Divergent Design

social media
type - features
category - design
sector - diversity & inclusion
sector - youth
Designers are reframing the narrative surrounding neurodiversity from disability to hyperability through rich visual noise and joyful stimulation

In recent years, a heightened awareness of civil health and wellbeing has brought marginalised narratives to the fore. Issues surrounding a lack of diverse and inclusive practices has led to public frustration, particularly from those who don’t fit into conventional society. One category is neurodivergents, who make up an estimated 15–20% of the global population (source: British Medical Bulletin).

As described by Autistic UK, neurodiversity is the infinite variation of neurocognitive functioning within the human species. The phrase is used to classify a wide spectrum of people who differ in brain function, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and bipolarity. According to Google Trends, awareness of such disabilities has increased in recent years, with the term neurodiversity gaining interest rapidly since 2018.

In 2017, we first explored how the design sector was catering for the needs of consumers with a disability. Although this was a move in the right direction, the approach was stripped back, focusing on technology with minimal distraction and noise. Today, however, we are witnessing a more empowering shift, one that takes into consideration the genuine qualities and lived experiences of neurodiverse consumers.

This article presents design as a democratic tool to create rich immersive spaces, vibrantly coloured graphics, and authentic representation through urban, graphic and web design outlets. We provide a set of accessible design codes and guidelines that demonstrate how to embrace different needs to build a more resilient, efficient and inclusive society.

Published by:

20 July 2022

Author: Savannah Scott

Image: The Playground by Architensions at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival 2022. Photography by Lance Gerber, US.


Sage Therapeutics identity by Wolff Olins, US

Urban Design

Creatives and architects are building immersive civic spaces that dismantle the sterile and clinical aesthetics commonly used in wellbeing practices. Instead, they are favouring boldinstallations and malleable environments that celebrate and support different forms of neurocognitive variation. According to Jean Hewitt, senior inclusive design consultant at Buro Happold, ‘The built environment is currently only designed for the 80% of the population who are neurotypical. We need to make sure we create environments that are pleasant for everyone.’

In the hope of better accommodating neurodivergents in cities – places infamous for their overwhelming nature –WIPCollaborative has designed a public streetscape in New York called Restorative Ground. The playground is made up of modular zones offering the users a wide variety of activities and stimulations that cater for their individual needs. The focus area holds a large table for reading or learning activities, the active zone is a colourful playscape that prompts energetic play, while the calm zone contains a hammock and some benches for resting.

While creating a standardised space is nearly impossible due to the different requirements of each neurodivergent individual, WIP Collaborative is partnering with organisations such as Global Autism Project to conduct interviews with experts on neurodiversity, including people with lived experience. The streetscape makes use of vibrant warm tones to guide users through the space, while a mixture of textural finishes like rubber and rope allows for high or low stimulation zones. ‘Whatwe’ve learned is that providing choice to people, in terms of the spaces they occupy in the public realm, is a means of giving everyone an opportunity for representation,’ says Lindsay Harkema, leader of WIP Studio.

Elsewhere, multidisciplinary design studio  Architensions has worked on a colourful large-scale structure for music festival Coachella. The studio recognised the need for mental restoration in overwhelming social situations such as festivals.

The Playground, which is inspired by public spaces in urban settings like piazzas, arcades and parks, provides attendees with a refuge from sensory overstimulation by mixing cool and warm tones and smooth surfaces.

'It’s not about trying to squeeze neurodivergent people into a neurotypical framework – it's about creating space to support and celebrate how different perspectives enhance society.'
Helen Ralli, founder of Hart Club
Designer Rui Ma, using energetic colours to spark emotions in urban spaces, US

Graphic Design

Creatives are rewriting graphic design codes as a form of powerful visual activism and advocacyDesign agency Wolff Olins has rebranded Understood, a non-profit organisation for those who learn and think differently. Recognising that legibility may be difficult for those with dyslexia and ADHD, it developed a new customised typeface in collaboration with Displaay, which makes certain letters andnumbers more distinguishable. Alongside the typeface, the rebranding strategically used a shape-shifting logo as a metaphor for how all shapes and sizes can positively affect our world. ‘To invite a new audience to Understood, the visual and verbal identity was designed to bring people in and destigmatise the differences they face.’ says the agency. Using motion to optimise the user experience, Wolff Olins combined a use of functional dark blue tones with unexpected pops of pink and orange to ground the rebranding in acceptance and optimism.

Autistic Joy is an ongoing zine and design project by designerand activist Jen White-Johnson. The project examines the absence of Black disabled children in literary media – a topic close to Jen as she has a son with autism. By redesigning visual culture, Jen hopes to amplify the conversation around empowerment and acceptance in Black neurodivergent children. ‘It is up to artists and designers to use our tools to further the narrative of autism acceptance and the visibility in the lives of people of colour,’ says Jen. Across a series of zines, stickers and posters, Autistic Joy uses punchy colour palettes, authentic imagery and striking typography to display how focusing on neurodivergent creativity can be an act of resistance against stereotypes and a form of joyful self-advocacy.

‘It is up to artists and designers to use our tools to further the narrative of autism acceptance and the visibility in the lives of people of colour’
Anita Goldstein for Shaping Design, UK

Web Design

Designers are recognising the potential for more inclusive and sustainable design aesthetics that improve the online experience for everyone. Here, we demonstrate how they are applying neurodiverse-friendly tools to web design through personalised interfaces and sensorial graphics.

Championing user-centric web design is Vatány Szabolcs, creator of Focus Ex, a browser extension intended to make it easier to concentrate and focus when reading online content for people with ADHD. The extension, which works on bothdesktop and mobile, is designed to change paragraphs on a webpage to a customisable typeface called Focus Sans. The font creates better legibility though customisable letterforms that can be altered in weight, width and focus depending on the user’s needs. Variable fonts have been popular among designers for years, but Focus Sans is created not just for aesthetics but for function. Allowing users to redesign online content as they see fit through fluidity of type, other functions include a status bar that visualises the users’ progress and a filter that hides distracting images.

Illustrator Anita Goldstein has worked on a visual guideline that demonstrates how to create a more inclusive web experience. Published on inclusive design website Shaping Design, the guide explores how to apply five key principles to web design – accessible typography, clear language, soft colours and bold contrasts, sensory stimulation, and visual hierarchy and consistency.

For typography the guide walks users through favourable fonts such as Arial, Verdana or Open Sans, while taking into consideration point size and inter-word spacing. The language guide offers viewers a visual aid of how to use clear and concise copy, favouring the active voice and descriptive buttons that explain choices online instead of vague options. The colour and contrast section places soft and mild gradients next to bold contrasts, mixing blue and green with pink and red, capturing the wide spectrum of user preferences. Avoiding invasive and fast-moving animation and auto-play is recommended in the visual stimulation section, while equal importance is placed on creating a visual hierarchy that is consistent, making the user feel safe and in control.

‘The five key principles to web design are: accessible typography, clear language, soft colours and bold contrasts, sensory stimulation, and visual hierarchy and consistency’
Autistic Joy stickers by Jen White-Johnson, US. Room for Doubt by Andre Willians and Trifle Studio, UK


: Jen White-Johnson is a US-based designer, activist, educator and mother to autistic son Rox. Through her visual work, she explores the intersection of content and care-giving with an emphasis on redesigning ableist visual culture. To amplify conversations with the disability community, Jen has consulted with and presented to brands such as Nike, Converse and Twitter.

: Trifle Studio is a multidisciplinary design studio whose work is created by artists and designers with learning disabilities. Established by charity Intoart, Trifle specialises in product design, illustration, fashion, interiors, textiles, homeware, editorial and advertising. The studio has worked with global brands such as Lush, V&A and John Smedley.

: Championing neurodiversity in the creative industry is Hart Club, a community arts organisation. Offering artists access to creative and financial recognition for work that so often goes unseen, Hart Club is creating a public-facing platform encouraging conversations about diversity and inclusion. It operates out of a building in London SE1 that consists of a gallery, design studio, print studio, ceramics studio and art store.


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