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What Goes Wrong When We Design for People and Not With People with David Berman

July 16, 2021

Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features David Berman and is about what can go wrong when we design for people instead of with people.

Often referred to as the ‘David Suzuki of design,’ David Berman’s career has been influenced by many different industries – but design has always remained at the center of it all.

David has over 30 years of experience in design and communications and has worked extensively in the adaptation of content for electronic distribution, including accessible web and software interface development.

David regularly teaches WCAG accessibility as part of his professional development workshops. His work includes award-winning projects for the City of Ottawa, the Ontario government, and Canada’s federal government. David has provided consultancy, training, and testing to IBM, the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, AODA office, and the Norwegian Design Council on Accessibility Issues.

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Episode transcript

ELISA LEWIS: Welcome back to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host Elisa Lewis. And on today’s episode, we’ll be chatting with David Berman. David has over 30 years of experience in design and communications and has worked extensively in the adaptation of content for electronic distribution, including accessible web and software interface development.

David is one of a few hundred people globally to hold all four of the CPWA, WAS, CPACC, and ADS certifications, the world’s only certifications for e-accessibility professionals. In 2021, David was asked to join the ISO committee for the emerging global standard on plain language, as well as joining the technical committee for the standards being developed for the Accessible Canada Act.

David regularly teaches WCAG accessibility as part of his professional development workshops. His work includes award-winning projects for the City of Ottawa, the Ontario government and Canada’s federal government. David has provided consultancy, training, and testing to IBM, the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, AODA office, and the Norwegian Design Council on Accessibility Issues. He has worked in over 20 federal websites where such an appreciation is mandatory.

He has provided design and consulting work for the International Space Station, Justice Canada, Health Canada, the World Bank, the Sierra Club, Statistics Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency, Treasury Board Secretariat, and the Ontario Literary Coalition, serves as the WCAG standards specialist for e-accessibility for Harrowsmith’s almanac as well as extensive work involving applying accessibility guidelines to large government presences.

Today, David will be joining us to talk about what goes wrong when we design for people and not with people. We’re thrilled to have David on the Allied today so let’s get started.

Welcome, David. We’re really glad to have you joining us on the Allied Podcast today. We are going to be chatting about what goes wrong when we design for people and not with people. And I know, David, when we spoke about this topic, you mentioned a couple of really interesting examples. And before we dive in, to kick us off, I’d love if you could share a little bit about some of the examples that you mentioned with our audience.

DAVID BERMAN: Sure, Elisa. Hey, it’s great to be back with 3Play. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m excited to talk about this idea of what goes wrong when really well-meaning people unfortunately get outcomes that aren’t what they expected, when they make the error of not including members of their audience in the design process.

And specifically– Elisa, the podcast is all about accessibility so I’m specifically thinking about situations where people are trying to design accommodations, trying to design ways to delight everyone but it doesn’t go so well. So yeah, we’ll definitely show off a few of those as we have our chat today.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. So I want to start out with a little bit of background about you, so asking some questions to have the conversation with our audience about your career and how you got into this world. So I know that your career in design began as early as high school and that you produced your own magazine, but I’m curious what initially sparked your interest in the field and who or what, if anyone, do you credit as influential to your career path.

DAVID BERMAN: Gary Gygax, the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons. Because when I was in high school, I was such a Dungeons & Dragons nerd. And Dungeons & Dragons– I’m dating myself here– but it had just become a thing and we had this medieval role play gaming club. And we thought Dungeons & Dragons is pretty good but we can do better than that. And I got excited about the idea of creating a magazine about gaming.

Well, it wasn’t very long until I was more intrigued with the production process, the design, the typefaces, the illustrations, how to print it. I was just making it all up because I was 15 years old. And when the dust had cleared, I had this magazine being published in four countries. When it was time to go to university, I was shipped off to be a mathematician. But when I got to the university, I was so enthralled by the student press.

I was spending all my time working on designing the newspaper and not as much time as I ought to have been in classes. So I eventually realized there was a job called graphic designer where I could do that all the time. And I learned you don’t have to do what you’re necessarily best at, you should do what you’re passionate about. And so when the internet came along, conveniently, it all came together, mathematics, graphic design. That’s where it started out.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. So at what point did you start thinking more philosophically about design social and ethical impact as part of your design thinking?

DAVID BERMAN: Well, when I was in university, my quote unquote girlfriend was a radical feminist. And at the time, I thought I was fairly woke, but when she posed the idea to me that as a graphic designer I was responsible for much of what was wrong with the world– at the time, it was about the depiction of people, it was about environmentalism– and I had fall– my defense was the classic, oh no, I’m just a designer. I just arrange the things so they look great.

And we argued all night. And by dawn, I was convinced that indeed designers had a huge impact on the world. So I naively marched to the first meeting I could get to of the Graphic Designers of Canada with a manifesto in my hand arguing that we should create a code of ethics for our profession that insisted that graphic designers had to use their power responsibly. That brought me on a path where someone said, you should– this is something we do nationally.

So fast-forward a few years, chair of the Ethics Committee for the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada. And we wrote a world beating code of ethics that said, if you want to be a member of our society, if you want to have certification as a graphic designer, it’s your responsibility to take careful care of the things you have control over.

And after that, I was called up to the majors with the world body of design and we developed global standards and ended up getting to travel the world speaking to designers, anyone who would listen, about my idea of the designer as an agent of social change.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. It’s definitely true that creators, whether it be on the visual end or if we think about creators behind the scenes more on the tech side of things really do have a significant impact on society and on the way that we do things, in the way we think about things. So that’s a really interesting point. I’m curious, at this early stage of your career, did you experience or see the concept of designing with people rather than for people.

DAVID BERMAN: Well, I think we have to fast-forward to the point to which I realized that in my lifetime, at a time when the internet was not as ubiquitous as it is today, when it was still the case that the majority of humanity was not yet online, people were recognizing that if you wanted to help design the future of civilization and if you really wrapped your head about the idea that, at the time, the majority of designers who had ever lived were alive at that moment. And there was this opportunity to truly think about how to include everyone.

And so I realized that here in that perhaps the 7,000th generation of humans, whether it was a spiritual thing or just coincidence, we had the opportunity to really give access to everyone. And that meant everyone gets connected but it also meant to recognize that over a billion people on the planet are living with a substantial disability. So I decided to focus on the opportunity to create accessible things, to make it my passion to help designers get turned on to the idea that we could include everyone and focus on how to do that.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. So it seems that no matter what project you’re working on, inclusive design thinking is at the core of what you do. Could you share some background and maybe some tips on some of the core principles that you follow when you’re doing this work?

DAVID BERMAN: Certainly. We follow principles that have been developed by people much cleverer than I. For instance, the Universal Design for Learning Standards, which at its core recognizes that all humans have individualized ways of gaining knowledge and reflecting that back. And so one of the keys is to always been thinking about multiple modalities. So that if you’re always sharing content in more than one way, it means that people are more likely to be able to absorb it in a way that’s meaningful to them.

So for example, for most humans, the largest bandwidth pipe into the brain is through the eye. It makes sense. But for those who can’t see or perhaps have never seen or perhaps will never see, then it’s equally important to find other ways to transmit that information. Conveniently, when we ship the same content over more than one mode, we also get this convenient redundancy. It either helps reinforce the message or make sure we have the coverage to make sure that no one is left behind.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for sharing that. In your book, Do Good Design, you write about when or how you realized the role that design plays in creating and sharing particular narratives. So how would you recommend that designers stay conscious of their social responsibilities when publishing work. And I know that you mentioned that this is something that came about early in your career, in your college years. So I’d love to learn a little bit more about that.

DAVID BERMAN: Well, Elisa, sure. Happy to. Early on in this Do Good Design vector, it was all about convincing people to take their privilege and their competencies, their skills, and apply them to doing good. That is, rather than being an art director at a cigarette company, you could be an art director at an NGO or– there were so many ways. And the idea was to put yourself on a career path which was in alignment with your internal principles as well as in alignment with an agreed common code of ethics, which the professional group you’re a part of, no matter what kind of creator you are. If you could get those two things in alignment, then pretty sure it would play out well.

However, the next level was to realize that it’s not enough for people to just want to do the good thing, the right thing, the ethical thing. They also have to have the knowledge to know how to do that. And so for example, what– can I jump into one of these examples of how things can go wrong when well-meaning people design for people rather than with people?

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’d love to hear a little bit about that.

DAVID BERMAN: Alright. So the Olympics are coming up in Japan. And there’s this really well-meaning designer. His name is Kosuke Takahashi from Japan. And he invented this thing called braille Neue, which the idea was a typeface. The vision is, can you create a typeface that’s made up of the braille dots, the tactile braille, and also works for visual users.

So imagine a letter that– let’s say you have the letter T. And you may know– Elisa, I’m sure you’re confident here. You’re aware that with braille, you’re basically taking six dots turning them on and off, and those patterns represent letters or numbers or sometimes phrases, short parts of a word.

So Kosuke figured he could create a letter which looked like the braille but also was the letter. And that way, when people arrived in Japan, the wayfinding in the buildings could be in this typeface that could both be felt as well as seen. And it sounds like a great idea and it makes a fantastic newspaper article, but it’s very flawed. And here’s why. Wayfinding involves seeing words from, let’s say, 30 feet away. So you’re talking about words that maybe have to be a foot tall.

Braille only works if the tactile points are about the height of the top third of your finger. You’re going to feel the braille. So having a typeface that’s going to accommodate the braille user means it’s going to be about 12 points tall on a wall. That, of course, doesn’t work as wayfinding. Having a typeface that is large enough for the typical visual user to use, of course it’s going to be way too high as well as it would have to be on one line because braille’s typically on one line, at one level from the floor so you can find it.

So as an art project, it’s brilliant. But as a design solution, it actually is the antithesis of our no trade-offs approach to design, to inclusive design that we go for. And if I can rabbit hole that, Elisa, I’m referring to the majority of the work we do at my firm is we help development and teams come up with no trade-offs approaches to their design.

So let’s say we’re doing an accessibility audit of a website or a document, we’ll identify all the gaps and then we’ll make recommendations on how to close them in a way that works for everyone. Because designers understandably are terrified that when we make their design accessible, they’re going to lose the nuance, the drama. We’re going to have this lowest common denominator sad version of what they had envisioned.

So when we talk about no trade-off solution, we promise that our solutions are either going to be invisible to the typical user. That is, they won’t even notice anything changed or we’re going to enhance the design in such a way that all users benefit. So trying to come up with a typeface that is both braille and words visually is the opposite of no trade-off. So what we’re doing is we’ve made the experience worse for the braille user. We’ve also made it worse for the visual user because decades of thought have gone into creating typefaces, which wayfind well, where you can find your way through an airport or to leave a burning building.

Another challenge of this typeface is it forces into all caps, which is a whole other thing. So this is an example that I’m imagining that although Mr. Takahashi had a great idea in his heart to create something wonderful, I can’t imagine he included people who use braille, blind users, in the solution because they would have, on the first hour, said that’s not going to work. And Elisa, it goes beyond– you could say, well, that’s just unfortunate.

It goes beyond that. It concerns me that we have a worldview where instead of getting to know our audience and finding out what they really need, we are creating a cartoon version of them where we think we know what they need. And that gets in the way of real life issues, people of all abilities who simply want to be able to do their work and live their lives. There is an urgency to this where we can’t necessarily get distracted with solutions that won’t work. We have to focus on those that will.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s a great example, David. Thank you for sharing that. I think, like you said, it’s clear that the intention was coming from a great place but that didn’t get us quite far enough in this situation. And we can really– if we take the time to ask questions, whether it be about a disability or diversity of maybe it’s different cultures or things like that, we’re going to be able to create a better world and better products and services and really just learn rather than assuming.

And I think that’s what it comes down to, is there was an assumption made rather than really going to the source and getting the information. I’m curious to get your thoughts. I think there’s a pretty common misconception that accessibility sometimes hinders creativity. I’m curious as a designer, someone with a graphic design background, what are your thoughts on this and can you think of an example where you’ve seen creativity and accessibility work really well together, and maybe that’s a time where we were designing with people. Maybe that is an example.

DAVID BERMAN: Well, for sure. And in fact, having worked as a creator for so long, in fact, I’ve often noticed that more often than not constraints are the mother of invention as they say. So in fact, the crazy constraint, whether it’s self-imposed or the client imposes, usually results in the most creative solutions because it forces you to think in a new way.

So short-term it’s like, bummer, what? We’ve got to use black ink on a black paper? Just an exert example. But that makes you think, well, wait a moment. What would that be like if you had to come up with a solution within that constraint? So I want to unask the question, Elisa, because I don’t really believe that having an unlimited buffet of solutions actually helps the creative process at all. More typically, people need some constraints to help get them thinking creatively.

ELISA LEWIS: Sure. Yeah, that’s a great point. I think at some point, it’s like decision fatigue where there’s too many options you don’t even know where to begin.

DAVID BERMAN: Well, let me give you an example of where including people in the design process really does work. I’m thinking about a project we did with the Canadian government. We were trying to develop a workflow where– Elisa, I know that 3Play, one of your tenets is the idea that you bake accessibility in as early as possible in the process. That we know that if accessibility is just a last-minute add-on, then it’s painful, it’s expensive, and you also get mediocre results in terms of creating an experience that doesn’t just accommodate but delights.

And an example of this is we were working on a workflow. The idea was that all federal government employees, rather than create documents that will be made accessible later, are inclusive by default. They start off from a template that’s fully accessible. Not only does this make it easier to create accessible products, but it means that everyone can be involved in the document from the very first step.

The document isn’t accessible after you finish creating it and making it accessible, every step of the way, creators of all abilities can be involved in the writing and the curating and the selecting of images and video because it’s accessible by default. There’s actually a guy in the Canadian government who I’ll shout out, Niklas Vangelis. He’s the guy who taught me braille. He said, David, I can teach you braille in 15 minutes. And I’m thinking like, that’s not possible. But even if it took two hours, I want to learn braille. It’s something I got to learn how to do.

So now the thing is that– and the key was– Niklas explained to me when he was teaching me braille that it’s a lot easier to learn braille if you can see, which I can. The thing is Niklas is the guy who convinced the Bank of Canada to create currency that was truly usable by someone who couldn’t see. Some countries had come up with approaches where every bill like the $5 bill, the $10 bill, the $20 bill were different shapes and sizes like they do in Australia with the idea that a blind person, for example, could know which currency was just by feeling it.

But Niklas explained to me that, no, that doesn’t work. If you only have one bill, you can’t really tell. And he decided his goal was that a blind person who’s in a bar half drunk, has just bought drinks, has been given change by the bartender, that the bartender shouldn’t feel that they could try to trick the blind person because they can’t see the money. And so you’d think that the first money in the world, it would have tactile dots on it would simply be braille. That’s the obvious solution if you don’t have the lived experience.

But instead, and this is true in Canadian money to this day, that our $5 bills, our $10 bills, our $20 bills, our $100 bills have tactile dots on them that are the same shape and size as braille so much that if you felt them and didn’t know braille, you’d think they’re braille but they’re not. They’re simply all six dots there. And if there’s four of them, it’s $100 bill. And if there’s three of them, it’s a $20 bill. If it’s two of them, it’s a $10 bill. If it’s one of them, it’s a $5 bill. We don’t have $2 bills and $1 bills in Canada. We went to metal long ago.

So the idea was that even if the bartender would decide, I’m going to rub the dots off, all they can do is make their currency worth less. So this isn’t a sexy idea like Takahashi’s font, it’s a practical idea, a practical idea that makes sure that people can have a better day because they know how much money they’re holding in their hands. So Canadian money is all the same size, which was also what the Bank of Canada needed for the automation of vending machines and all. So they came up with a solution– this is now over 15 years old, but it remains a standard that other countries have adopted.

ELISA LEWIS: That’s an awesome example. Thank you for sharing that. So you’re totally right that at 3Play, we really talk about and practice baking accessibility in from the beginning. And the other thing that I always like to bring up and point out is that accessibility typically benefits more people than we imagine it will. It’s often also tied to a better user experience and just better user interface. So I think that that’s another really important thing that why not build it in from the beginning so that, like you said, everyone can be invoked from the get-go rather than waiting for it to be tacked on after the fact.

DAVID BERMAN: Indeed, Elisa. I’m thinking about how most people won’t be able to watch this podcast. They’re going to have to listen to it, aren’t they? Because it’s a podcast. And yet when you and I are talking, I can show something– I’m just going to show you my braille watch and I could tell you how once Niklas taught me the braille and now I could actually check what time it was in the middle of the night just by reaching over without waking myself up.

But I have to explain that I’m pointing to my braille watch that’s on my wrist. And the value of that is I’m baking the audio description right into the video. So whether it’s a video that’s going to be experienced by someone who can’t see or it’s a podcast where everyone has the temporary disability of not being able to be visual, we eliminate the need to add an audio description of explaining what was going on that was relevant to the action.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. Yeah.

DAVID BERMAN: On that matter, Elisa, of how everyone can benefit, I’d like to talk about deaf gloves.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely.

DAVID BERMAN: Because I feel strongly that everyone should learn some sign language. It’s one of those things that I started to learn some sign language because I felt how can I work in this industry without knowing what I’m talking about, live it somewhat. And once I was learning sign language, I find not only does change how you think and how you be creative in ways that are more esoteric, but it’s just handy to have some sign language, whether you’re in the mall and your friend is 30 or 30 feet away and you want to tell them that, oh, I’m just going to jump into this store for 10 minutes and I’ll meet you at the food court, and there’s hundreds of people between you.

It’s very powerful to just be able to use gesture to be able to communicate. And we sometimes joke about how often we see projects, typically by grad students typically in North America, where they are lovingly trying to create a glove that has sensors in it. So someone who is expressing themselves with sign language, that person would wear the glove and the sensors would figure out the position of their hand and convert this expression into written language so the people who don’t know sign language would know what they’re saying.

And it’s another one of the things, it sounds great, it sounds fantastic, but the problem is that it’s not coherent to what sign language is really about. And that’s because sign language involves more than just the motion of hands. It involves expression, it involves sweeping gestures, it involves a lot more than what you get out of one hand. So for instance, there’s an app I downloaded on my phone that indeed could show someone spelling out the 26 letters of the alphabet what in ASL, American Sign Language, we call fingerspelling.

And pretty well every sign language in the world has some form of fingerspelling. So when you need to spell out a word, then, yes, it is true, you could have the glove, sense the letter A and the letter B and the letter C and even the numerals and even some of the most basic words. However, imagine then if I was trying to explain to you how this would be F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-I-N-G E-X-T-R-E-M-E-L-Y T-O H-A-V-E L-I-S-T-E-N.

Everything I’m saying in that speak is I’m spelling out everything as I go. That’s crazy. That’s crazy to think that anyone would want to express themselves in that way. And even if you build in some basic words, you’re still ignoring the fact that American Sign Language isn’t some dialect of English, it’s a whole other language. It has a different grammar so even the order that you would express the words in a sentence would be different.

So what you’re doing is you’re burdening this person who uses sign, is, let’s say, native to ASL or another sign language, to have to express themselves through this glove painfully letter by letter or even word by word in a sequence that would be meaningful to the English speaker. And that’s not to say there’s not amazing AI research going on now where people are studying the entire visual imagery and in the same way that Google Translate engines takes entire documents of English and French and compares them and figures it out. People are doing massive experiments.

I was involved in one last year where they were actually videoing groups of people conversing in sign language. But the deaf gloves, the deaf gloves are not this thing. And it’s just another example of how really well-meaning, loving, good-spirited people are leaving out they’re designing for people rather than with people. Because if there was a person native to ASL present in the first briefing meeting about the development of that glove, they would be correcting that team and taking all that creativity and intellect and passion and helping them divert it towards creating something that really would truly be useful.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s a great example. And I think your point about ASL being a completely separate language from English is supercritical. Like you said, it’s completely different grammar and sentence structure. I think the other thing of note is that ASL is a big part of deaf culture. And I imagine that it’s not necessarily something that a lot of individuals who use ASL would even be interested in. And has that been a discussion with the users of the language or was that another assumption that was being made.

DAVID BERMAN: Elisa, you’re absolutely right because the best design thing starts with including people and even deciding what are we going to create today. I find that when we get into– even when we get into these projects, like the project I was talking about when we were creating documents with– they were inclusive by default, I expected that we drive down costs. I expected that we include more people. What I didn’t expect is this. The viewpoint of people with lived experience actually brings to the creative process ideas and approaches and priorities you never even would have imagined possible.

And so just like any great product design process, you end up with ideas you would have never generated on your own, unless you have a very diverse team in the creative process. I’m always surprised at how surprised I am when that happens because you think I’d learn, you think– you’d say, you should expect this now. But no, every time it’s like, whoa, that was amazing. It’s just a lot of fun when that happens, but it’s really rewarding and meaningful and it’s respect. It’s making sure that we’re really giving everyone the respect and dignity they deserve, not just in how they use our products but in how we develop them.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. So as we begin to wrap up, I wanted to ask if you have any final thoughts that you want to share with the audience on this topic of accessibility and really user-centered design, designing for the people and for the needs of the people that you’re designing for.

DAVID BERMAN: Yes, Elisa. If I haven’t said it already, I’d love to say it again. More people have been liberated in the last 35 years by digital technology, by assistive technologies than all the wars and all the revolutions in the history of human civilization. We just happened to be alive in the first generation where it’s truly possible for us to include everyone. When we design for the extremes, and we do it well, everyone benefits. And I think because we can, we must.

So I love the idea that 3Play dedicates itself to inclusion and I really appreciate you giving me the chance to share some of my thoughts about how we can all be better at this.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. Thank you so much, David. It was great having you back with 3Play and I really enjoyed our conversation today. I also want to ask before we wrap up, where can our listeners find you and connect with you online?

DAVID BERMAN: Oh, well, thank you, Elisa. Well, people can follow me at David Berman, D-A-V-I-D B-E-R-M-AN, or come to our website at, That’s that Web Content Accessibility Guidelines standard that we all love to nerd out on. So or at David Berman.

ELISA LEWIS: Perfect. Thank you.

DAVID BERMAN: Alright. Thanks, Elisa.


ELISA LEWIS: Thanks for listening to Allied. If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media or leave us a rating and review. To catch all the latest on accessibility, visit Thanks again and I’ll see you next time.

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