When I sat down to write this article, I did so with a bit of skepticism. In my mind, because there are so many articles about diversity these days, it is difficult to gauge the climate. I wonder if design diversity is getting worse or if it will ever change… I have been working to increase the amount of designers of color for a long time and have heard it all! That was my first thought anyways… As I started to focus on what diversity really means to me, I realized that maybe it’s not that I’m tired of hearing about diversity in design and tech, but that I am frustrated that over the many years I have been working to do something about it, not much seems to have changed.
Sure, I know, there are more designers of color than when I started, but it’s still not nearly enough.
Diversity is a vague term, a loaded word with many levels of meaning. What does it mean to be diverse?
It is similar to the word, “urban” — I ask myself, what are we talking about? A common concept of diversity in the workplace is filling a quota with people from minority or marginalized groups. I think about diversity in terms of economic empowerment with social and community benefit — how do we as minorities reprogram ourselves to think entrepreneurially, build our own workforce, and not just rely on someone to hire us?
Diversity and inclusion is not just about getting jobs — it’s about leveling the playing field, making a systemic change in the way companies promote and celebrate success in the design industry. We must not only acknowledge the struggle but highlight the progress being made, especially by designers of color. Yes, I support the work many companies are doing to fight for more diversity and inclusion, but my focus for many years in answering questions around diversity, specifically in Black communities is: how do we build a system of self reliance first?
What does it mean to build an inclusive environment for designers of color?
There are a lot of really smart people working on this and this is strictly my opinion. Building inclusivity cannot strictly rely on hiring enough employees of color and how employees treat each other. An environment is made up of not only employees, but of leadership and management.
Leadership and management are role models for the company, setting the core structure (goals, policies, values) yet how do you bring forth an inclusive environment without having decision makers from the backgrounds you’re trying to include and who can actually impact the structure? For example, with regards to black people, we generally grow up with similar life experiences, a communal experience that serves as a blueprint for how we communicate, what we eat, how we dress, what our visual culture is, and how we live our overall life. Having decision makers from our background is critical for employees to know they are being heard and taken accounted for within the structure and as important, that the company views the group as not limited to workforce, but valued as leaders.
Diversity in college presents a huge problem for diversity in the workplace
Unsurprisingly, blacks make up only 6% of graduates at design schools. This compares to white graduates of 52%. I don’t know even one black designer from a non HBCU that has not been the only black or one of a very few blacks in their design classes. On the teaching side, we know that whites make up roughly 82% of design professors, 79% of associate professors, 76% assistant professors and 75% of visiting faculty*. I don’t believe colleges and universities are keeping minorities out — they are probably trying to figure out how to change a systemic problem that has stifled the industry for years.
So much is factored into the decision for young people of color to attend design school. First, they have to get exposure to design at an early age, Second, they must be encouraged and given information about career paths in the field. Many African American students may not identify with the idea of design school — the incorrect comparisons to Art may make design less appealing or create a perception that design is an impractical profession. I have seen progress over the years. More students of color are going into user experience (UX) design.
I attribute this to a growing emphasis on coding, plus more data and news stories that designers can make a good living these days, especially at tech companies in the Bay Area.
In stark contrast to design careers, you have an abundance of blacks in basketball — can you guess what the percentage of black players in the NBA is? Roughly 74%!
Can you guess what percentage of college athletes make it to the NBA? Only 1.3%!
So, when we speak of diversity, we have to trace back to our youth — we start to formulate our life goals when we’re kids. The early years are a great place to plant seeds, like exposure and access to mentor designers of color. This provides opportunities to access a bigger world, one that I believe will yield more than a 1.3% success rate.
So, now that I may have killed all the hope you have, let me counter this with a bit of optimism. My non-profit, Inneract Project, teaches design to youth from underserved communities. We work to develop pathways for students of color to attain careers in design. We teach students design, but also support our teaching with advocacy initiatives to bring context to design that allows students to relate to their subject and the communities they come from. We also work on integrating a basic entrepreneurial curriculum with fundamental design principles, in an effort to support our students in gaining skills to forge their own path. I have been a designer for a long time and have worked on many complex problems.
By far, working with youth to expose them to design is the HARDEST problem I ever worked on — but it is the one that has been the most worthwhile. Sometimes, I ask myself why I continue to work through the long hours, (on top of my day job).
But, at the end of the day, the answer for me is simple.
I believe in design as a means for change (social, economics, education), in bringing a vast amount of opportunities to people of color.
I remember in the late 70’s how inspiring Hip Hop was to me, a spark for black youth culture that spawned creativity and economic hope, one that allowed us to express individuality, our way, yet also bring light to a common interest used to uplift the ideals we all shared and believed to be true. For the hope of empowering youth and underserved minority communities, Inneract Project’s work is bigger than just teaching kids design — it is a mission to provide communities that may not otherwise have the opportunity to access design as a career. I am inspired by programs I saw during the Black Arts movements, where organizations such as the Black Panther party used design as a tool for capturing true depictions of black culture, and also provided services for economic empowerment.
At Inneract Project, it is important for our organization to bring more designers of color to the industry, but I believe that that is not enough. Times have changed and now a college degree does not always guarantee a job. I believe all designers need to set the bar higher and strive to think more about using our skills to build businesses and opportunities we care about. For the design community, we need to support youth in underserved minority communities. We can’t expect that students from underserved communities will come to us — we must go to them, and be ready to support communities through mentorship, sponsorship (yep, spending money), and supporting public schools. It is especially important for designers of color. Kids need to see designers that look like them in the business, making a good living.
Why diversity in design matters
Our society tends to associate truths with the depictions we see on tv, in ads, apps and design across the world. These depictions require a high level of responsibility, because it shapes the way the world sees and forms opinions about race, ideologies, and life — and more importantly, the way marginalized groups see themselves.
Diversity in design is a big deal.
It is much more than just getting people of color in jobs.
It’s about reprogramming the minds and lives of our next generation of thinkers.
We need them to know that all career options are available, and that they can achieve any level. As our nation focuses more on innovation, we must educate our youth on what design can offer and develop their problem-solving skills to prepare them for jobs that meet the needs of our changing world. We must also educate parents and the broader community so they can support this new generation of design thinkers.
At Inneract Project, we believe design is a skill that everyone, regardless of profession, can and should leverage. We believe that design education is not just about compulsory education reform but also about providing youth and communities with context — showing and supporting diverse perspectives in design and showing what is does for their lives.