How I became an… inclusive design expert
From the Rocky Mountains to Madison Avenue, Dr Josh Loebner’s career had several twists and turns before he landed his dream job as global head of inclusive design at creative agency Wunderman Thompson
When he got lost in the woods while working as a forestry consultant in New Zealand, Josh Loebner decided it was time for a career change.
A love of the great outdoors had led him to study forestry as part of his applied sciences degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and take up internships with the US Forest Service in Utah’s Rocky Mountains. But it wasn’t his dream career.
“I found out that getting lost wasn’t something I wanted to be and forestry wasn’t something I wanted to do,” he recalls. “I had to pivot my career trajectory.”
A friend working at a public relations agency convinced Loebner to perform a Swot analysis, which led him back to Knoxville to take a master’s degree in communications. It was there that he discovered that the world of advertising had much more to offer him.
“It was an epiphany. I felt like a fish in water,” Loebner says. “I knew this was for me.”
Having gained his MSc, Loebner moved to New York. He cut his teeth at Young & Rubicam on Madison Avenue (“so I can claim the moniker of Mad Man”) before landing a job in Edelman’s public relations team.
But his true calling became clear in 2010, when he moved to digital marketing agency Designsensory to start working on matters of diversity, inclusion and accessibility. Loebner identifies as disabled, being fully blind in his left eye and legally blind in his right. While this made getting lost in the New Zealand wilderness a particularly frightening experience, it has opened up a wealth of opportunities for him in the advertising business.
He explains: “I saw that trade publications for advertising and marketing weren’t speaking to the disability community in a way that went beyond: ‘Hey, here’s a tentpole ad in the Super Bowl that features someone with a disability.’ There was no diving deeper into questions such as who were the creators? Who were the people behind the projects that potentially were disabled?”
Alongside his role as a strategist, Loebner ran a blog called Advertising & Disability, where he wrote about the campaigns and agencies that were making strides towards inclusivity – and those that weren’t.
His passion ignited, Loebner stayed with Designsensory for nearly 12 years, working his way up to become executive director of inclusion and accessibility. In May 2022, having earned a PhD in advertising and disability from Clemson University, South Carolina, he was appointed to his current position: global head of inclusive design at Wunderman Thompson – one of the first agencies to create such a role.
Challenging perceptions of disability
“This is more than my dream job,” he enthuses. “I’d started my blog as someone who was isolated and felt that corporations and agencies weren’t listening. There were no chief accessibility officers or inclusive design specialists. To see the momentum building when it comes to welcoming the disability community and other marginalised groups – in a way that isn’t flippant or a flash in the pan – is a lifelong dream come true.”
Inclusive design is a method aimed at helping anyone working in a creative field to develop products, services and spaces offering experiences that serve as many people as possible. It is Loebner’s task is to ensure that both his firm and its clients take inclusivity issues into consideration as a matter of course at every stage of a project.
“It’s about reshaping the way corporations think,” he says. “But it goes beyond thinking – to operationalising inclusion and accessibility. In the past, there has been a lot of conversation about it, but what we want is a deeper commitment.”
The power of co-creation
This starts with a process called co-creation, whereby his firm and/or its clients invite disabled people to meetings to listen to voices they may never have heard before.
“It’s bringing in qualitative data and insights from the disability community,” Loebner says.
Such participation is crucial. This is partly because it’s the right thing to seek (the phrases ‘nothing about us without us’ and ‘with, not for’ are common in conversations about disability inclusion), but also because the insights it generates often make the penny drop.
As he says: “Bringing people with disabilities into the conversation allows the client to move past a lack of understanding and to recognise value more easily.”
Loebner believes that his agency’s commitment to inclusive design also spurs its teams to be more innovative. He cites the example of captions for deaf people and audio descriptions for those who are visually impaired. Making these an integral part of a campaign means having one more tool for creating an immersive experience. Adding accessibility requirements means that teams will have to think about things that haven’t been done before.
“The narrative doesn’t have to stop simply at what’s being said,” he says. “Advertising is one of the most powerful ways to showcase and share inclusion in succinct soundbites. Whether it’s a radio spot or a digital video, to have that rhythmic drumbeat of representation and portrayals in a positive light helps to keep the idea in consumers’ minds that it’s OK to be disabled – it’s actually good.”
The need to be practical
A core tenet of Loebner’s philosophy is that being disabled has given him power and opportunity, helping him to thrive in the advertising world. In his view, people with disabilities can challenge common misconceptions that you have to be a certain way to succeed.
“The amazing thing about disability is that it allows us to celebrate ourselves as iconoclasts,” he argues. “There is an opportunity to reframe the conversation about how being disabled is not a deficit or negative.”
To this end, does Loebner believe that every organisation needs a senior-level expert in inclusive design?
“At multinational corporations, yes. It makes sense to have diversity and inclusion experts to support internal initiatives towards talent and recruitment,” he says, adding that smaller firms with limited budgets have other effective options available to them. “There are people with disabilities everywhere. Look towards those communities and start welcoming people with disabilities into creative sessions, into internships.”
For companies seeking to recruit an inclusive design expert for the first time, what are the key attributes they should be looking for?
The ideal candidate will have “an understanding of inclusion from a theoretical perspective and also a practical one”, Loebner says. “An inclusive design chief should also understand things such as the pitfalls of language and what’s important to under-served communities. Then they need to know how to operationalise them.”
In Loebner’s role, this entails understanding how to establish inclusion in a creative brief, how to bring it into the video production process and how to ensure that everything that Wunderman Thompson releases is as accessible as possible.
Crucially, it helps to have the unwavering passion and boundless energy that Loebner himself displays, because changing how people think about disability is an ongoing process.
“It is a commitment,” he stresses. “There is no end point when it comes to inclusive design. We’re on a never-ending pathway and it’s always going to be two steps forward, one step back. This is about progress before perfection.”