How To Design An Inclusive Tech Conference

Design and Exclusion, hosted by Automattic, is a conference on diversity and inclusion that is online and free to the public.

How To Design An Inclusive Tech Conference
[Photo: Werner Wynakker/EyeEm/Getty Images]

Diversity and inclusion in design are such frequent panel topics these days, it seemed only a matter of time before entire conferences emerged on the subject. AIGA St. Louis hosts an annual Design + Diversity conference that launched last year (though charging $125 for members of the professional design organization and $150 for non-members to attend seems to counter its theme).


Today, another conference comes into the space: Design and Exclusion will focus on how designers can make products and services more equitable, and the field more inclusive. The first step? Making the conference accessible to all by hosting it online and for free.

[Screenshot: Design and Exclusion]
Design and Exclusion is hosted by Automattic, the company behind, in partnership with the media company and podcast Mash-Up Americans as well as MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Last year, tech evangelist John Maeda joined Automattic as global head of computational design and inclusion, vowing to apply his recent dedication to making design more inclusive to the products produced by the open-source software company. About six months ago, Automattic brought on Ashleigh Axios, formerly the creative director for the White House and an AIGA national board member leading its diversity initiatives, to work on their programming (her official title is design exponent). Led by Axios, Automattic created the conference as a way of bringing together disparate conversations about the benefits and challenges of building inclusive products and spaces.

The idea to host the conference online came about relatively reflexively, says Axios, since Automattic has employees spread across 53 different countries that they wanted to be able to attend. The company decided to front the administrative fees so that the conference could be free. It will be audio streamed like a podcast, with speakers and panelists calling in from where they are located. To make it accessible to all people, the full transcription of the conference is also available (the audio was pre-recorded). People can follow along and post questions on Twitter using the conference hashtag #DesignX. Throughout the conference, Automattic will post “bite-size” content, says Axios, like quotes, tweets, and excerpts of interviews, so attendees have multiple options for accessing the information in a way that works best for them.

The conference will last from noon to around 4 p.m. today, and its lineup is impressive: alongside Maeda and Axios are Etsy editor-in-chief Andrew Sinkov, Airbnb researcher Anne Diaz, and Tech LadyMafia founder (and cohost to the Call Your Girlfriend podcast) Aminatou Sow. The panels range from one addressing major diversity problems, using examples such as when Facebook let its advertisers target racial groups, and discussing the policies companies should have in place to prevent something like that from happening. Another panel will talk about the importance of quantitative as well as qualitative data in considering inclusion, using Pepsi’s recent flub—an ad that capitalized on a prominent Black Lives Matter protest image—as an example. The two others will focus on inclusion on online platforms, as well as steps the design and tech community can take to make it a more equitable industry.

While the online format does give more people access to it, there are potential challenges to hosting a conference that doesn’t physically gather people in one space. For one, it’s hard to predict how many people will participate, and how long they will be able to engage. “If you charge something, you have a better sense of your numbers and who you’re going to get,” says Axios. “That dynamic shifts even more online. We don’t know what we will get in terms of participation, and online its more possible to get distracted by things happening in your physical space.”

To combat that a bit, Axios says the audio player will let you start and stop, so that if you have to leave your desk and come back you have the option of picking up where you left off. The text components will also help with that. Ultimately, Axios wants the content to meet as many people as possible where they are, regardless of geography, professional affiliation, or money. The conference acts as an alternative to many professional organization conferences that cost money and require travel.


As Axios says, diversity in the tech and design industries is an issue that will take the participation and consideration of as many people as possible. It’s only natural that a design conference on inclusion should be inclusive itself if it expects to inspire change in others. And the best case outcome from the conference? “If we see commitments come out of tech companies big and small to design exclusion out of the products that they build, we would consider that a success as far as measuring impact,” Axios says.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.