Spotlight – Kate Hogan Gillies

Associate Kate Hogan Gillies is a strategist and designer who prides herself on creating empathetic spaces for all. A long-standing and impactful presence in Sydney’s interiors team, with experience spanning a multitude of projects including SLR Consulting, Axle at South Everleigh for CBA and HRL Morrison & Co, Kate’s scope of work has grown to include designing for inclusivity – an opportunity she has embraced with intelligence, understanding and authenticity.

What do you wish the public knew about designing for disability?

The beautiful thing about inclusive design is that it creates spaces and products that enable people to live their lives with dignity and equality – and to flourish. Going beyond mandatory accessibility and being sensitive to the neuro and physical diversity of many makes it easier (and in some cases, possible) to navigate the world around us and to interact meaningfully with others.

For me, the lightbulb moment was realizing that the things that work for people with intellectual and behavioural disabilities benefit everyone; we all need clear instructions, respect for differences, sensory awareness, logical transitions and more. The byproduct of designing for disability is richer and more resonant experiences for everyone because inclusive environments of better quality are a huge benefit to the entire population. I can’t think of a better way of articulating Woods Bagot’s philosophy of People Architecture than to design for all people – not just some people.

Kate and colleagues in the newly-completed SLR Consulting offices in Sydney.

“The things that work for people with intellectual and behavioural disabilities benefit everyone; we all need clear instructions, respect for differences, sensory awareness, logical transitions and more.”

Rammed earth samples (amendments underway) by collaborator Justin Penney for a reception desk joinery shroud to be featured in an upcoming workplace interiors project. Textured and tactile, the colours and undulation beautifully represent the earthy tones and wide rolling landscaping of the location.

For the past year you’ve been working with a disability services provider in regional NSW called Westhaven on their workplace transformation, and most recently the design brief and strategy for their Group Home of the Future for children and young people. Do you think that this project has made an impact on the way you design?

Absolutely! I’m incredibly grateful for it.

I’ve gained a deeper and clearer understanding of the benefits of reflective practice and empathy. The project has given me the opportunity to see from others’ perspectives and understand what drives them. Observing the way that some can attune to the non-verbal cues of other people has impacted the way I listen and learn from clients and colleagues, and how I’m  able to reflect on their input with greater emotional resonance.

Designing for disabilities has made me realise that care is a spectrum across those who provide and receive it. Permanency, belonging, stability and home are resonant elements and have been a way to connect with people and let them know that they’re connecting with me in return – I am finding real tenderness out there.

Working to create environments that minimize the effects of trauma has taught me a considerable amount about truly inclusive design. By committing to design beyond what is simply accessible, I’ve learnt to push for the creation of diverse and sensory environments and recognize the opportunities that arise from acknowledging the neurodiversity of all.

We often understand aspects of our work as ideals, but to witness inclusiveness from the perspective of those to whom it is critical for day-to-day functionality has been a justification for the things we need to hold true in spaces. I now feel empowered to prioritise certain principles and articulate them to clients as fundamentals of the human experience: clarity of movement and flow, options to connect or retreat, stimulating or peaceful spaces.  It means something to belong, connect and know exactly where you are physically, mentally, and culturally.

My focus now is about creating psychologically and physically safe environments that a neurotypical person might not recognize as being carefully crafted to meet sensory behavioural requirements.

“I’ve learnt to push for the creation of diverse and sensory environments and recognize the opportunities that arise from acknowledging the neurodiversity of all.” 

A lot of your work is around the idea of designing for flexibility. Why is this important?

Flexibility isn’t a new concept, but it’s certainly never been more relevant. It’s about two things: approach and the combination of resilience and empowerment.

Flexibility of approach requires designers to have openness and humility – actively listening to people, following their desires and being open to moving the goalposts around.

Resilience and empowerment are about creating trusted ‘structures’ – physical, tech or systems-based, strategic and philosophical – that empower and inspire people to participate. Authentic engagement and a sense of individual ownership is critical.

I find these aspects to be true regardless of sector or discipline. They come into play when designing a workplace that is resilient to business change and organizational restructure over the life of a tenancy. It’s also evident when developing a design brief that ensures upholding the beliefs and priorities of the stakeholders as they expand into wider developmen and when building in flexibility and robustness into a property portfolio that must be reactive to external pressures.

On a deeper level, flexibility is also about understanding the arrangement of spaces and their effect on personal and professional resilience, minimising the effects of trauma and enhancing quality of life.

Can you tell us more about your work with Herman Miller’s diversity and inclusion campaign?

Last year Herman Miller approached Woods Bagot to be involved in a digital campaign  themed around diversity and inclusion, hinging on the overarching idea that we are all better together.

Woods Bagot based our creative intervention around dual concepts of light and wonder, shadow and volume. The team’s aim was to create an object that engendered togetherness when so few of us could be together physically. Throughout the design process we found that we connected through memories and shared points of reference– it was like discovering shiny easter eggs! The original light has a natural sense of volume that we decided to inhabit – letting light peek in and out to entice and delight.

During the design process we went deep into researching Aboriginal Indigenous astronomy. We were enchanted by the indigenous concepts of Starmaps and Dark Constellations, that the spaces in between stars – and the memory of them – is fundamental to how we live below them and are capable of teaching, warning and guiding us through foreign lands and uncertain times.

We discovered that many of our modern road networks reflect the Songlines of our First Peoples. Drawn in rock and etched into memory, these Songlines help travelers navigate as they journey out of country and into the unknown – connecting all of us physically together across geography, and metaphorically across millennia to those who have come before us and those who will follow.

In the final design we created shadows and colours within the volume of the light itself and then punctured the external membrane to let the pinpricks of light shine through – referencing the stars twinkling above us like they always have and will.

Kate Hogan Gilles is an Interior Designer based in the Sydney Studio.


As strategist and designer, Kate prides herself on creating empathetic spaces for all.