Reshaping Our Spaces and Services: The Inclusive Design Project

Students in Leah Sobsey’s photography class in the School of Art at UNC Greensboro have been participating in an ongoing art installation — The Lawn Sign Project — which explores the concept of freedom through a variety of viewpoints.  In 2019, the Lawn Sign Project became a travelling exhibit that appeared in Greensboro and Raleigh, NC as well as Brooklyn, NY. In each location, students invited community members to respond to two prompts: “When is a time that you felt free?” and “When is a time that you felt your freedom was taken away?” 

Students interviewed and photographed community members and designed a lawn sign with the person’s photograph and responses on them. The lawn signs were then placed in public spaces in Greensboro and Brooklyn, such as the Greensboro Project Space, UNCG’s off-campus contemporary art center, and outside the Elliott University Center, as well as in Prospect Park. The Lawn Sign Project, made possible through a UNCG Diversity Grant, is in collaboration with the UNCG College of Visual and Performing Arts Community Engagement, the UNCG School of Art and For Freedoms. 

For Freedoms, a non-partisan nationwide initiative that uses art to deepen public discussions on civic issues and core values for people who want to be more engaged in public life, strives to increase civic engagement with community members through open communication and straightforward action. It readily works with artists and other organizations to bring these concepts to life by expanding what democracy looks like in public life and reshapes conversations about politics. 

The initiative is closely bound to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech that he gave to Congress in 1941 at a time when the country faced remarkable insecurity and uneasiness. As America entered into World War II,  FDR’s four freedoms — the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear — gave way to optimism and hope for people in the years to follow. 

Now, the images from the Lawn Sign Project are on display in the Reading Room of Jackson Library. 

UNCG’s University Libraries entered into a collaborative partnership with the Inclusive Design Project in an effort to rethink how spaces and services in an academic library are designed so that they are more centered around people who are often marginalized. 

A common theme that has emerged from the everyday interactions with students, faculty and staff is that biases are automatically built into the spaces and services based on the way they were previously designed. The physical design of the University Libraries' spaces is one area that we are focusing on as an organization. And, we have learned that these biases reflect existing power structures in society. 

In her book “Mismatch,” Kat Holmes writes, 

“Design shapes our ability to  access, participate in, and contribute to the world.” 

At the same time, when we apply this concept to education, it has been proven again and again that design frames a student’s ability to access, engage in and contribute to significant, life-changing learning. While design can lead to exclusion, it can also be used to correct the problem. Inclusive design strategies ― designing spaces and services with the user in mind rather than for the user ― can create solutions that work well and benefit all.

In order to approach this situation, the University Libraries formed a Student Advisory Group, led by Facilities Manager Will Cooke and Student Success and Open Education Librarian and Assistant Professor Melody Rood, and asked the following questions:  

  • To what extent do students consider the University Libraries to be inclusive? 
  • What University Libraries’ services and spaces do students find useful? 
  • What changes could the University Libraries make to ensure that students feel supported and welcomed? 

As we move forward with this project and learn more from our students and advisory committee, the University Libraries will work to eliminate these barriers.