The difference between Equality and Equity in design

Let’s take a closer look at what these words really mean, and how we have to change the way we think and operate to be able to make an impact on the state of diversity in the design industry.

This post is part of the journey of the team at on learning more about Diversity and Design — and sharing what they learn along the way.
e·qual·i·ty: the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities. in Mathematics, a symbolic expression of the fact that two quantities are equal; an equation.

As part of our series on Diversity in Design, we’ve written here about the benefits of having a diverse team, and the state of diversity and inclusion in the design industry.

Another word that often accompanies “Diversity” when we research about the topic, is “Equality”. So, we decided to dive a little deeper into this other side of the equation.

The relationship between these two words is quite obvious: if you want people from minority groups represented in a certain population (in our case, in the design industry), you have to make sure people are given equal opportunities and are treated with equal rights across the board.

There was one visualization that kept coming up as we researched about this topic, though.

You’ve probably come across a version of this graphic yourself:

The difference between Equality and Equity, by Craig Froehle

There are a bunch of iterations, but basically it shows three people trying to watch a baseball game over the top of a fence. The people are different heights, so the shorter ones have a harder time seeing.

The original post from 2012 includes captions that say the image on the left is “equality as seen by a conservative”, and the one on the right is “equality as seen by a liberal”. The overlaps between politics and design keep coming up as we research about this topic.

In the first of two images, all three people have one crate to stand on. In other words, there is equality, because everyone has the same number of crates. While this is helpful for the middle-height person, it is not enough for the shortest and superfluous for the tallest.

In contrast, in the second image there is equity — each person has the number of crates they need to fully enjoy the game.

Nothing is as binary as it seems

The distinction between equity and equality is an important one.

If we are talking about advocating for more inclusion in the Design industry, we have to give people the right number of “crates” to stand on from the beginning. In our previous post from this series, we talked about how graphic design can be a fairly expensive profession to break into, and how many groups (i.e. students from low-income communities) may be priced out of entering into this industry based on simple things like the cost of hardware and software to be able to create simple design outputs.

In this example, advocating for equality would mean ensuring that all students had access to the same hardware and software, at low cost.

On the other hand, advocating for equity would mean recognizing that some students will actually need more resources (funding, experienced teachers, relevant curriculum, etc.) to compensate for the lack of experience they have with digital tools to start with — if we are going to make a dent in the educational disparities that have come to be known as the “achievement gap”.

But there’s a fundamental issue in the equality vs. equity image above that is worth noticing. It has to do with where the initial inequity is located.

In the graphic, some people need more support to see over the fence because they are shorter, an issue inherent to the people themselves. That’s fine if we’re talking about height, but if this is supposed to be a metaphor for other inequities, it becomes problematic.

If we return to the graphic design industry example, the image implies that students from low-income communities need more resources because they are inherently less academically capable. They (or their families, or their communities) are metaphorically “shorter” and need more support. But that is not why the so-called “achievement gap” exists. As many have argued, it should actually be termed the “opportunity gap”, because the problem is not in the abilities of students, but in the disparate opportunities they are given.

Here is a version of the same image (created by Paul Kuttner) that makes these root causes more visible:

This metaphor is actually a great example of deficit thinking — an ideology that blames victims of oppression for their own situation. As with this image, deficit thinking makes systemic forms of racism and oppression invisible.

Diversity is enabled by inclusion. Inclusion is enabled by equity.

I am going to make a small pause here.

I’m sure you, dear reader, is smart enough to understand where we are going with all this.

In the design industry, there are a lot of gaps when it comes to equality of access and career opportunities — and throughout this series on Diversity and Design you are going to see a number of them being investigated in more depth, namely: gender, race, origin (as in “immigrants”) and sexual orientation.

But before that, understanding the concepts of equality and equity (as well as the differences between them) felt like an important step to be able to move forward in this journey.

See you in the next story.

Author: Fabricio Teixeira

Collect by: