In 2018, I lost my 14-year-old brother to gun violence. There are no words to explain how I felt as a sister, as a friend, and even as a designer. Designers are called to use their skills to make the world a better place, and yet I began to question my ability to do this; if I couldn’t save my brother, how could I help other people?
In these dark moments, of questioning myself, I also began to think of this idea of legacy. In Black culture, some of us talk a lot about ancestors without knowing much about them personally. Much of our identity has been erased or lost throughout history. It’s in connecting these two thoughts that I was able to move forward with my work in design and design education, and find increased purpose in the wake of my brother’s death. When I speak about what our future young leaders will go on to do, and of what my role in that is, I think about this as our chance to build a legacy for our culture and identity.
The harsh reality is that often for aspiring designers in some communities, the barriers that prevent them from becoming designers in the first place are simply too great to overcome. Some of these barriers come from within the community itself. Fortunately, there is a lot we can do as designers and design leaders to remove these barriers, in the hopes of achieving that legacy of systems change through the mobilization of young leaders. Much of the work is in motion already by practicing designers and everyday decision makers, but we need help. Here are just a few ways we can work together to open up design opportunities.
Showing the value of design as a career path
In historically underinvested communities, “design” as we know it is often misunderstood and undervalued. This is partly because the term itself is relatively new — design used to be referred to as commercial art, which is often viewed as a hobby and tied to the narrative of the starving artist, especially in such communities with underinvestment and limited resources. Even in our schools, design tends to be portrayed as the elective class that you just do to get a passing grade — not as a career trajectory.
A few years ago, I participated in a one-week intensive workshop called the Business of Social Design at the School of Visual Arts. In my project, I explored why, in historically underinvested communities of color, design is often not accepted as a career. In this research, I found one key reason for this: many parents and guardians do not (or cannot) support their young family members in pursuing an art-based career, often refusing to financially support a post-secondary art education. Instead, a lot of these aspiring designers end up going into finance, engineering, law, or medicine, following pressure to pursue a career that’s perceived as more stable and lucrative.
We don’t recognize how much power we have as parents and guardians. I see it with my own son, who wants to be a designer. I know the impact that our conversations and my support for his artistic pursuits has on him and what he thinks he can (and cannot) achieve. More often than not, adults who work in creative fields are naturally receptive to their children following an artistic career due to us understanding the different avenues and pathways within a variety of creative professions. For those aspiring young designers who don’t see this support at home, and for their parents and guardians who might not understand design as a career choice, it is up to current design professionals to change things. We need to act as role models, tear down barriers to design education, and increase the visibility of design as a rewarding career choice.
The importance of being a role model
Being a role model, and making sure you’re visible as one, are especially important in elevating design as a viable career choice in underinvested communities. There are two ways you can act as a role model to aspiring designers facing community-based boundaries.
Role models in the education system: Diversity of educators is key
It seems obvious, but when educators take students under their wings and support their artistic career and journey, then those students are much more likely to pursue design as a career. The barrier here, especially in high schools, is that educators themselves might not be aware of career opportunities in design. There are great efforts being made to reach students at the secondary and post-secondary levels, by organizations such as National Portfolio Day, or by different design and art schools themselves. If you’re looking to work with the education system to provide mentoring and be a role model this way, reaching out to those organizations or design schools is a great place to start.
The importance of visible role models online and in-person
Of course, we cannot rely on the education system to completely flip the script for aspiring designers from underinvested communities; we need to take action ourselves. If young people from historically underinvested communities (through race, gender identity, ability status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc.) cannot ‘see themselves’ in the design industry, the likeliness that they will have the confidence to try to embark on a design career is considerably smaller.
When I went into the design field, I didn’t learn about any designers of color, not one. We heard about Swiss design and about designers like David Carson — typically, we heard about white men with design careers. It was at this time that I began to realize how deeply embedded the eurocentric aesthetic and colonized narrative was within the design field and what we defined as “good, quality design”. I spent years in my career before I heard about Sylvia Harris‘s work as a civic designer, or about W.E.B. Dubois‘s legacy of infographic design before it was called infographic design. Even in Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, there is very little representation of people of color, of women, and of non-binary and trans people. It is up to us to change this for the next generation.
There are already incredible projects out there raising awareness of practicing designers from historically underinvested communities in the field. Organizations like the Inneract Project and designExplorr, for example, that are trying to empower underrepresented youth through design education. Then there’s 28 Days of Black Designers, Revision Path, and my own Design + Diversity (created in partnership with Timothy Hykes), which is trying to increase the representation of designers across different historically underinvested communities by sharing their work, building a community, and by thinking about how the role of design can be used for social improvement and social impact in our communities.
We need to look at what these groups are doing, amplify it, and replicate them in all of our communities. There is still much work to be done, but I suggest you reach out to these and other existing projects, speak with your colleagues, and amplify your work as a role model online and in person at events geared to aspiring designers.
The great barrier to entry – the cost of design education
I decided to go into design during my sophomore year of college, after being a biology major. I was told that I essentially had to extend my college career just because there was a set path for design that lasted four years. This is far from unusual; if you’re in a college program, and decide you’d like to embark on a design degree program during or after your education, you will likely need to add four or more years of schooling (and thus four or more years of tuition).
For most people in underinvested communities, their high school curriculum does not include substantial art and design education and the opportunities that come from this early access. Therefore, there is a decreased likelihood that one would go from high school right into a design program as a freshman. It’s no wonder that these educational costs cause many aspiring designers to rethink their career plans.
And it’s not just tuition.
In my first design class, my teacher was adamant to tell me that the Mac is the “bible of design”. In some programs, you also need a drawing tablet (preferably Wacom, of course) and corresponding software — the tools of the trade are not cheap. Design is an extremely expensive field to enter. This is why Design + Diversity created the National Fellowship Program (in partnership with Timothy Bardlavens, an Adobe Design Circle member as well). In this program, we don’t just provide access to the annual conference, but we also partnered with design-centric companies like Adobe, Google, and Microsoft to provide each fellow with tools that they need to be successful at the start of their careers. Adobe also provides scholarships for youth striving to enter the field (including the newly released Adobe Design Circle Scholarship). Success in the design field isn’t only about ‘talent’, but also educational access, a robust network, and economic stability.
The short and long term impact of inclusion and equity
As a field with so much impact and power, we need to acknowledge that the eurocentric and colonized narrative I mentioned earlier is deeply embedded in all of our systems, including the design world. AND these mindsets and narratives are directly connected in many ways to the barriers I’ve mentioned. I view myself as one of many design leaders who are tirelessly working to put drops in a bucket to try to get us closer to this space of belonging, of inclusion, of equity as it relates to historically underinvested communities.
While there’s much work to do, it’s very gratifying to see that we are already having an impact on individual lives. Even as I write this, I received a text from one of our students to tell me she was recently accepted into a national civic engagement program. Those moments matter.
Individual designers, design companies, and departments alike need to focus on the long term. It’s our power to make decisions and make our communities stronger. (Building on IBM’s definition of design, Creative Reaction Lab defines design as the intention and unintentional impact behind an outcome. With that definition, how can we not understand the power we hold as an industry?) The reality is that all systems have been by design, which also means our systems of oppression, inequality, and equity have been by design. But that means they can be redesigned. My work is focused on trying to build a movement of Redesigners for JusticeTM.
I hope you’ll join me by helping me take some of the steps above, to create that bold new generation of design leaders, determined to create a legacy of increased fairness and opportunity for all.