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How MillerKnoll’s Diversity in Design collective offers community, opportunity, and equity for Black designers

May 24, 2022, 8:09 PM UTC

Candace Charpentier has worked as a designer at Freeman, a global events design company, for more than a decade. It wasn’t until the pandemic shut down her industry and Freeman sent her department home, that she took some time to consider what it means for her to identify as a Black designer. “During that time, I worked on myself,” says Charpentier, associate creative director at Freeman. “There was a lot of civil unrest and, seeing it all play out on TV, what we wake up to became more amplified.” Charpentier became motivated and inspired to explore some opportunities to reconnect with her own story and do her small part to move the needle on increasing diversity across the industry. She began volunteering to help small business owners in her town, offering them design work and helping them set up Etsy shops.

Before too long, her boss at Freeman called, asking her to come back. “I unloaded everything,” she says of the conversation. “What it’s like to be one of the only ones. What it’s like to see male counterparts fail up. What it’s like not being able to bring my full self to work. He totally took it in. He said, ‘You know what, I have something for you.’” 

Freeman had just joined a larger effort spearheaded by esteemed furniture designer MillerKnoll called Diversity in Design (DID). The collaborative, which will celebrate its first anniversary in June, aims to be a catalyst for change and improved conditions for Black creatives across the design industry. If Charpentier decided to return to Freeman, her boss told her, she’d help represent the company within DID. For Charpentier, that changed everything. “It was an almost ‘I see you’ moment,” she says. “When Freeman signed on [with DID], they knew the inequities of our industry and wanted to do something about it. They were backing me.”

DID was the brainchild of Mary Stevens, then senior vice president of product development at MillerKnoll parent company Herman Miller Group and Caroline Baumann, former director of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Together, they called upon an initial cohort of founding advisors including D’Wayne Edwards, founder at Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, Lesley Ann Noel, assistant professor of design at North Carolina State University (then at Tulane University’s center for social innovation and design thinking), and Forest Young, global head of brand at Rivian (formerly the global chief creative officer at Wolff Olins), to help formalize the DID collaborative.

“The DID Collective is an innovative approach to influencing the lack of diversity in the design industry,” says D’Wayne Edwards. “For years brands individually tried to solve it with their own initiatives, some brands did not know where to begin and others honestly didn’t care. DID Collective takes a basic principle of strength in numbers to unify those brands that care and are motivated to make a difference.”

To date, MillerKnoll has devoted eight full-time employees entirely to DID (including non-profit pro and architect Todd Palmer who serves as director). “A consistent theme in my life is, ‘Where is the real impact?’” says Palmer, who worked previously as executive director at Chicago Architecture Biennial working to address urban and environmental equity gaps. “We are seeking to address the disparity in the [design] sector collaboratively.” 

At launch, says Palmer, DID could account for 19 companies. Now, almost a year in, there are 48 businesses involved, including 3M, Wolff Olins, Camron, Collins, Rightpoint, Stamen Design, Airbnb, Vans, Pentagram, Gap Inc., Adobe and more. There are no fees to join DID and, every quarter, Palmer and his team onboard more members. Palmer hopes to expand the initiative’s influence and message in three areas of focus: investment in design education, the bridges and disparities between the industry and the educational system, and recruiting and retaining talent. “The work force is 13 % Black, but less than 5% of designers are Black.” says Palmer. “That’s our signal area of change and not a quick path to success.” DID is calling on companies that are “transforming conditions for Black creatives who can be influential at scale.” Then, he says, the real work is about leveraging connections and building common understanding on addressing the disparity in design.

The first major step DID members have taken toward that end came in the form of Designed By, the organization’s inaugural youth design fest on March 22 in Detroit. Hip-hop architect Michael Ford kicked off the day with the keynote speech, after which 30 Black design leaders spent the day speaking to, working in small groups with, and answering questions from nearly 200 Detroit high school students. The idea was to introduce the scope of a design career to the students, perhaps opening their eyes to what an education or career in design might look like, in all its varied and nuanced forms. “The kids were very receptive,” says Alice Coleman, experience design director at Rightpoint, who helped plan the event. “They were really interested in learning new things. It was super-refreshing.”

Palmer says the goal is to continue to pilot programs like Designed By, learn from them, make tweaks, and then replicate them at scale across the country over time. For Edwards, it’s the mentorship that has real potential to create change. “There are many facets to DID, but the one near and dear to me is the collective knowledge of mentors willing to lend their time and expertise to educate, inspire, guide, and change the lives of individuals who did not know what their best looked like,” he says. “This collective knowledge is unmatched by any organization in the world.”

And, while piloting programs like Designed By is a big part of DID’s collective work and purpose, Charpentier says she’s personally gained from her involvement, too. “Growing up–taking on a professional job–you don’t talk about race at the office,” she says. “I feel like I have a whole crew behind me. It’s giving me this sense of confidence.” The network she’s tapped into through DID, Charpentier says, has been an immense source for new ideas on how to bolster Black design talent on her own team, from speaking at local schools to talking to guidance counselors to creating new internships. Since joining DID, Coleman says, Rightpoint has also upped the ante on taking action on diversity. “The great resignation hit us like everyone else,” she says. “Some of those positions were replaced, maybe 25 people. Of those, six were women or people of color. Before, it was just me and one other person.” In addition, says Coleman, Rightpoint has also started a six-month leadership training program that spans all business units and will begin in June. Seventy-five percent of the participants, Coleman says, are women or people of color: “That’s the area I want to focus on.”

What’s next for DID, says Palmer, is certainly about growth, and an imperative to pilot small but meaningful projects that can be replicated across industries and organizations. “I believe we are looking at 100 companies as a steady state. Those exemplary design leaders can pilot programs in other areas of focus. How do you formalize that at scale? That can transform internships, create cohorts, create higher visibility. It can create multiple paths forward for someone straddling disciplines.” While Palmer is happy with what the collective has accomplished so far, he’s hesitant to measure progress so early on and anxious to keep going, head down, taking advantage of the momentum DID has so far created: “There’s an understanding that you can’t boil the ocean. Let’s pilot something, bring it to scale and repeat.”

Nicole Gull McElroy

nicolegull@gmail.com

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