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Six key principles for inclusive design

Two women work on the design of a project. They are cutting pieces of colored paper and putting it in big sheet of paper.
© Serrano

In her article 6 Principles for Inclusive Design, Lillian Xiao reflects on her experiences working on inclusionary strategies, as well as the readings and research she has done on the topic.

She identifies six key principles which should inform inclusive design. Her article is very useful, as she illustrates the application of each principle based on a case study experienced during her internship. While this abbreviated version does not include the examples she cites, you are welcome to read the full article. Here we have expanded on her writing with reflections of our own and included examples drawn from our experiences in the application of these principles.

1. Seek out points of exclusion

The first principle is to ‘seek out points of exclusion’. She reminds us that it is good practice to know as much as we can about the communities we wish to serve in our museums. Understanding why and how individuals and communities feel excluded is an important starting point. This approach helps to dispel assumptions often made about non-participating communities as being disinterested or disinclined. Rather, it helps to identify infrastructural, economic, attitudinal issues necessary for change. For example, a museum in Zimbabwe found that the imposing colonial columns and stairs at its entrance posed a hindrance and deterrent to new drop-in visits by local people. The frontage and façade were barriers. If the museum had not conducted an extensive public survey, they would not have known this. In understanding these barriers, they were able to take concrete steps in creating a more welcoming front desk experience. Tips: The exclusion chart introduced to you in week 1 could be guide to seeking out points of exclusion. Designed by Babajanian and Hagen-Zanker.

2. Identify situational challenges

The second principle which she highlights is to ‘identify situational challenges’. She reiterates the need to understand the specific contexts of audiences, especially new and desired audiences of the museum. These contexts will have an impact on the degree to which they can or wish to engage with the museum. Pre-existing stigma, stereotypes and prejudice experienced on a daily basis in wider society may affect the level of comfort found in a public institution, such as a museum. Economic, spatial planning and geographical location may also have such an impact. Xiao also emphasizes the need to make the institution accessible in the ‘daily moments’. This is of particular concern where museums have focused on attracting new audiences for specific museum activities, but not ensured that these same audiences are a part of all planning and activities beyond the special ones involving them or their stories.

3. Recognise personal bias

The third principle she identifies is to ‘recognise personal bias’. Personal bias is understood here as each person’s beliefs, prejudice and stereotypes. These are often shaped by our life experience, education and social standing. In the first session we spoke about the importance of self-reflexivity as a practice for inclusive design. The practice of self reflexivity is important in helping us to recognise our biases and how we act on them. Another valuable piece of advice which Xiao gives is to ensure that, from the design and inception phase, members of a team come from diverse and different communities. The composition of a team will aid in understanding what is needed and challenge biases or assumptions staff can make. A key question which we ask is who is not in the room?” Always being open to knowing that there may be greater diversity of ideas, resources, and differences of thought processes and opinion which would be useful for designing innovative and inclusive programming.

4. Offer different ways to participate

The fourth principle she proposes is to ‘offer different ways to participate’. For example, we participated in a needs assessment process for the cultural sector in which modes of public participation included radio phone-ins, online surveys, town hall meetings, smaller municipal or parish gatherings, one-on-one conversations at meeting points or public spaces such as markets. In this way, once information was gathered and analysed, the diversity of the participating communities became apparent in terms of needs, ideas and resourcefulness.

5. Provide equivalent experiences

The fifth principle she proposes is to ‘provide equivalent experiences’. She cautions against creating ‘alternative’ experiences which are not comparable and do not have the same experiential outcomes. This is an important cautionary measure against diluting or falling prey to assumptions about potential audience reactions.

6. Extend the solution to everyone

The sixth principle is to ‘extend the solution to everyone’. Introducing solutions for one audience may help with facilitating greater access to others. For example, creating a ramp for wheelchairs may well provide a service for family groups and the elderly as well.

Over to you

Can you think of an experience you have had in a museum where at least one of these principles was visibly applied? Please share it in the comments section.


Lillian Xiao,, June 21, 2018
ICCROM-PREMA Museum Enlivening Skills workshop, Mutare Zimbabwe, 1998

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Creating Meaningful and Inclusive Museum Practices

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