Using Design to Overcome Unconscious Bias at Work

In our ever-changing economy where an increasingly diverse workforce assumes new job roles, it is important to be cognizant of potential design biases that manifest in the workplace. As designers, how are we contributing to or questioning our unconscious bias when we design?

There are many common examples of biases that often go unresolved either because they reflect longstanding or unquestioned practices.  For example:

  • Air conditioning algorithms are designed for 154-pound males in suits
  • Camera filters favor lighter skin tones over those with darker skin tones
  • Scissors and other everyday workplace items are designed for right-handed people

Design methods can help uncover such biases that are sometimes hiding in plain sight within physical environments. In order for our workplace to support individual needs and larger organizational goals, we need to consider differences in culture, age, race, and much more when designing for inclusiveness.

In order to be aware of these issues, we’re always seeking ways to improve and learn. Last month, HLW team members had the opportunity learn about unconscious bias in the Workplace hosted by CoreNet’s Women’s Group where Margaret Regan, President and CEO of the Future Work Institute, gave a talk about the topic. 

So, what exactly is unconscious bias? As Regan defines it, biases are positive or negative preferences towards a person or a group that are based on different backgrounds, cultural environments, and personal experiences. When our biases are unconscious, we can unintentionally favor or disfavor other people.

We all have biases, so it is important to recognize and acknowledge them. One way to identify your biases is to think about the institutions, organizations, and cultural groups you belong to. Of these groups, what kinds of influences might they have on you? And of those influences, what biases may arise?

At HLW, many of our clients have asked us to design according to universal design standards and guidelines, and even positive organization principles.  Universal design is rooted in the idea that if a design caters to the ends of a spectrum, the people in the middle of the spectrum will also benefit.  For example, city sidewalks designed for the blind make navigation easier for everyone. Instead of molding people to our workplace, there is a need to shift our workplace to be inclusive.  Positive organization principles are about reframing common organization challenges through the use of positive language and a variety of research-based tools.  This has encouraged and informed us to push ourselves to design in ways that we might not have fully considered – to be inclusive and mindful.  Designers can utilize their dialogue facilitation skills to challenge assumptions.  Such dialogue can be used to source different perspectives from diverse groups for informing more inclusive solutions.

Examples of more inclusive solutions based on universal design principles include:

  • Providing a range of ergonomic seating options to support different body types and physical conditions
  • Offering gender neutral restrooms and considering the placement of them relative to other restrooms
  • Equipping the space with wellness rooms for nursing mothers that offer privacy, support, and comfort

As designers and strategists at HLW, we have the responsibility and opportunity to create a positive workplace experience and we can take steps to support this at every step in the design process. We can do this by:

  • Forming diverse project teams – Assembling a diverse team with different backgrounds and skillsets at the start of a project brings forward diverse mindsets that stem from unique personal and professional experiences.
  • Pursuing iterative innovation at every step of the design process – At every stage of this process, we seek innovative solutions by continuously asking ourselves questions.  We begin by asking what problems we see.  We then dig deeper by asking questions that drive at the heart of the problem.  Finally, we aim to solve these problems by asking ourselves “What if” and “Can we” types of questions.
  • Pursuing an empathic design mindset – Once the project begins, the design team also needs to hear the unique and diverse voices of the client. At the start, there is a fundamental need to understand the end user’s desires and needs, especially if they have never had a chance to voice their concerns. Such discovery can take the form of interviews, focus groups, visioning sessions, and other user research methods. Doing this enables designers to empathize with clients and understand client needs from a perspective that is often different from their own.

At the core of everything we do, we empathize with the end users who occupy the everyday spaces and places we design, which enables them to do their best work in the most supportive of environments.  We believe that good design and good design methods can minimize feelings of exclusion in the workplace in order to help nurture truly thriving work environments. 


By Hope Hahn, Mai Kobori, and Peter Bacevice