Active Inclusion: The eighth mindset of design thinking

Here is a point that must be stated plainly from the start: diversity unto itself is not human-centered.

This may lead to some wide eyes and slack jaws. Think about it, though: If design thinking (also referred to as human-centered design) is about empathy, need-finding and making connections that lead to unexpected solutions, then diversity is not enough.

Now, this may be the point at which one might protest: “Human-centered design calls on us to form diverse teams and engage in radical collaboration!"

Yes. That is absolutely correct. Diverse teams are one of many keys to an effective application of human-centered design. The best ideas come from a team of people who possess an array of different approaches, experiences, areas of expertise, and the list goes on. These teams, in order to work effectively, must be more than diverse and radical. They must be inclusive.

That’s right, inclusion and diversity are not the same. Let’s start with definitions:

Inclusion: "the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure."

Diversity: "the state of being diverse; variety."

Both are a state of being, but only one definition includes a magic word in human-centered design: action.

There are seven mindsets that go along with the five process stages of human-centered design. We’ll focus on two of these mindsets: “radical collaboration” and “bias towards action”.

The seven mindsets associated with the design thinking process as taught at the Stanford

The seven mindsets associated with the design thinking process as taught at the Stanford

“Radical collaboration” means bringing individuals and organizations together that might not otherwise interact. It also means doing so in ways that challenge expectations and norms to unearth insights.

A “bias towards action” calls on one to take the shortest path between a problem and an action directly related to solving that problem. This means minimal (if any) planning, and a lot of risk-taking and wrestling with ambiguity. A human-centered process relies on being in a constant state of vulnerability and activity.

Now, let’s go back to diversity and inclusion: if, as the definitions of these two words show, diversity is a state of being, and inclusion is an action or a “state of including”, then one is more fitting to process than the other, given the existing mindsets.

Rather than merely have a group of different kinds of people in a room (diversity), a human-centered team must constantly be engaged in the act of inviting, engaging, empathizing, discovering, learning from and teaching the other members in the group (inclusion). A diverse group of people is not enough to make a human-centered process effective. A team that actively seeks to be inclusive in its recruitment and day-to-day operations, on the other hand, is primed to confront the ambiguity, vulnerability and risk-taking necessary to make human-centered design possible.

This means there is an eighth mindset in design thinking: Active inclusion.

This mindset asks for more than diversity and radical collaboration, it calls on teams to be vigilant in acknowledging the ways in which they may make each individual in the group feel valued, worthy and engaged. Active inclusion also calls on individuals to challenge assumptions they may have about their team members and actively question who is on their team, why and whether they are embracing views and voices wholly different from their own as well as ones not frequently seen or heard.

Combined with the other seven mindsets, the active inclusion mindset can add an incredibly powerful component to the human-centered design process, starting with how a team is formed and, subsequently, how they can interact in a way that makes them stronger over time, both as individuals and as a cohort.


Emi Kolawole

Emi Kolawole earned her B.A. in international relations and theater studies from Wellesley College and studied abroad at both the Panthéon-Sorbonne and the National Theater Institute.  She joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center's in November, 2005 after working as a news researcher for Congressional Quarterly on issues of defense, foreign policy, intelligence and homeland security. Previously, she was a production assistant at PBS's "NOW With Bill Moyers," and worked in the Washington area office of a defense contractor.

In addition to her work as a staff writer and researcher for FactCheck, Emi was the host, writer and video editor for's weekly video feature "Just the Facts!"  She is a level 1 certified Final Cut Pro editor and earned her master's degree in producing for film and video at American University. She also led the fact-checking review effort for "UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation."

Emi served as the associate producer for "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill & National Journal." In June 2010 she joined the Washington Post as a producer for PostPolitics. She served as the founding editor for Ideas@Innovations (now "Innovations") and co-host for the Post's daily news program "59 Seconds." In 2011, Emi was named a Young Global Shaper by The World Economic Forum. In 2013 she was listed among The Grio 100, was named a French-American Foundation Young Leader and accepted an invitation to become the Editor-in-residence at the at Stanford University. She has served for the past three years at the, most recently as a senior media designer working on the media experiments collaboration between Knight Foundation and the She is currently the founder of the media and design consultancy Dexign LLC.