Diversity in Design

As a minority student at a predominately white institution, I have come to see diversity as a luxury. I expected that this trend would continue in the professional world. I am somewhat used to it, but I would be happy to be have another face like mine in the room in a professional setting. For that reason, I looked into the state of diversity in technological design fields with a focus on black designers.

My findings were rather illuminating. As I expected, there was a dearth of material for me to find about minority designers, particularly black ones. It is likely that many sources declined to write such material feeling that “highlighting” designers for their race would be more like “patronizing” or “singling out”, this is rather representative of the field. Designer Maurice Cherry of 3eighteenmedia and revisionpath.com wrote: “In 1991, Brenda Mitchell-Powell wrote a report called “Why is Graphic Design 93% White? Removing Barriers to Increase Opportunities in Graphic Design”. And now, nearly 25 years later, we’re still trying to come up with the answer.”

Many wonder if the answer lies in inclusion, participation, visibility, or all three.

The trend of low representation carries over for women and Latinos, says web designer Martin Duran. He noticed one day that he was the only Latino in his company of 400+ employees. His perspective is interesting: although it seems that he has had a unique minority experience, saying that he “never felt like a minority anywhere,” he explains that no one has made him feel unwelcome in his industry. He makes the point that there is, officially, equal opportunity for minorities and women, and yet this trend persists.

As with any issue, one must look at the influences at work. In his article “Where Have All the Black Web Designers Gone?” designer and professor Marc Manley notes that socio-economic barriers have created a situation in which blacks are less likely to be steered toward a tech fields. Fortunately, efforts are being made to break this trend, but as Manley states, there are clearly more factors at play.

Although the design field is not known for exclusion, it seems that inclusion and awareness efforts have room for improvement. Manley reflected on a promotion poster for a 2009 web summit called “Pimp’d,” which, disappointingly, used a caricature of a black pimp. Manley wrote: “how many black web designers would be attending this event? My best guess would be not many, and yet they have chosen a sort of “black mascot” to represent the coolness factor of the event.”

Marc Marley’s article on the subject of black designers has several illuminating comments. An African web designer who worked in the UK commented, “The people in the industry think black people are not good programmers or logical people. They think you are just, charity case and they don’t support your skills to [evolve] and they patronize you.”

In my experience, Western society rarely thinks of the technology field as a black domain. This idea carries on across races, mostly because of the lack of representation. Representation ultimately encourages people to take the opportunities as they gradually become available. It can make a world of difference for someone to affirm, and reaffirm, that you that you belong.

Another comment on Manley’s post came from the one black female on an otherwise white and male web design team in the UK. She explains that there weren’t any visible web design opportunities during her working-class upbringing. “I didn’t realise I could make a real career out of being a designer that didn’t involve being self-employed until about 17 because I simply wasn’t exposed to what steps I’d even need to take to become a designer in an agency,” she said.

Once again, the plight of blacks and women (and especially black women) provide insight into one other. After she noticed her “computer geek” daughter feeling demoralized in overwhelmingly male and white classrooms. Former biotech engineer Kimberly Bryant founded “Black Girls CODE,” an organization that teaches technology to girls ages 7 to 14.

She noted that typical ideas about the culture of the computer science and technology industry hold some back from participating. “The stereotypical image is of a white male computer geek or nerd who sits at a computer and does it alone in a lonely space, and that does not look appealing. And that’s not an accurate representation of the industry. A lot of what we do in the class is to bring in female role models that girls can relate to and who can tell them what they do in their careers. So girls can see it’s focused on things that change the world and improve the community and not something you do in isolation.” It means the world to show young people that they have a place in these realms.

The discussion and efforts for greater representation of minorities in the design industry will continue. 24 years after Brenda Mitchell-Powell’s report, many still wonder what the future holds. Maurice Cherry engaged the topic and boiled down the challenges to this set of questions:

  • Why does the issue of diversity keep re-surfacing every year without real, sustainable solutions?
  • How do we diversify the design industry in a way that doesn’t look like “affirmative action” or “tokenism”?
  • What do Black designers (or designers of color, in general) want from the design community?
  • How can I attract design talent from underrepresented groups?
  • Is solving the “pipeline problem” a viable method for ensuring a diverse future design industry?






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