Kat Holmes Leads the Charge as a Woman in Design

Author and Inclusive Designer Who’s Designing a World For All


Meet Kat Holmes.  

The design maven who’s devoted her career to designing inclusive technology that seeks to empower the people who modern design has too often left in the shadows. Imagine: A computer mouse that works for the right and left handed— this is human centered technology for all humans. Perhaps obvious, but definitely not the status quo.

Holmes recently joined Google as the Director of UX Design, on the heels of a fruitful period at Microsoft where, as the Principal Director of Inclusive Design, she created a toolkit for designers that was so successful in its design that it was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.  

In between she’s found time to write a book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design. Because inclusive design means more time to manage thoughtfully.  

Detroitisit: Congratulations on your book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design! Tell us what it’s about.

Kat Holmes: Thank you! It’s been a journey, and I’m glad the book will be available soon (Sept, 2018). The book is about the mismatches in how products and experiences are designed, how those mismatches can be the building blocks of exclusion, and how inclusive design can be a remedy. The term “mismatch” is what the World Health Organization uses to describe disability. Specifically, WHO defines disability as “a mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live.” The book makes the case that inclusive design can not only counter those mismatches, but it can be a source of innovation and growth, serve as a catalyst for creativity and be an economic imperative. 

DII: How would you describe inclusive design? 

KH: Simply. It’s a method of design. The practice of inclusive design means that the designer or design team works closely with excluded communities to create better solutions. Designers need to recognize who’s most excluded from using a solution and then bring them into the heart of the design process. People who navigate mismatched interactions every day of their lives will bring ingenuity and build deep expertise to solving those design challenges. 

DII: Why is the inclusive design method important? What are the benefits? 

KH: Designers can be the tipping point between exclusive or inclusive environments, because each choice they make for a given solution determines who ultimately can or cannot participate. The benefits of inclusive practices always extend beyond just the excluded community. Classic examples of solutions created for a particular need that now are ubiquitous include closed captioning, curb cuts, and email. 

Kat Holmes in Studio

Behind the scenes at a photoshoot for Gray Magazine in Seattle. Kat Holmes, on the right, poses with Tiffany Brown, a Detroit-based architectural designer, and John Porter, a researcher and expert in gaming with disabilities at Microsoft. Both Tiffany and John are key contributors to Kat’s book “Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.”

DII: How does a designer or design team begin to practice inclusive design? 

KH: It’s the perennial question and there is no single answer. But there is a growing number of organizations and schools that are exploring or implementing inclusive design into their respective fields. In turn, they are sharing their knowledge, experiences, and best practices. Tapping into excluded communities isn’t as hard as it may seem, once you start looking. I also advise designers to identify their own ability biases and connect with people whose abilities might be vastly different than their own. What I mean by that is that we all have habits of exclusion that we developed in our formative years. Our default habits, therefore, can feed a cycle of exclusion that stems from those internalized assumptions about the people who receive our designs. But, if we check our habits every step of the way and ask ourselves why we make something, who makes it, how it’s made, who uses it, and what do we make, then we can begin to understand inclusion in design. 

DII: Now that you are the Director of UX Design at Google, what do you hope to bring to your work there? 

KH: It’s an exciting time to be at Google and, like all leading tech companies, this is a time to reflect on how inclusion in the workplace and the design process can lead to better products. There’s already lots of good work underway across the company. For my part, I’m eager to learn about new categories of business and how design can fuel inclusive growth. 

DII: What inspired you to become a designer? Childhood stories? Game-changing moments?   

KH: I went to school originally to study orthopedic biomechanics, because I wanted to create prosthetics for people. I have always been interested in the fit between human beings and the objects around us and the tools that extend or assist us. Engineering helped me understand how things are made. It wasn’t until I was working at Microsoft and got a chance to work with the development of the artificial intelligence behind Cortana that our teams began to explore what it meant to be inclusive in the design process. 

DII: Detroit. First thing that comes to mind? 

KH: The people. Especially people who are born and raised in Detroit. Their pride in their hometown is unlike anywhere I’ve visited. That pride has a deep history and is represented in important architectural sites across the city. Detroiters are working hard to build a future that honors this pride and carries it forward, in partnership with the people who made Detroit what it is today. 

Driving human progress through freedom of movement


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