One recent morning, I was doing my daily reading about identity redesign on BrandNew and clicked on a case study to see the studio who did the work. While admiring the great work I’m was seeing in the case study and the studio’s website, a familiar feeling settled in the pit of my stomach as I looked through the team profiles. That feeling was anger.
Anger that time after time I’m just seeing the same sea of homogeneity. In my bookmarks are links to dozens of studios whose work is different from one to the next. Yet, the leadership profiles can quite literally be duplicated over and over again because they look almost entirely the same. Lots of white guys, a few women and a sprinkle of the model person of color (POC)— a fair-skinned Chinese or Korean person. When you do see a brown/black person, they tend to be in a junior or non-creative position and very rarely in any leadership role. As logic dictates, there are some exceptions but not in the numbers to dispute that there’s a real lack of representation and equity out there.
This feeling of anger over our invisibility has been continually feed for the last twenty-nine years I’ve been in design. The line has barely pushed forward since my college days in 1988. Even now in 2017 looking at the most progressive studios, there’s barely any representation. The most common explanation told is “well, we can’t find any GOOD designers of color”—or some variation—just doesn’t hold water today. That explanation is just laced with implicit bias to the ears of people of color. Why? Because the definition of good is left up to the subjective whim (and racial preconceptions) of that mainstream studio when factually there are countless GOOD to GREAT designers of color working but never moving beyond staff level. Yet, everyday there are many mediocre white designers getting promoted, mentored, given project leads and booked for speaking engagements while talented designers of color are overlooked or not even considered for those same opportunities. Ever ask why we keep seeing the same faces over and over again at conferences, workshops and magazines?
The reasons why are many—straight-up prejudice, cultural/racial ignorance based on unfounded perceptions, laziness, uneasiness, fear, shortsightedness and yes, not being qualified may certainly one of them. More times than not though, the real reason has less to do with qualifications and more to do with any of the other reasons I stated. If we agree that the work of Eddie Opara, Gail Anderson, Kenny and DeAnna Gravillis, Arem Duplessis and Darhil Crooks (to name just to name a few) are examples of good designers, logic dictates that there are others just like them but they just haven’t been seen. Beyond a few select folks, rarely does the light shine on these invisible designers.
Genuine motivation, desire, honesty and work can move the issue of diversity forward light years. Actively seek out colleges and arts programs with large student bodies from underrepresented communities for internships and/or employment along with all the traditional venues; break out of your familiar network circle (which more times than not will be homogenous) and engage with associations aligned with creatives of color; give educational workshops on being a designer at local high schools to expose students to design that might not otherwise have known about it and engaging in mentorship with creatives of color are just some basic solutions to expanding one’s comfort zone and tapping into a new resource pool.
Personally, I’ve done this continually throughout my career because I know first-hand the experience of being a creative of color. A professor of mine gave me my start in design. The interesting fact of this is that my professor was a black man just like me. While my other professors—who were white—liked my work, not once did any of them offer guidance or mentorship nor help me with getting design work. After graduation, my first two “real” design jobs were given to me by folks who valued and understood the idea of a diverse workforce. The interesting fact to most of them is that they too were from an underrepresented demographic—a black woman, a gay white woman and a gay white man. The last person was a white man originally from Canada. In all my years of employment, he has been the only white man I’ve known to really understand the concept of diversity in the workforce and actually put it into practice.
He was the owner of the media company where I worked 6 months after graduating. It was in this same media company that my two subsequent bosses (a white lesbian and a gay white man) treated me to opportunities with equal consideration to my white co-workers. It was here that when my boss decided to leave the company, he recommended that I replace him as the art director. Being 24, unproven in an AD role and in the back of my mind being black, I didn’t think the owner would give the green light. In meeting with him, he didn’t hesitate in telling me that he thought I’d be very successful as the new art director. He explained that my work had been excellent and that he prefers to cultivate and promote talent from within. He reasoned why shouldn’t I have access to this opportunity if I’ve proven myself? In typical owner fashion, he told if after 6 months I wasn’t doing a good job, I’d go back to my original position. And just to note, my salary was competitive with bonuses.
After five years as art director, I left the company for a new opportunity. When I met with the owner to tell him of my plans, he was extremely happy for me and agreed it was time for me to meet new challenges. Even though I was leaving the company, he said that his help, guidance and door would always be open for me. And it was…until the day he died. His funeral was jam-packed and truly reflected who he was as a person because the folks in attendance represented what the world looks like. True diversity.
To this day, I have not come across another soul like that but his example shows that it’s not some unfathomable equation to achieving diversity. It just takes genuine motivation and desire to know that it’s good business and just good humanity to have different viewpoints, perspectives, insights as it just make us all that much better.