A Chat With CULUMU: Inclusive Design Studio Based in Tokyo

In today’s society, diversity is highly valued. When it comes to “diversity in design,” universal design has been well-known, and recently, inclusive design has also gained attention.

Inclusive design is one of the design methodologies aimed at achieving diversity. As the name suggests, it is a method of designing things that can be used inclusively without limiting the users. In this interview, we spoke with Shunsuke Kawai, the Chief Design Officer (CDO) of the inclusive design studio “CULUMU,” to learn about the basics of inclusive design and how it is incorporated into the design process.

── First of all, could you explain what “inclusive design” is?

Shunsuke: It’s difficult to explain the meaning of inclusive design in a single word, but our definition is “a design approach that considers diversity, including minorities with disabilities, language, culture, gender, and age.” It is a way of thinking that aims to create services and products that are friendly to a wide range of people. By including users who were previously excluded in the design process and marketing, we believe it can lead to the emergence of innovation.

── When it comes to designs that embrace diversity, universal design comes to mind. What are the differences between universal design and inclusive design?

Shunsuke: This is my perspective, but I believe that both universal design and inclusive design share the common goal of creating designs that are usable and accessible for a diverse range of people.

However, the processes and approaches differ. Universal design aims to design products and buildings that can be used by as many people as possible. On the other hand, inclusive design starts by considering who is being excluded from the business or service being created. It is a distinctive approach that involves identifying specific perspectives, such as the elderly or people with disabilities, and delving deeper into the areas where exclusion exists to gain new insights and develop solutions and businesses. So while there are similarities and shared goals with universal design, the processes are slightly different.

── Universal design focuses on creating designs that can be used by as many people as possible, while inclusive design aims to design in a way that reduces exclusion for specific groups. They are similar but indeed different.

Shunsuke: In inclusive design, we approach the design process with the understanding that there are people who are being excluded based on certain attributes. This is particularly evident in digital products, where we start by questioning who the people are that we are not fully serving. However, I also believe that it may not be necessary to aim for immediate usability by everyone.

── Can the principles of inclusive design be applied to improving existing products?

Shunsuke: Yes, that is also possible. For example, Seven Bank’s ATMs have been gradually evolving to enable a more diverse range of people to access financial services. People with visual impairments can withdraw money, make deposits, and check their balance by using the intercom for voice guidance and button operations. The ATMs are also equipped with places to put canes or umbrellas and drink holders, making them more user-friendly in terms of hardware. They also offer features for overseas remittances, catering to foreign users.

Designs that are user-friendly for people with disabilities are often perceived as user-friendly for the elderly as well, and features that allow one-handed operation are also helpful for people using ATMs while holding their children. Even for fixed products such as ATMs, there is still room for evolution by considering who is being excluded.

── It’s great that by solving a problem for someone, we can also solve the challenges of others.

Shunsuke: Microsoft has the phrase “Solve for one, extend to many” as their motto. By addressing specific needs and solving problems, we can discover previously unseen challenges, resulting in designs that are more user-friendly for a larger audience. By incorporating the principles of inclusive design, we can explore new design approaches. It’s not just about making products accessible to those who are excluded; it’s about developing products that provide value to a broader range of people. We often consider the potential and aim to offer products that increase their value as a design studio.

Creating Design Process Together

── What kind of projects does CULUMU receive?

Shunsuke: Actually, our projects are not that different from a regular design studio. We aim to incorporate inclusive design into about half of the projects we receive. In terms of projects, we often work on businesses that are closely related to infrastructure. It is not desirable for people to be excluded and unable to live comfortably due to certain circumstances.

Additionally, we also explore ideas for internal startups or new businesses that include people who have not been targeted by previous business ventures, as well as the growing population of elderly individuals and individuals with disabilities. These initiatives are often carried out in small groups as experimental endeavors, collaborating with financial institutions and manufacturers.

── When working on such projects, are there any differences in the design process compared to the typical design process?

Shunsuke: I don’t think there are significant differences, but we often incorporate workshops at the beginning to understand diversity and inclusive design. These workshops help us organize the situation and gain a better understanding.

At CULUMU, we have created dedicated cards for these workshops. These cards feature various personas and their respective situations, allowing us to consider “who is being excluded and in what circumstances.” We use these cards to facilitate discussions. In addition to workshops, there are no major differences in our approach, which includes user research and prototyping.

Inclusive Persona Card

We invite individuals who can lead us in identifying the challenges faced, such as the elderly, individuals with disabilities, foreigners, and others as lead users. We often collaborate with these individuals in workshops to bring in the perspectives of those directly affected, which may be a different approach compared to the usual design process.

We also conduct idea-generating workshops. Recently, we held a workshop with individuals directly affected to explore “a new video service that can be enjoyed by people with visual impairments.”

Source: Inclusive Design Experiencing Workshop!  with Collable / Can Anyone use TikTok?

Minor Perspectives as Opportunities for Innovation

── If one wants to start implementing inclusive design in their service or organization, what aspects would be easier to work on?

Shunsuke: One thing that is relatively easier to work on is to consider if there are any people unintentionally excluded from your company’s services or business. Start by organizing and understanding the different groups of people within your team. Then, think about how to approach those who have been excluded. By doing so, you may uncover significant challenges that were previously unnoticed, leading to new value propositions and discussions.

Taking the time to reflect on and address the needs of those who have been excluded can be a powerful catalyst for innovation and inclusive design within their service or organization.

── Wouldn’t aiming not to exclude many people require a lot of resources?

Shunsuke: It can be challenging to include everyone right from the start, and it may not be realistic. A more feasible approach is to gradually expand the target audience by saying, “Let’s make it usable for these types of people first.”

Adding the target audience incrementally as an extra to the existing approach might be easier to consider. For example, in the development of a business system, when thinking about user personas, include individuals with some kind of disabilities. It can still be challenging, but it doesn’t necessarily double the workload. It might increase by around 20%. Instead of making drastic changes, it is easier and more sustainable to make gradual adjustments. By incorporating even a slightly different perspective, it can become a catalyst for generating completely new ideas and designs. That’s why the potential for obtaining by-products also serves as motivation.

── The concept of incorporating new perspectives is wonderful. I believe it can be integrated into the service development process feasibly.

Shunsuke: We approach it with the mindset of considering both the majority and minority perspectives. It’s not necessary to compartmentalize or add everything at once. Sometimes, we propose to clients to include certain perspectives by saying, “Let’s consider this viewpoint as well.”

There is still untapped potential

── Have you had any new insights while practicing inclusive design?

Shunsuke: One thing I realized from the perspective of foreigners is that many things created in Japan are based on the assumption of being “for Japanese people.” Even something as simple as hotel reservations can have different procedures and requirements in each country. There are many things that Japanese people take for granted but are not known to those coming from overseas. Since the service journey itself is slightly different, it is necessary to reconsider what information should be conveyed and how. This realization leads to new initiatives.

When we become aware of previously unnoticed issues, I believe we can create products of better quality. By extracting challenges based on the perspective of those who don’t understand, even products that were previously used without much thought can become even more user-friendly. Especially in the digital realm, which is still evolving, I would like to see more domestic and international examples and contribute to spreading awareness.

── Do you have any impressive examples of inclusive design?

Shunsuke: One notable example is the Go FlyEase sneakers developed by Nike. These sneakers can be worn without using hands. Originally designed based on the input of athletes with disabilities, I found them unexpectedly convenient when I tried them on while carrying my child. It made me realize that even though it’s something obvious, like “it’s difficult to put on shoes while carrying a child,” I had never been consciously aware of it. So, this is a clear example of how creating something for individuals with physical disabilities can actually provide value to many others as well.

Worn hands-free sneakers, Go FlyEase by Nike

I believe that there is great potential for innovation to emerge as a result. It might be worth considering borrowing the perspectives of minorities to create something new.

── When I heard the term “inclusive design,” I thought it might be difficult or require specialized knowledge. However, the idea of “expanding perspectives” and “borrowing different viewpoints” seems simple and something that anyone can approach.

Shunsuke: Yes, I think if we approach it with a mindset of expanding possibilities, it will continue to grow. However, we are still in a state where we are constantly experimenting and conducting research and development. We don’t believe that we have all the answers, so we would be happy to continue challenging ourselves with new initiatives alongside individuals and companies who are interested in such endeavors. Since there is no set formula, we want to explore various answers with different people.

── Thank you very much, Shunsuke!

Related Links

Inclusive Design for a Digital World
The book translated and supervised by Shunsuke

Written By

Arisa Nojima

Arisa is an editor at Spectrum Tokyo. After graduating from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she worked for a game production company and a HR startup for designers before going independent in 2021. As a freelancer in the design community, she currently supports recruitment and writing at various companies. She loves radio and cats.


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