We are committed to advancing the role of design in expanding opportunity and enhancing experience for people of all ages, abilities and cultures through excellence in design.

Two people stand in front of a tactile painting with their backs to the camera. One has their hand out touching the artwork.

Our Core Beliefs

  • Design is powerful and profoundly influences our daily lives and our sense of confidence, comfort, and control.
  • Variation in human ability is ordinary, not special, and affects most of us for some part of our lives.

Vision impaired User/Expert trying to use his cane to locate the train door

Our Philosophy

The Institute for Human Centered Design has chosen to use the term "human centered design" as the most representative of our philosophy. We are invested in the international universal design/design-for-all/inclusive design movement but we believe that it is important to be open to complementary ideas that make sense within the simple and open framework of human centered design. Important parallel trends today include green design and design for health and healing. We see value in finding the common ground between movements and in working collaboratively.

User expert testing a bench with her dog and chair

We embrace our ongoing relationship with our traditional allies in disability and aging. We try to be attentive to the spectrum of ability that poses less obvious demands upon design, especially chronic illness and the brain-based spectrum of disability. We believe that the link between chronic illness and/or disability and poverty must catalyze action that includes a new attention to the role of design. With our stated mission of enhancing human experience, we see everyone under the umbrella of human centered design.

To borrow from our colleague Ray Lifchez, we see all design as a "social art" inclusive of urban design, landscape architecture, architecture, interior design, industrial design and information design. Design is also problem-solving and we would extend the usual design disciplines to include policy making.

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.

The New England ADA Center

IHCD has been home to the New England ADA Center since 1996. The New England ADA Center is one of 10 regional ADA Centers comprising the ADA National Network.  Since 1991, the ADA National Network has provided information, guidance and training on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), tailored to meet the needs of business, government and individuals at local, regional and national levels.  We are not enforcement or regulatory agency, but a helpful resource supporting the ADA’s mission to “make it possible for everyone with a disability to live a life of freedom and equality.” Call our toll free number to get your ADA questions answered 1-800-949-4232.

While the New England ADA Center provides access to information and guidance on disability rights laws and codes, IHCD provides education and consultation about best practices that go beyond legal requirements to design places, things, communication and policy that promote design that works for everyone across the spectrum of ability and age and enhances human experience. Call (1-617-695-1225) or visit us.


Mass Cultural Council