people are designing for other demographics? I ask this because every single time you hear of a revolutionary product, it’s usually done by a person that is directly affected by whatever problem it aims to solve, and you think wow, that has never occurred to me. Is there a misrepresentation in the design process?

I think that making sure everyone’s needs are met is not by creating a blanket, one-size-fits-all product, but by creating various products that enable different ways to use or interact with something. Think of a traditional car. To use it, you need working eyes, two legs, two hands etc. But there are now different ways people who do not have all these functions can still take part in that experience. There are push start cars, or cars that one can drive with one hand. That way, there are a multitude of ways to enjoy driving.

When designing, finding a solution to problems is the main goal, so you need to be quite specific about who it’s targeted at. So when a person is designing, they unconsciously create for people who look like them and move through the world like them. This locks people out of the user experience, and so in order to make sure this doesn’t happen, we need to include the target audience in the design process. So yeah, representation is important, so people can look at experiences and feel included. Also, the people included don’t have to be designers; you could learn from regular people without design degrees or qualifications.

What challenges do you face when designing spaces to be as inclusive as possible?

Interior designers depend on so many variables. If you are redesigning a space, you still have to work within the current architectural setup and maintain most of the structure. If there’s a staircase, you have to work around it because you cannot remove it.

Also, cost might be a factor although I must say that some inclusive changes aren’t costly, there’s just a refusal to accommodate other people. An example of this is instructions on products being in only the English language. The assumption that everyone speaks English isn’t inclusive. Sometimes, the argument is that languages are too many to include, but it is possible to still use signs or drawings instead. There are ways to work around stuff.

Another problem is our penchant for tearing down what we consider informal settlements instead of investing in regenerative architecture, allowing spaces to be upgraded and easier removal of hazards. If there are hazards in a place, it is important to remove the hazards instead of removing the people on the pretext that they are ruining the aesthetic of the city or town.

Picking up on that, do you think a lot of design is focused on rich people? Like in the recently released trailer accusing poor people of ruining Lekki’s aesthetic and the proposed Eko Atlantic buildings and their high prices, is there an attempt to exclude poor people, deliberate or unconscious?

I think so. There is deliberate bias in places like Eko Atlantic, which is definitely for a specific demographic, and unconscious bias when you design something with only people who look like you or have access to your resources in mind. I am hesitant to use a broad paintbrush to label everyone, but metropolitan cities like Lagos are definitely exclusive to rich people. But that is a universal problem because forced evictions and policies that exclude the economically marginalised are rampant everywhere around the world.

It also happens sometimes as an aspect of human character to control what they can, because people pick on others poorer than them when they cannot get the government to act right. So instead of pressuring the government to unclog drains and fix the water supply, they get the police to harass and arrest homeless people under the guise of saving the aesthetic.

Exactly, a lot of it is misdirected anger. As regards solutions, how do you think we can tackle these problems in our design process?

I think the first step is enforcing regulation. The government needs to set minimum standards for shared spaces with respect to the ease of access disabled people can enjoy in public spaces. It’s also really important to add inclusive design to professional courses of study so students are exposed to the concept early on and it becomes normalized as an important part of the process. Civil engineering, architecture and other courses like that can benefit from this.

Empathy is also needed because inclusive design requires you to reach out and understand other people’s realities, not just yours, and in order to really make your product, space or service as effective or accessible as possible, you need an understanding of the way others navigate life. If you’re going to make a product that requires limited use of sight for a while, you can reach out to visually impaired people and gain insight into the ways they have managed to make this disability bearable and functional.

Okay, final question. What are the consequences for Nigerian cities if inclusive design becomes a standard practice? How much do you think our environments will change? How much will Lagos, for example, change?

Well, Lagos can be tough and alienating, so it’ll be a bit easier to live in. Many of our design choices are deliberate, in the case of private buildings, but also, there is poor urban planning that limits our movement on inner roads that are small and pedestrians have to share space with cars. Our transportation system is also considered part of the city’s design and if it can be fixed and made easier to use, then people can enjoy their environment. Exclusivity means that people can explore where they live, meet their neighbours, and enjoy the scenery. Really, just simple things like that because living in Lagos is a harrowing and rushed experience. So incorporating inclusive design means we can all enjoy our city better and feel like we belong to it.

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