“Normal” is an ambiguous term. Where are the boundaries of what’s considered normal – and who makes those decisions? An inclusive mindset has been part of Veryday’s DNA since the 1960s. To be inclusive, we take into consideration many factors and perspectives. By using an approach that allows us to understand and challenge what’s normal, we can contribute to a world where more people realize their full potential.
Establishing norms in communities is often helpful. We can all agree that not committing crimes and not hurting others are examples of good, normal behavior. But certain norms are restrictive rather than beneficial – and can lead to discrimination based on gender, age, sexuality, health, personality, socioeconomic status, and variations of ability, ethnicity or culture.
Norm criticism, an approach that’s recently become popular in Sweden, is a way to bring these issues to the forefront. Norm criticism is about understanding, problematizing and changing notions that limit people’s lives. It allows us to expand the definition of what’s considered normal in society, giving people a wider range of opportunities that previously may not have been available to them. Norm criticism is an intersectional method that involves challenging our biases and opening up more possibilities for people to become their true selves.
The approach is not necessarily about designing specifically for those outside current norms or trying to design one product to meet every single individual need – it’s about ensuring that what we design does not perpetuate harmful and restrictive norms or unnecessarily exclude certain groups.
Building norm criticism into a project should not be done simply to be charitable or to gain publicity. Instead, an actively inclusive approach is necessary to attracting a diverse workforce, which has been shown to create smarter teams. It can also allow companies to reach a broader target audience. And it’s not necessarily more expensive or more difficult to execute than other approaches.
Methods for a norm-critical approach
The Swedish Innovation Agency, Vinnova, ran a project call the Gender Lab and invited Veryday to participate. The project resulted in NOVA, a method kit for those interested in building a norm-critical approach into their innovation projects.
Åsa Wikberg Nilsson and a team of academic colleagues ran the Gender Lab and oversaw the creation of NOVA. An associate professor at Luleå Technical University in Sweden, Åsa researches design methodology and processes with a focus on norm-critical methods for innovation and socially sustainable design. We asked Åsa some questions about the project and her perspective on norm-critical design.
Having Veryday as part of the team was valuable for all Gender Lab projects because of the openness and broad thinking of its designers. Having their capacity on board helped iterate solutions and the visual materials they created made it easy for other participants to understand.
Åsa Wikberg Nilsson, Associate professor at Luleå Technical University
How would you define norm-critical design?
Åsa Wikberg Nilsson: “Norm criticism is a perspective – one that should be a part of every design process. At design school we learn to be open and see things in new ways, and norm criticism is an extension of that way of thinking. However, I think the term ‘norm-creative’ is more useful because we don’t just want to stay in the analysis phase, we want to get to actual solutions. You only get so far with criticism; it’s only when you actually try to understand the problem and see solutions that you can make it actionable.”
How would you describe the history of norm-critical design?
Å: “Norm criticism as a term has become more common during the past few years, especially in the Swedish social and cultural sectors. Previously, the discussion was centered separately around different kinds of discrimination: gender, ethnicity, etc. Norm criticism is used to tackle all grounds for discrimination by using these different aspects as lenses through which to view a problem. It’s a way to see how types of discrimination are linked and to try to understand the mechanisms behind what makes something normal or a deviation.”
Can you tell us about the process of developing NOVA?
Å: “We saw a need for tools that organizations could use to help build a norm-critical perspective. The NOVA kit includes methods created in the Gender Lab. In the Gender Lab project, we developed a collection of methods that we thought might be useful for building norm creativity into innovation.
We recruited organizations, including Veryday, to help us create these methods and then test them in real projects. Some methods worked well, others we put aside or iterated together. By working together and sharing experiences, the participating companies recognized similarities and patterns between different businesses and sectors. We made method cards from our findings and published them for organizations to use.
Give us an example of the types of methods included in NOVA.
Å: “We’ve divided the NOVA method kit into different project phases. The first part of the kit is simply about learning to understand and identify discrimination and harmful norms. An example method is ‘Think with Your Body,’ which is about using your body to understand a situation or process from different physical perspectives. This is a common method within design but not so common in business – so it’s often an eye-opener. Other methods are about spotting and avoiding stereotypes when making personas. ‘Name the Character’ is an exercise about questioning your personas from a norm-creative perspective.”
How can companies use NOVA to work in a more norm-critical manner?
Å: “On an organizational level, the kit includes methods for doing exercises around company values. It also includes 12 strategies to use in project-based work. A team can pick a strategy for their project and use the kit as a guide.”
When to use a norm-critical approach
Governments and businesses can do amazing work to improve inclusivity in communities, like reimagined social services in Singapore and gender equality in the ER. We can also make a huge impact when we put on our norm-critical glasses and bring the approach into everything we do for every industry. This mindset has resulted in a gender-neutral bike for IKEA and a bus with spaces designed for different personality types. Even small daily actions like checking our vocabulary for discriminatory language or making sure we include a wide range of research respondents can make a difference in designing a world that’s more inclusive, open and tolerant.
If you’re interested in learning more, order a copy of the NOVA method kit here:
Anna Hellmer, Veryday NY