Designing with
Diverse Minds

By Lindsey Peterson | Intermediate Designer

Design has long relied on the neurotypical mind, the linear thinker. But what might neurodiverse minds bring to the design process? How would a team with neurotypical and diverse minds work together and what would that say about the power of design and inclusion?

As the recipient of an IA Spark Fellowship, I went to Spain for an immersive experience at La Casa De Carlota, a graphic design and marketing firm with a passion for designing with diverse minds. I too have a passion for empowering those with intellectual disabilities having grown up alongside a sister on the autistic spectrum, and as a designer, I am passionate about discovering new ways of inspiring creativity. During my visit, I met with firm leaders to understand their process from hiring through final design production and participated with the designers to observe how they work and learn as a team.

Founded 10 years ago in Barcelona, and now also in Brazil, Peru, and Columbia, La Casa De Carlota is the first design firm to hire designers with intellectual disabilities, notably Down syndrome and autism, as colleagues on their creative team that generates new ideas and innovative design approaches. Typically we rely on linear thinking; a person with Down syndrome or autism does not. Why limit the design process to the powers of linear thinking when we can draw upon minds that push the boundaries of the expected? A quote from the firm’s website poses the intriguing question, How can the chaotic and unexpected brain of a person with autism influence and question linear thoughts? La Casa De Carlota has an answer to that question.

The Recruitment and Design Process

Candidates with Down syndrome and autism who have artistic interests and talent are recommended by local job placement agencies that specialize in placing clients with disabilities. Applicants must be able to get to and from work by themselves, be independent in their daily needs, and have some communication skills. Once hired they are involved in weekly design sessions.

The firm also hires interns. Ideally, there is one intern to help and support each neurodiverse designer. This is a great opportunity for graphic design students to gain experience at a design firm and work with a neurodiverse team.

Design sessions are held three times a week for two hours each day, which has proved the perfect length of time for the group to be on task, productive, and profitable. Mondays and Wednesdays are focused solely on creating client-related content. Thursdays, which are the neurodiverse designers’ favorite days, are free days for creating art.

The mentally-diverse artists are fearless and create without hesitation or ego. In a flexible space with music and sometimes even dancing, they enjoy working at a large communal table with an array of materials. A key to success is empowering their independence when accessing and putting away supplies. Also, since the pressure to create often limits one’s ability to work no matter where they fall on the neurodiverse scale, approaching each session without pre-conceived expectations and just letting it unfold ensures the best results. On difficult days when the artists might arrive a little down or undermotivated for whatever reason, the positive attitude and energy of the inclusive team manager mitigates the negativity through the human tendency to mirror behavior.

The Client and the Product

La Casa De Carlota often invites the client to meet the neurodiverse team working on their project and to collaborate in the design process. An instant yes is usually the response to an invitation, and clients love the sessions. They not only see how the firm works but are often inspired to consider similar scenarios for their enterprises. At the beginning of a session, Inge, the inclusive team manager, presents the client and the design prompt to the team, which works with paper, paint, photography, or any medium best for their objectives.  

Once the design sessions for a client are complete, the work is scanned and reviewed by La Casa De Carlota’s graphic designers who sort through all of the neurodiverse team’s creations to select those that best meet the client’s project. What is not chosen is archived. Though Photoshop will be used to manipulate the designs, add brand, and deliver compelling images for the client, the final design is always based on the neurodiverse designers’ work. Through the layering of their creations and those of the graphic designers, the final products are impactful, original images that achieve client objectives and expectations.

Firm Vantage Point

La Casa De Carlota does not advertise the inclusion of designers with intellectual disabilities on their team; they believe inclusion should be the norm, which I admire and respect. However, clients will understand the team’s composition when they visit the firm’s website, with its mantra: Diversity is the new creativity. The site goes on to say, What we’ve discovered is that having an unusual and extraordinary combination of diverse and complementary talents allows us to offer our clients innovative, fresh, and vastly different design solutions for their products and services, while at the same time contributing to generating a valuable and transcendent example of social impact.

IA and Diverse Minds

Based on the firm’s commitment to the fellowship program, which strives to provide opportunities for IA professionals to push the boundaries of our chosen industry, I believe IA is ready to work with neurodiverse colleagues as one of the first interior architecture and design firms to collaborate with diverse minds, leading the way to social innovation. As a pilot program, there is consideration towards the inclusion of an autistic library manager for materials. The inevitable success of that partnership could be published with pilot opportunities discussed with our clients. Once our program begins, I have no doubt new possibilities for inclusion will quickly emerge, creating a watershed that gives new meaning to the concept of a human-centric workplace. 

Lindsey Peterson

Intermediate Designer, IA's Seattle Studio

Lindsey Peterson is an Intermediate Designer at IA's Seattle studio. Peterson has worked on a variety of projects from headquarters to trading floors to retail, including renovations, expansions, consolidations, and new construction. She is a chair of the studio's IA Reach Committee, a firm agenda committed to people, culture, and innovation that links corporate citizenship with community needs through private initiatives for the public good.