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Designing the change: Black designers on equity and representation in the industry

February 15, 2022, 2:00 PM UTC

In the short time I’ve been working on Business X Design here at Fortune, a handful of themes continue to come up in conversation: authenticity, empathy, innovation, accessibility, and equity. Designers, design leaders, and CEOs are all considering how to balance the design practices in their organizations within the contexts of these subjects, and the nuances that come along with them. While there aren’t a lot of numbers reported in terms of equity, and vary on who you ask, it’s clear there’s plenty of work to do: The 2019 AIGA Design Census reported that only 3% of designers are Black. So I asked Black designers to share their thoughts and experiences, each in their own voice, on how an industry with so much opportunity and innovation can leverage its inherent strengths to foster, support, and grow good design talent in the Black community.

As told to Nicole Gull McElroy. These responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Portrait of black designer Chelsi Cocking.
Courtesy of Chelsi Cocking

Chelsi Cocking, 27

Research assistant and graduate student, Future Sketches group, MIT Media Lab

There is a reason why things are the way they are. It’s extremely disheartening to me. I had to figure out how to exist in it as a Black woman who wants to be an engineer boss and who wants to be an artist. I just kind of made it a tenant of mine: wherever I am, to move the needle in terms of opening doors and opportunities for people who are like me. One of the quotes that stuck with me, with the passing of Virgil Abloh, is, “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old-version of myself.”

Black people, women, people from underrepresented cultures in these spaces. How can you gain more exposure? I also agree that existing in the space as who you are is profound enough as well. Being who you are in a space that was not made for you, and was not built for you, and isn’t used to having you around, but [also] being in that space and trying to find the courage to be unashamedly who you are because it was a voice that wasn’t there before, but it’s a voice that needs to be there. It also allows for other voices that are also different from you. Every Black person is not Chelsi. Getting used to having other voices and perspectives in the room by being yourself; that’s something I’ve had to do a lot. Every time I enter into a new space, I have to remind myself that my power is in being myself and having the courage to do that in every place I go.

Portrait of black designer Wes O'Haire.
Courtesy of Wes O’Haire

Wes O’Haire, 38

Product Design Manager, DropBox; Founder, BlacksWhoDesign

The design skillset is definitely at that intersection of art, and intuition, and data. We need to figure out how to change the narrative. You don’t need to go to MIT, but you can get into this skillset and still work with all of those people on really cool problems. For me, I kind of came into design at a weird time; in the late 90s, early 2000s. In high school, I just wanted to figure out how to do websites for myself and my friends. That probably came from something my dad told me early on that I always had in the back of my head: “You can do whatever you want, just know how to work computers well.”

Right now, I’m a product design manager and I’ve been here at DropBox for six years. I work with the designers on our team and make sure they are growing in the right ways, that we have a really solid design vision we’re working toward, that we are making the most cohesive product. Last year I got involved with Miller Knoll’s Diversity in Design. It’s a collective of different companies in the design industry helping to make it more equitable for Black and brown designers and increase the awareness in education on Black talent in the design field.

One of the things I’m working on now with Miller Knoll is more about recruitment and retention. How do I get recruited? And how do I find companies that are great and not just say they are great? How can I find people who are going to make the intro for me, or give me the stretch project? Those are the types of problems we’re addressing. There is a lot of talk about it but we’re getting to a point in the industry that its’ becoming apparent that talk isn’t enough. We need to do the work. This is ongoing work as opposed to something just in February. That’s been a really cool shift I see in the industry.

As an industry we know we need to grow because there aren’t enough designers to keep up with the demand.  Also, we know we need to work on equity. This would be an opportune time to think about these problems at once. Folks focused on growing the industry should be looking at the equity side and the folks focused on the equity side also need to focus on growing the industry. It’s an interesting opportunity for us.

Portrait of black designer Eddie Opara.
Courtesy of Eddie Opara

Eddie Opara, 50

Partner, Pentagram

When I was at a college in my undergrad in London, I had in my year close to eight to 10 Black students. That is quite big out of 80 or so students for graphic design. When I came to America, I was thinking there’s going to be way more. Year after year, I’d see maybe one. Sometimes none. Britain has its issues in regards to design equity; it’s a boys’ club. It has been a boys’ club for a very long time. If you look at the overall famous names in design and graphic design, you won’t see one that is Black. That is shameful, for a profession that focuses itself on being open, that accepts everybody and puts everyone on the same level in the public realm, and levels everything out. Absolutely God-awful. How does one change it?

I was talking to a really good friend who is at PBS who is also British; we graduated together. We had a conversation once: it was more about not just, “We need designers from minorities–and very much so from the Black community–but we need good ones.” That’s where people start. It’s not about chucking people into a profession (because it’s a profession not a job). It takes a lot of effort. It’s about providing them with that goodness and that quality. It’s up to people like us: mentors that can provide that. We have to be tough. It’s a long journey. It’s going to take time to get right.

There needs to be this sense of authorship and understanding. We need to instill the idea that design is more than a profession. It’s a way of life. That is exceedingly important. When people ask me at a dinner party or on the street. Some of my neighbors who know me very well – it’s like the difference between H&R Block and Goldman Sachs. We’re Goldman Sachs. When you walk into a designer’s home, there’s something about this place that’s really interesting. The colors, the form; there’s something about it. It’s the way they live. What they say and how they say it; that is incredibly important. It’s transformational in the way somebody is going to exist and that can be influential. That is what we have to make design more of, rather than I’m just a “doer.” We have to project this out to everybody.

Portrait of black designer Zariah Cameron.
Courtesy of Zariah Cameron

Zariah Cameron, 21

Equity-Centered UX Strategist, Ally Financial; Founder, AEI Design Program

I essentially taught myself UX because it wasn’t part of our curriculum program.

It wasn’t until my second year of undergrad at North Carolina A&T State University that I was introduced to UX design. I’d say it was harder to find that first internship than it was to find my job. Once I had that first internship, it helped feed into my current job. It was a lot harder being a Black woman in design and not having the mentorship available to scope out that experience. Now, I have a small circle of people I seek out for mentorship, finding people of color that are able to give you that guidance. Companies need to give a chance to people who are first time designers–sometimes they have the skill set of being a great team member, but need a couple of helpful things along the way to give them that boost.

My role now is centered around equity and inclusion within design. It is more of the strategy aspect of design to address how we can make it more equitable and more opportunistic, especially for the Black and LatinX communities. AEI Design Program is something I started during the pandemic. We’re two years old. It’s been amazing, just looking at my own journey and my own path. There weren’t as many resources for me at the time, and now I’m providing that for other designers–Black students who want to get into the design world. It’s about providing an opportunity for them to grow and have a sense of community.

Now we are evolving and leaning more into the mental health space to provide more help throughout the journey of black designers. It’s starting to morph a little bit because I’m older and I’ve moved out of that student role. How can I evolve my program as I’m evolving as an adult? I went through a period of mental burn out. A lot of times, as Black creatives, we are not provided the environment to feel like we are able to rest and properly cultivate a healthy environment. We are cultivating community and having honest conversations about being Black designers–and the trauma and experiences that come with that as you go into corporate America. It’s about providing resources that will be helpful to navigate those experiences–and also have moments to be free and design, and relax.

Portrait of black designer Hasque May
Courtesy of Hasque May

Hasque May, 24

Founder, First Floor

In high school, I didn’t know you could get paid to do graphic design. I didn’t know how to apply to college or even why go to college. I grew up outside of Nashville. I started to see my friends apply to college. I just googled “What are the best design colleges?” RISD, RIT, Harvard. I had a terrible ACT score so I got rejected, and I figured I’d settle for the University of Tennessee for a year and then climb up. If you’re below a certain family income level, you get in free so I was like, “All I have to do is get good grades.” I started to go to design events all through my freshman [year].  I was 18 going to these design events and everyone around me was 30 or 45-plus. One of the people there hit me up on Facebook and said, “I’d love to give you an internship. So I interned at this design agency in Nashville.” At the same time, I applied to RIT. I got in and got a full scholarship.

I went to a design conference in Nashville and Instagram came–it was a top place to work for design. So, I thought, “How do I get to Instagram?” I started to look at everyone working there – they all started at smaller places and worked their way up. First step was to get an internship.

How do these people get to these places? They are doing more than working their way up – they are working hard, but also working smart. I was preparing a year or so ahead. I was trying to plan. My parents – they had no idea what I was doing. They said, “We can’t afford it.” I said, “I’m going to figure it out.”

I was 21 when I interned at Instagram. I graduated in 2020 and worked for a year and a half there on creation tools on Instagram Stories. My team was responsible for designing new features around that. It was very conceptual. We had a brainstorm and I helped design what that looks like. I think my biggest takeaway from Instagram is defining the problem. In terms of building the product, defining the problem is the biggest thing. It creates solutions. There are also other lessons from Instagram–people first. Their whole ethos is simplicity. I learned how to simplify complex things. It’s always reduce, reduce, reduce until you get to the meat of anything. I recently left to start my own company; I raised $1 million. It’s called First Floor. We make it easy for people to buy NFTs on their phones. We closed that first pre-seed round three weeks ago with Samsung and Chapter 1.

I used to not think about being a Black designer. In my head, I would think just keep going forward and make as much good work as you can. But I could reach these crazy heights, making design accessible in lower income schools. My philosophy is the Black community needs to push as far as possible in whatever endeavor they are going for. If I become some crazy CEO, people are going to look at me and think, “Wow, I can achieve that.” I might inspire someone. The farther I go the more I can inspire people. That’s a big driver. If I push myself all the way, I’ll inspire people that look just like me.

Nicole Gull McElroy

nicolegull@gmail.com

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