Illustration by Avirup Basu

As designers, we are in the business of understanding people – to succeed professionally, it’s essential that we get this “understanding” part of the process right. The truth is, however, that we can never say we understand the humans we design for, as diverse and beautifully different as they are, on our own. We need each other to do this successfully. Building a diverse team, with people from different backgrounds, is the only way to ensure we truly gain this understanding and design for more than just the users that reflect our own biases.

Many of the best creatives I know did not go through the traditional education system. Someone took a chance on them, and helped them join an industry that often has a narrow view of who can, and cannot, call themselves a designer. To be better, we need to approach recruitment totally differently. This is the key to achieving true diversity in our practices.

For some time now, we have been pushing for more diversity in our talent pipelines at Huge; this has resulted in more diverse talent within the company, but there’s still much more to do. Now, we’re rethinking how and where we look for the next generation of talent. We’re committed to driving diversity at more senior levels, and we’re looking into how we make our clients accountable as well. We’re not in this alone. As an industry, we can all help each other do better.

The challenges with traditional education

If you look at some of the great design schools out there right now, you can see that they have taken a big step into becoming really experimental, pushing the intersection of physical and digital. They teach high level concept and research work while also training people in thinking outside the box while still validating the work. At the same time, many of the best programs are very expensive, and this means that the people who go through these schools tend to be from privileged backgrounds. This, inevitably, creates a feeling like everybody is coming out of the same mold, with a similar ideology; it’s also clear they have all been trained in a very particular way.

This is a problem. This “sameness” has been infused into the industry for a long time. Let’s be honest, we tend to hire people like ourselves. How many agencies do you know where everybody looks more or less the same? Most of them, in my experience. The time has come to break those patterns.

Searching in all the wrong places

There is a serious lack of digital thinking in graduates from traditional “ad” schools. Students in these “creative” programs often do not understand how to use digital to create meaningful connections between people and brands. This continues to amaze me; this is still an issue in 2020, even when the world has turned completely digital first.

For “design” schools there is sometimes a lack of creative thinking, too. Clarity of thought is essential when you are creating a digital product. It’s what sets it apart. In many “design” programs, the focus is highly tactical. Students often struggle to crack a core concept. They almost forget the importance of emotional connections between people and brands.

The end result of this is that our main sources for talent simply do not have enough of the unique, creative, digital thinkers that companies and agencies so urgently need. People with different backgrounds, different ideas, and different outlooks on life were simply never invited to the conversation.

What we’re doing is not working, and that’s why it’s time for a change in how we recruit. Do we look into programs like the Adobe Design Circle scholarship and New Blood Shift from the D&AD? Do we simply hire people with different backgrounds and give them a shot? Do agencies need to put more money and effort into actually investing in the talent of the future, like we do at Huge, and challenge the biased system that has been built up and do something on their own? The answer is yes to all of the above.

Stay open and look for talent in new places

When I recruit, I look for a “spark.” This is a core part of my hiring strategy – I like it when people have a strong point of view that challenges me. I like it when they don’t do everything by the book and aren’t afraid to try something new. Some of the best people I have hired in the past have come in with some pretty rough portfolios; but, their playfulness has shone through and I’ve seen something unexpected that simply proves that they have a mind of their own.

Yes, portfolios are important. They show us how a person thinks, while also demonstrating their core craft skills. But you need to be able to think a bit deeper and be open to hiring someone who might not have the perfect craft yet. If you give yourself permission to do this, you might be able to look at a portfolio and see someone’s core design sensibility, instead, or you might see that the thinking is unique and different, even though they might not have totally cracked the idea. This is very important — stay open.

Some companies take out all the identifying data (i.e. name, age, gender, etc.) when reviewing portfolios and resumes. It’s worth trying – free yourself up to look at portfolios in a different way, as a window into design insight. There is particular delight in discovering someone who connects to culture in a particular way and lets that shine through their portfolio — a sneakerhead, a music fanatic, someone with a love for theater, street art, fashion, food, basketball, etc. It all matters. What are their day-to-day passions, and how do they play a role in our culture?

Step out of your own comfort zone

To find and foster new, diverse talent, look for it in new places. Don’t rely on the same old network that we have been recruiting from for the last 10-20 years. Give people a chance. Celebrate those who dare to be different. They might bring in the real spice that makes your work stand out. Make a bet and see what comes out of it, as it might really surprise you. Talent really appreciates when you have faith in them and train them to be the best. There is a lot of loyalty to be gained in that — and everybody wins in these scenarios, trust me.

Accept the fact this is hard. Investing in young talent and shaping them takes a lot of work. But positive changes usually don’t come easy. Work against your own bias (we all have it!) when you take a holistic view of your talent pool and start looking at whom to elevate to the next level. Make sure you have a plan on how you plan to build up a diverse team of leaders in the next few years. Challenge yourself and be okay with hiring someone who is very different from you.

The benefits of all of this is that your work is going to be so much better and so much more interesting. Different minds bring different ideas and different executions. You will also be able to better represent the world as a whole if you celebrate diversity, and make more inclusive work for your clients.

COVID-19 has accelerated a lot of these developments. In terms of digital transformation, it has made a change that we thought would happen in the next three to five years take place in two to three months. This has allowed us to rethink the ways we do things. If you don’t have to live in a big, expensive city to have a dream job, does that mean that different types of people can enter our industry? Can we consider hiring a new set of people who are living in smaller towns and coming from different backgrounds? Are we going to open up the doors and explore this?

Let’s drive this change together

In the future, I hope that design education is not only accessible for those few privileged people who can afford it. Yes, schools do have scholarships, but they are very few and far between. They don’t help equalize the whole system.

I hope that companies start taking more responsibility and figure out how they are going to contribute, either through their own education programs or through scholarships.

I hope that we give people without the “proper” education a chance and that we start thinking outside the box when we look for talent. There are great programs out there that help build core skills for people to enter our industry.

We are all responsible for driving this change, and for taking steps to make the design world a fairer (and more interesting) place. At Huge, we have been very vocal both internally and externally for people to hold us accountable (see our current diversity and inclusion data). Investing in a diverse makeup of young talent is going to define the future of this industry. That’s how you influence it and make it better than it’s ever been.