Our History

The Institute for Human Centered Design, formerly know as Adaptive Environments (AE), was founded in 1978 by Elaine Ostroff and Cora Beth Able, an outgrowth of the Arts and Human Services Project, a multi-disciplinary graduate program supported by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. The graduate program emphasized the leadership role of artists and designers in creating community-based programs for people with disabilities. The design emphasis coincided with the deinstitutionalization movement of the late 1970s in which people with disabilities, many of them children, were moving from institutions into communities. Schools, libraries, entertainment and recreation places, public space, even homes were not designed to accommodate this new level of community diversity. The Institute for Human Centered Design began with a focus on helping families and communities solve practical problems of the design of places. It engaged designers in the work and taught design students the power of design to shape social equity.

Since 1978, the Institute for Human Centered Design has evolved its educational mission to include not only places, but things and information. The original focus on Massachusetts has expanded to international. Boston remains an important laboratory for exploration and innovation.

At any given time, projects are likely to include varying proportions of focus on accessible design as required by law (Section 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, IDEA, Fair Housing, the Americans with Disabilities Act) and human-centered or universal design that works seamlessly for people with disabilities and older people but also enhances everyone’s experience. Since the late 1980s, the Institute for Human Centered Design has been in the forefront nationally and internationally in promoting universal design.

The other characteristic of our work is collaboration and citizen participation. With very few exceptions, we recruit partners at the start of a project who work with us throughout. In some activities (e.g., conferences, public forums), we may have dozens of collaborating organizations. Elaine Ostroff, co-founder of the Institute for Human Centered Design, Executive Director for many years, and now an active consultant and member of the board, coined the term "user/expert" to describe the role of ordinary people with valuable life experiences who could inform the design process. Children and adults with disabilities and older people have expertise about design that is mostly overlooked by people designing for an imagined norm. As the population becomes more diverse in age and ability, notions of majority norms have less relevance.

Many of our projects result in the production of educational materials (books, guidelines, videos, web-based resources) that are broadly disseminated. Each year we see more of our publications or portions of them translated into other languages for use in other countries or in non-English speaking communities in the US.