Universal Design for (Brand) Architecture

At one of the most quaint and inviting nooks in all of Seattle called Bottlehouse, Sauntia (pictured above) and I met to have a perfect baguette, butter, and fresh honey with a glass of Sangiovese. No words can adequately describe Sauntia. She has an incredibly creative mind, bringing with her a wealth of life experiences–including formal training in social work and student development. Sauntia has a great big heart that holds dear the hopes and dreams of youth and their families.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 11.21.47 PMA fun fact: two minutes before this photo of us (right) was taken, and the day of the conference I talk about later in this post, Sauntia gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. She called me a “tender roni.” Urban Dictionary: “what a guy would call a girl that he’s dating and really cares about (see Bobby Brown’s song “Tender Roni”).”

On this occasion at Bottlehouse, Sauntia dropped the news that she is going to start her own business. She painted a picture of running a childcare facility that not only provided care, but support, learning opportunities and resources for low-income families.

As I am also currently in the process of building a brand and business, Sauntia and I excitedly exchanged ideas about that brand architecture process.

One of the most fascinating ideas I’ve encountered in the last two years is called “Universal Design.” It comes from Universal Design for Architecture, where builders considered ALL people at the design stage. The key question: How can all people of all ability levels, shapes and sizes enter, enjoy and experience this space? Instead of deciding post-construction to install a wheelchair-friendly entrance, beginning with chairs in mind.

Universal Design for Architecture centers on the idea that all people should have access and opportunity.

This Universal Design concept is even more fascinating when applied to education. (Bear with me; all of this will loop back around in a bit.)

Universal Design for Learning mindfully constructs learning environments and experiences–lesson plans, classes, and even educational systems–with ALL learners in mind. What does that mean? The assumption of Universal Design for Learning is this: people of all ages come from varied experiences, backgrounds, cultures. People also have varied frequencies and/or ability levels of connecting physically, emotionally and mentally. Universal Design for Learning challenges educators to construct a dynamic, empowering, creative and effective space to exchange and impart knowledge and learning.

The building blocks of Universal Design for Learning are: multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

Representation: not just text on a page, but visual and expressive forms. Color. Art. Sound. Mixed media.

Expression: not just writing text on a page or expressing ideas individually, but speaking / singing, illustrating, talking with others, working as a team, building something, etc.

Engagement: providing as many opportunities as possible for people to bring their whole selves to the learning experience. Their stories and experiences. Emotional connectivity and excitement. Relational and social connection. How can the classroom spark the flow of positive and personal engagement, both to an individual and for the group as a whole?

As we sat in Bottlehouse, and as Sauntia painted a picture of the business she hopes to build, I thought of another flavor of Universal Design that I haven’t encountered before. Universal Design for Brand Architecture.

What if a brand, a business, was built from the ground-up with all people in mind?

At first glance, that question sounds like the worst possible one you could ask. Yes, a brand should be designed with a specific need and audience in mind in order to be clear, focused and effective. However, have we unnecessarily narrowed our own thinking of “target audience” and “value proposition” to exclude rather than include? If we are cutting out a portion of our target audience without realizing it, that would be helpful to know! That would have impact on not just our bottom line, but our effectiveness and reach. In what ways do we contribute to segregating our population, without even knowing it? How have assumptions or biases affected our ability to reach as many people as possible with our brand identity?

If the term “implicit bias” is a new one for you, you’re not alone. It was a new one for me just months ago. Implicit bias isn’t explicit. It’s subconscious. We are subconsciously biased for and against certain people and/or people groups, just as we are for and against activities, foods, shapes, colors, events, and all sorts of things. Unconscious cognition is fascinating and frightening at the same time.

A statistic dropped at the Seattle Race Conference a few months back was that less than 2% of our emotional cognition is conscious. In other words, 98% of our emotional cognition is subconscious. Our decisions are grounded in subconscious assumptions, associations, and biasses that we are completely unaware we posses–or at the very least, are unaware we are making decisions from. We may know that we hold assumptions, associations and biasses but have no idea how much they are actually unconsciously informing our decisions.

For a brand, it is NOT enough to have photos of individuals of varied ages, ability levels, races and ethnicities in your advertisements and marketing materials. There is another level of welcome that makes all the difference.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 11.22.01 PMSauntia and I attended the Seattle Race Conference together (photo left), along with a colleague Angie (on the far right). 

I attended a workshop “Countering Bias in Hiring Project” led by Tina Abbott and Paula Harris-White from King County, Seattle. They shared how they led an initiative to ensure that King County employees matched King County residents when it came to racial group and ethnic origin. I could say more, as it was a fascinating project they took on, with interesting results. I’ll just say that their work inspired many questions for myself and others in the room, including: How are we unknowingly excluding welcome to people that we want at the table?

Sauntia and I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but we’re on the quest for them. For both her childcare business and for my coaching and change management company, we want to build spaces where all people will not only feel welcome, but can exchange ideas and contribute.

I DO know that this, my newly coined “Universal Design for Brand Architecture,” is built on the principles of inclusion and equity and the value of voice and contribution.

Sounds abstract? A bit more concrete of an example, and I’ll make it personal: I want to do all of the work I can to ensure that people of every age, gender identity, racial and ethnic identity can benefit from my coaching and change management company. And, I know that Sauntia wants that too–for her childcare business.

Let’s together figure out what Universal Design for Brand Architecture is all about. Stay tuned! Let’s talk about this more as we journey down the road together.

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