There’s a borough in London, England, where 26 percent of the population is black. Within this borough, 50 percent of residents in high-security facilities and 67 percent of residents in low-to-medium security psychiatric facilities are black.
Think about that for a minute.
These disproportionate numbers are part of a huge mental health disparity that exists in Britain, one where black men specifically are 17 times more likely to face serious mental health diagnoses than white men, according to the Lambeth Black Health and Wellness Commission.
This is a social problem, but is it also a design problem?
London-based UX designer Lola Oyelayo-Pearson argues yes. “We can use design as activism. We can talk to the design community about what we could be doing as designers to make that better,” she said.
Design as a tool to tackle inequality
Lola is involved with an organization called Rooted Innovation, which seeks to use design as a tool to tackle some of the inequalities affecting ethnic minorities in the U.K. It was founded by Julian Thompson, a black service designer who saw a need to make design a bigger part of the conversation. He started asking tough questions, Lola said, such as, “Why am I the only black person in a room discussing design solutions for how we do outreach work to talk to black men?”
Julian convinced Lola and a couple of others to help co-found the project last year. The group works with in-house teams, agencies, third-sector organizations, and collaborates with government teams on design considerations for minority communities. The group has grand ambitions of creating content that others can take into the world to grow the conversation toward more positive outcomes.
“I’m able to focus my skill set in an area that affects my community in a way that hopefully starts to address some of the inequalities that exist,” Lola said.
All of this is just what she does on a volunteer basis. By day, Lola leads product strategy at Chainspace, a company that is developing technological solutions for blockchain companies. By night, she attends Ladies that UX London, and will soon be traveling to Boston to speak at the Talk UX conference taking place in October. She’s an avid mentor focused on helping other designers develop business and leadership skills, and she’s also the mother of a toddler that’s already showing signs of her mom’s strong character.
With World Interaction Design Day just a day away, and we reflect on the theme of inclusion and diversity in design, Lola’s work reminds us of design’s impact beyond the screen and asks designers to evaluate what their true purpose is.
The UX designer’s dharma
Dharma is a Sanskrit word with many meanings in several Indian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. Though it doesn’t have a direct western translation, it is a concept that is studied in many westernized spiritual practices, such as yoga. I have come to understand it as a higher purpose and a righteous duty.
When Lola and I chat, we don’t discuss the term dharma per se, but the concept emanates from her words. It is clear she is passionate that the purpose of a designer’s work is essentially to make the world a better place, and to leave the world better than how we found it.
“If we [as designers] are making decisions in our everyday that end up having a negative impact on even just one human being because we didn’t know how to consider them, we should try to do better,” Lola said.
“If we care about equality of outcome for everybody, then we should be doing the most we can to consider what those differences are and how best to support them. In design, that’s what we’re here for. We’re not here just to push out what our vision of what the world should be, we’re here to actually make sure that the world is suitable for the people who live in it — and that we are part of making that happen.”
This isn’t about idealism, but rather an observation that the people who navigate toward careers in UX design generally want to help people. She sees designers in a position to recognize potential opportunities for and to evoke change.
“It’s not a political act. It’s more if you want to do good and you know how to do good, why not do good? And if that’s easy to do, then let’s all do it,” she said.
Learning to lead — the designer’s responsibility
Of course, in order to truly inspire change and make a difference, designers need to know how to lead. This is why Lola focuses her mentorship efforts in this avenue.
“I think particularly in the design space, we need more business leaders with a user-centered design background. What that means is that we all have to look at what our career evolution looks like. If you are currently at midweight level, you need to decide where your career’s going to go next and what it is that you want to do,” Lola said. “Design leadership is emerging as an area where designers need to step up into leadership roles.”
She talks about this often at conferences, and will be doing so again at Talk UX, exploring how a big part of the problem in design is that some designers are resistant to lead.
“We want more money, and we want more responsibility, but we don’t want to be in charge,” she said.
This is why Lola is involved in groups like Ladies that UX, because they expose women to opportunities to grow while providing a community of support along the way. If design leadership is in your future, now’s the time to get involved in groups like this to start building your confidence and skills in this realm.
As more designers step forward in leadership roles, it also gives junior designers the opportunity to enter the field, perhaps having an even bigger impact on whatever it is you’re ultimately trying to change through design in your work, community, and beyond.
“We need to embrace being in charge because that way we might make space for some of the best designers that are coming behind us to actually do amazing things with their work,” Lola said. “That’s an important thing, particularly for those of us who are more senior in our careers. We should be embracing that next step more and more.”