Diversity in Design: Inclusion Won’t Fix a Broken System
The other day I attended an information session for a new initiative centered around increasing diversity in design. It was created and hosted by one of the largest design firms in the world, and because of their reputation and great PR team, the call was filled with designers, architects, and executives all ready to join the cause. I was there for the same reason. The presenter introduced the initiative and the people involved thanked everyone for joining. They began explaining the logo (because why not) and started highlighting their goals of increasing diversity in our industry that has very little of it. They pointed out efforts to expand education to make it more accessible, and their wishes to create a more inclusive workforce. The group was excited, humble, and diverse, but 10 minutes into the talk I found myself getting more and more frustrated and confused (It probably did not help that I just finished reading an article called When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs). The focus was on creating opportunities for BIPOC designers—on inviting them to the table and giving them a seat. But the more I heard them explain it, the more I started thinking about how the current design “table” is a big problem in and of itself.
Our design table is created by white people and continues to be molded by Colonialism and Eurocentrism. What is considered “good” or “effective” design was created by the white people with power. And here we are now, as design leaders—as white people—saying we need Black and brown designers to get a seat at OUR table. Join OUR system. We’re not going to change or redefine what the system looks like, we want to TEACH YOU what it is and how you can be part of it. We ask BIPOC people to fit into our WHITE system, and then we act surprised when they don’t feel included or welcomed.
Racism and equity are products of design, and if we want better, we must redesign the system. As we look to hire BIPOC designers and amplify their voices, we also have to examine our industry definition of what “good” design is and start building a completely new system—by everyone, for everyone.
What is beauty and good design, and who created the rules?
We often think of design as objective and fundamental. Color theory, golden ratios, and hierarchy principles are rehearsed and practiced in design school and written about in magazines over and over again. As designers, we practice the rules until they become second nature. These rules, which were established a long time ago, create a designers’ basis of what “good design” is. But as we learn these rules, we often forget to question where and how those rules were created in the first place. Who had the power to write these rules? What were structures in places at the time?
When you examine the system, you start to see that what we consider beautiful is inherently biased. We read articles mapping out the “perfect face” according to the Greek ratio of Phi but we never question why Greek history is the arbiter of truth in many cases when much of Greek philosophy was stolen from Egypt. To look at design’s diversity problem without discussing current and former power structures is to ignore the root causes and only treat the symptoms. Last week, I listened to this podcast about beauty and colonization. The podcast explained that “a lot of current Western beauty standards celebrate whiteness — not some objective, biological, evolutionary thing, but literally just being a white person.” Beauty and power are closely related, and the people who wrote and are still writing the rules of beauty and design are the people with power. The people at the top. The white people.
When we take a look at design history, we quickly start to see how whiteness relates to the rule setters and power holders.
Google famous graphic designers, and what do you see?
Research famous architects, what pops up?
I can’t help but look at this without asking myself, were these the best of the best, or were they just the people holding the power— or the pencil? We’re slowly accepting that many of our textbooks are whitewashed, but we haven’t come to terms with the fact that our definition of “good design” may be, too.
White people set the rules, and we decided that Minimalism is great
We can’t talk about “good design” rules without talking about minimalism. Minimalism–a concept that emerged in 1950–is often described with words like “truth” and “harmony.” Less is more. It was my personal design motto from the time I started designing. The Scandinavian design principles are rooted in simplicity and white space, and I’ve always loved to view design as a way to simplify the complex. By stripping away extra details and embellishments, we ultimately create the ideal user experience. That’s what I used to think along with many of my design role models. In graphic design, we express our love for whitespace, and in architecture, we idolize International style. But the problem is that the practice of minimalism strips the world of culture and promotes a world of sameness where there is no room for differences. Minimalism is the opposite of diversity.
I recently read a Vox article talking about the elitist nature of minimalist design and how it promotes a world where big and loud things, AND big and loud personalities, are seen as wrong. By focusing on minimalism, we’re creating a world devoid of diverse ideas, cultures, and expressions. And even though minimalist design looks clean and spacious, it does not give space to different kinds of people to live and thrive. The problem with minimalism has been studied by many designers. In this AIGA article, Graphic Designers Have Always Loved Minimalism. But At What Cost? Jarrett Fuller powerfully writes that minimalism: “erases the vernacular of local cultures and the plurality of human experience — race, gender, class — reinforcing the myth that design decisions are neutral while creating aesthetic hierarchies of good and bad design.”
Design is inherently elitist, and our design processes are systematically flawed.
If we research good designs, the products we find are often expensive. Good often equals a high price tag. And we justify it with good quality. Because of this, most of what is considered good design is out of reach for the average consumer. Can we really be inclusive when so many of our products and services—even our workspaces—are inaccessible to everyday people? If we want to increase diversity, designers (me included) must take a look at our privilege and the significant distance between us and the people we’re designing for.
We’re in our studios and design labs with our 3 retina monitors while many U.S. households don’t own one computer. We still tell ourselves that we have empathy and understanding for the people we’re designing for, but do we really? For many of us, the devil in the details has actually poisoned our minds to think that those details are something other people must have. We spend more time and money perfecting, only to be left with “perfect” products that few people can afford to enjoy. And on top of that, we often justify our obsession with details with the rationale that “people won’t understand that they need it, but they will subconsciously love and care so much more about this thing that we made because of the extra time and money we spent.”
The problem with designing for the average user
Many people can’t afford the things we make, and our imagined users are molded by our biases and current power structures. As designers, we claim that through testing, surveys, and extensive secondary research we’re able to understand the user better. This focus on the user is referred to as User-centered design or Human-centered design and is widely adopted by individual practitioners and design firms all over the globe.
And while User-centered design is important, before we try to find our ideal “user” and start developing personas or user profiles, we must examine existing power structures, our own biases, and the problem with designing for the average user. In the book Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, Sasha Costanza-Chock writes that “designers tend to unconsciously default to imagined users whose experiences are similar to their own. This means that users are most often assumed to be members of the dominant, and hence “unmarked” group: in the United States, this means (cis)male, white, heterosexual, ‘able-bodied,’ literate, college-educated, not a young child and not elderly, with broadband internet access, with a smartphone, and so on.” Costanza-Chock has done extensive research on the design of technology products and the biases brought on by focusing on a narrow “highly profitable, subset of humanity.” But the problems with lack of diversity when developing personas and user testing spans all design industries from marketing, UX, Industrial design, etc. Our current design practices continue to reinforce current power structures by centering the needs of some while ignoring the needs of others. Costanza-Chock explains that because often marginalized groups are not among the target users or personas, “their needs, desires, and potential contributions will continue to be ignored, sidelined, or deprioritized.”
As we examine our exclusionary practices and philosophies, we must also take a look at the places we learn and implement these practices. How can we truly increase diversity when the most respected firms, agencies, and industry leaders are located in the most expensive cities in the world? We might have great DEI statements and say that we don’t discriminate against class or race in our hiring methods, but when our offices are in areas where only the highest-paying people at the company can afford to live, it sends the opposite message: you’re welcome to apply, but be prepared to be mentally and physically exhausted not just from the work, but from trying to keep up with the commute, the status, and the expectations of conforming to our definitions of what’s “good” and what works.
Now what? Designing a better future that benefits everyone
As we start stitching together new initiatives to increase diversity in design, instead of aiming to “move the needle forward”, we need to take the whole sweater apart and start over from the beginning. We must rethink what good design IS, and imagine a world where diversity isn’t just represented by the people we hire, but also inherent in the work we highlight and appreciate.
The biggest question that I believe needs to be answered is this: how far are we really willing to go to increase diversity? Are we willing to give up our old definitions of design—our current power—and write a new narrative that shows the beauty of the diverse world? Are we willing to admit we’ve been doing things wrong? Are we willing to acknowledge that we don’t know everything? Are we willing to take the solid white, minimalist sweater apart, and start over with colors and shapes, and influences from beyond what we know? Are we willing to maybe not make a sweater at all, and perhaps create something entirely new and welcoming and beautiful and REAL?
In the book Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long possessed that he is set free — he has set himself free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges.” We remember these words as we stop clinging to the world of design as we know it, and start co-creating a better, more equitable reality where our differences make everyone better. If we’re going to make any kind of an impact at all, the challenge for white designers right now isn’t just recognizing that you have privilege. The challenge is deciding what good you’re going to do with it.
Note: There are plenty of talented designers and organizations already changing the landscape. Here are a few resources and organizations I’ve found helpful in my quest for real inclusivity:
- Designing for Good
- Decentering whiteness in design history resources
- Anti-racist design resources
- Cheryl D. Miller: The History of “Where are the Black designers?”
- Design as Protest resource list
- Decolonizing Design Resources
People doing great work
Where are all the Black designs?
Where are all the Black designs? exists to heal, support, amplify, and make space for the entire spectrum of Black creativity while also decolonizing design through education and wellness resources, events, partnerships, and collaborations.
The Design Justice Network challenges the ways that design and designers can harm those who are marginalized by systems of power.
Creative Reaction Lab’s mission is to educate, train, and challenge Black and Latinx youth to become leaders designing healthy and racially equitable communities.
The BlackSpace Manifesto demands a present and future where Black people, Black spaces, and Black culture matter and thrive. The collective brings together planners, architects, artists, and designers as Black urbanists, people who are passionate about the work of public systems and urban infrastructures.
Design as Protest is a collective of designers mobilizing strategy to dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture and design as tools of oppression.