What steps can designers and creatives take as they pursue greater equity and inclusion in their studios and professional practices?
Portland, we have a problem. We have many, wonderful creative studios in town, but taking a look at those studios, what I see is a lot of white people, and a vast majority of leadership roles being held by men. Somehow in a city that is one of the least diverse in the United States, our studios don’t even match the limited diversity of our city (if you’re wondering why that’s the case, please look up Oregon’s history). Lately, I’ve been wondering how, faced with this history, we can make the creative industry more equitable. Many designers that I’ve talked to have the same desire: to see a greater degree of inclusion and representation through every layer of the creative industry. But how do design studios, large and small, move from the theoretical and begin the work?
A Little About Me
I moved to Portland from Chicago four years ago. At the time, I was teaching at a university where 43% of the students represented ethnic and racial minority groups. The hardest thing about moving was leaving that vibrant community and the breadth of conversation and relationships that I was able to be part of there. I learned, was challenged, and grew a lot during that time.
Today, I am an educator and run a small design studio called Super Common. When I say small, I mean that it’s just me, myself, and I who shows up to work every day. This means that the sole, full-time employee of my studio is a bald, white, cis-gendered, male. To some, this makes changing my studio practice to be more inclusive sound ridiculous. A friend once quipped that the only thing I could do to be more inclusive is to fire myself. It’s not an awful idea, but I disagree.
Even as a sole proprietor, there are things I can do to pursue inclusivity. Having also worked as a lead designer in a studio, a creative director on an in-house design team, a design coordinator for Disney and several other roles, I have seen various ways that members of teams and employees have experienced inequitable barriers to entry in the creative industry. Regardless of the situation and size of our practices, we can all work to create more inclusive design practices.
The work ahead of us will require thoughtful, thorough consideration, and significant changes. But the work matters and the time is now to change the monocultural nature of the design industry.
Is it messy? Yes. Are we prone to mistakes? Absolutely. Is this essential because of my basic views of humanity? 100%.
Inclusion is a Core Design Value
Inclusion is not a recent idea within design practice. We’ve long known that every choice we make in our design work can include particular people and exclude others. Understanding and including a wide breadth of people in our work helps us communicate more effectively, and it also enriches our work.
That said, just because something has been part of the conversation does not mean we have pursued it well. While we have grown accustomed to talking about ways to include audiences, we haven’t been as reflective about how to be more inclusive within our studios and practices themselves.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, I’ve been reading, listening, asking questions, and thinking about things that need to change within my design practice. Some of my thoughts combined to form the design is a w.i.p. manifesto that advocates for a change in the posture we take towards design and reconsideration of the relationship between design and white supremacy.
Since writing that manifesto, I’ve been thinking about practical steps to make my work and the work of the studios I engage with more inclusive. The ideas below were shaped and influenced by countless conversations, posts, articles, and essays. I see them also as a work-in-progress with much more that could be said and likely many other ideas that would go further.
W.I.P. Steps for Small (and Large) Studios
1. Stop Business as Usual
One of the chief problems with design is that we fail to pause and reflect on our practice. It’s easy to go on auto-pilot and be so overwhelmed with tasks that consequently, we don’t pay attention to the broader impact of our work. We need to stop, reflect, and consider who our work is empowering and who isn’t present within it. We need to do this regularly and make actionable plans to make progress. The simple act of pausing and noticing is critical to identifying areas for greater inclusion.
2. Value Humans Over Objects
To be inclusive, we need to value every human we encounter. Unfortunately, we designers obsess over objects to a degree that we are even willing to be dismissive to fellow humans. We trash clients if the final work doesn’t look ‘right’, snub colleagues who work in ways that counter our own, avoid taking a chance on a lesser-known creatives because we’re concerned with their work being ‘good enough’ and instead opting for safe choices. Shifting our focus from the visual quality of objects to the quality of human experiences in every aspect of our practice is essential to valuing the humans that our work puts us in contact with. Formal qualities are frequently used to define and establish a singular cultural identity while excluding others, so building a more diverse team also means recognizing a greater diversity in the approach to our work.
3. Change Who You Recommend and Hire
Many hires come from word-of-mouth recommendations. This means design as an industry is not much different from a social club and suffers from the same cultural problems. Changing hiring practices means changing who we recommend or changing our social practices. We can do this several ways—change who we spend our time with, change who we associate with, show up at new venues and places and speak with people outside our current circle, or start hiring outside our current social circle and resist the social club nature of the industry.
4. Stop Focusing on Cultural Fit
Cultural fit is one of the most common reasons for hiring, firing, or eliminating candidates in the workplace. If someone doesn’t look, act, or operate like everyone else, they aren’t a ‘fit’ and soon face repercussions. To pursue greater inclusion means intentionally shaking up our ‘culture’ and celebrating the people that expand the culture of our workplaces. This means we need to place less emphasis on cultural fit and more emphasis on cultural expansion in our workplaces. While we don’t want our employees and contractors to feel like fish out of water, hiring should be a way of cultivating culture rather than confirming pre-existing culture. We need to bring in new employees, clients, collaborators, contractors, leaders, workers, and allow them to change us.
5. Watch for and Stand up to Discrimination
Discrimination comes in many forms. It can be obvious or subtle. It may look like a poorly chosen word or it might look like a habit of avoiding the inclusion of a colleague or peer. Microaggressions are real. Many of these moments float by because those who witness them fail to speak up. To move forward, we must embrace the awkward conversation. As a worker, this sometimes means putting your neck on the line. As a leader, this means establishing a culture of honesty and openness in your workplace so you can help one another root out discrimination in your practice.
6. Audit Your Work and Make Plans for the Future
It’s shocking how seldom designers audit their own work and studio. It’s a fairly simple process. Stop right now and ask yourself: How diverse is your office? How inclusive are your ads, posts, illustrations, and images? Who are you quoting in your work? What are your sources of inspiration? Who is making the decisions in projects? Who is establishing your sense of normal? If the answer to all of those questions is “white men”, start making plans to change the outcome of your next audit.
7. Check Your “Innocent” Policies
Innocent policies and job expectations can discriminate. A person hiring a creative director for their studio might require “3–5 years of experience in creative direction for a design studio” which seems fairly reasonable. However, if you look around and realize that nearly every creative director in the industry in your region is a white man, your innocent-sounding policy is amplifying the privilege of white men. Instead, you might consider why those 3–5 years seem important—what skillsets, experiences, connections, aptitudes, or knowledge are you hoping to see? How else can that be demonstrated? Another common policy in a workplace is requiring that employees not wear any kind of scent, perfume, or cologne in the workplace. This can be very important for employees with allergies and sensitivities to particular kinds of scent. However, I have also seen first-hand how such policies create challenges for employees from backgrounds for which scent is a core piece of cultural identity and typical daily preparation. With every policy we create, we need to ask who is being enabled by the policy and who is being put at a disadvantage. While there will be blind spots and unresolvable tensions, we should work to mitigate the issues as best we can and work to create a space for everyone.
8. Change Your Sense of Normal
What studios are you looking at? Whose work saturates your mind? If you only look at design by white, male designers then white, male designers will define your sense of what is normal. Changing what you look at and digest changes your sense of normal and opens up alternative possibilities within your work that will make it easier to include people with divergent practices.
9. Eliminate Stereotype Reinforcement from Your Work
Stereotypes affect hiring and promotion processes. Often stereotypes hide within conversations about leadership potential and are reinforced by the adjectives and images used to describe people. One way to move away from reinforcing stereotypes is to stop speaking in generalities about others and to challenge others when they do so. Instead, seek specifics. Talk about specific individuals and ask for specific actions or examples. In your work, stop drawing on cute ideas that reinforce stereotypes about men, women, races, nationalities, religions, and histories. We know how mid-century ads horrifically presented women as domestic dolls, so why do we persist in using words like ‘girly’ to describe choosing soft pink tones and frilly type in our work? We know how atrocious the use of blackface in mid-century design was, so why do designers keep making things like those egregious Gucci clothes? Why did an art director think that making a Nazi-era, King Kong reference when designing a cover for LeBron James was an acceptable idea? Why do we keep making fools of ourselves? Because we keep reinforcing stereotypes that burrow into our subconscious and eventually come out in our work.
10. Stop Working for Accolades
If you haven’t noticed, design awards typically go to grand projects that are visually powerful. However, much of the most needed design work in the world is quiet, simple, and grassroots. A building-sized mural may look better in a blog post, but an infographic that articulates racial disparities can often lead to more substantive change. If you want your work to serve more people, then you need to be in it for the meaningful impact rather than for the lure of awards. Don’t worry about building the blockbuster project, take your work to where you are most useful. Measure success on meaningful impact, not on accolades.
11. Pass Work On
This is both the easiest and the hardest advice to follow. If you want to make space for others, then the fastest way to do that is to send work their way. If you are in a position where you can afford to pass work onwards, do it. And for God’s sake, if approached by a client asking you to make work for a culture other than your own, recommend that they approach a designer who is from that culture.
12. Design for Intervention
Designers can intervene in their communities to change the status quo. You can do this through direct activism and by crafting design to support activism, but you can also do this through other means such as allocating resources to support others who are already doing this type of work.
13. Become a Mentor or Teacher
Get involved in passing your knowledge on through mentorships, workshops, teaching, or other forms of engagement and make sure that this work is accessible and lasting for communities that have been under-represented in the design industry. If we advocate for the professional development of all designers, and particularly for under-represented designers, the industry will change.
While the above list isn’t exhaustive, I hope it offers a few helpful ideas for those at the beginning of their own journey. If you have additional thoughts or ideas to enrich the list, please offer a comment below.
References and Further Reading
- Anti-Racist Reading List for Designers by Lexi Namer
- Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock
- Creative Reaction Lab Founded by Antionette Carrol
- Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech By Sara Wachter-Boettcher
- Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo by Natasha Iskander
- Typography as a Radical Act in an Industry Ever-dominated by White Men by Silas Munro
- Who’s Bad by Jerome Harris
- What Does it Mean to Decolonize Design by Anoushka Khandwala
- What is Blind Hiring? by Kate Glazebrook
- Anti-racism Design Resources by Space Industries
- Racism Untaught
- Inclusive Design: The What, The Why, and the How by Shane Doyle
- Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design by Kat Holmes
- We Must Topple the Tropes, Cripple the Cannon by Ramon Tejada
- The Diversity of Design from Speak Up
- Diversity and Design: How we can Shape a More Inclusive Industry? by Bronwen Rees
- STEP- White Space: Examining Racial Diversity in the Design Industry from ART 820
- Cultural Diversity at Work: The Effects of Diversity Perspectives on Work Group Processes and Outcomes by Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas
- Endorsing and Reinforcing Gender and Age Stereotypes: The Negative Effect on Self-Rated Leadership Potential for Women and Older Workers by Fatima Tresh, Ben Steeden, Georgina Randsley de Moura, Ana C. Leite, Hannah J. Swift, and Abigail Player
- ‘Harmful’ gender stereotypes in adverts banned from BBC News
Edited by Monica Mo and Salvador Orara