Imagining a More Inclusive World Notes on Difference, Disability, and Space in the Shape of Water

Main Article Content

Ann Heylighen
Daniel S. Friedman


Fiction can stimulate empathy toward others by deepening sensitivity to difference. Pragmatist philosophers like Richard Rorty and John Dewey consider imaginative capacity the root of empathy and promote fiction as a source of ethical insight. Understanding others who are different is fundamental to designing more inclusive spaces. We explore how The Shape of Water illuminates the current discourse on inclusive design, particularly how design practices influence encounters between and among diverse bodies and environments. The Shape of Water is a non-trivial, award-winning, commercial film about the inter-species romance between a mute janitor, Elisa Esposito, who works in a top-secret, 1960s military research facility, and her love interest, the captive Amphibian Man, a tall, green, biped, bi-respiratory humanoid. We explore the film’s ethos as a speculative (even magic) ‘realm’ in which excluded individuals find agency and power in their very marginalisation and exclusion. This is most evident in its depictions of mutism and non-normative communication, which inspire fundamental reformulations of the nature of otherness and disability in
relation to the material environment. We address both the film’s narrative action and its scenography, with interest in how production design embodies the protagonists’ exclusion and agency. The Shape of Water illuminates the discourse on inclusive design in multiple respects. First, through narrative depiction of individuals’ interactions and lives, it demonstrates how divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ materialise in objects and spaces, and how differences considered a deficit in one context may manifest as an advantage in another. Second, through the agency of magical realism, the film invites us to explore the potential of spaces that accommodate such a/symmetry through environmental hybridity. Finally, while social and material environments are are known to disable or enable, The Shape of Water represents how they interact, highlighting the role of everyday design(ers) in making spaces more inclusive.

Article Details

How to Cite
Heylighen, Ann, and Daniel S. Friedman. 2022. “Imagining a More Inclusive World: Notes on Difference, Disability, and Space in the Shape of Water”. idea journal 19 (01):75–92.
Author Biographies

Ann Heylighen, KU Leuven, Department of Architecture, Research[x]Design


Daniel S. Friedman, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa