Just a Brown Hand

On August 25th, Slack unveiled a new way for developers to connect to Slack, the “Add to Slack” button. It was the culmination of a great deal of work from many Slack employees, and just the beginning of what we have in store for Slack in the near future. Today, though, I want to talk about a seemingly small detail that has been more important to me than I would have expected: the skin color of the hand in the launch graphics.

Slack’s people of color group (#earth-tones) was the first to say something.

Featuring EricaJoy, Rodney, Duretti, and Jason.

But, it wasn’t just Slack employees who noticed:

Why was the choice an important one, and why did it matter to the people of color who saw it? The simple answer is that they rarely see something like that. These people saw the image and immediately noticed how unusual it was. They were appreciative of being represented in a world where American media has the bad habit of portraying white people as the default, and everyone else as deviations from the norm.

The result of that American tendency is the telling and retelling of what Chimamanda Adichie would call a single story, one that reinforces people of color as “culturally other.” And boy, do we feel it:

I’m a black person who has been successful in tech by anyone’s standards. I felt fortunate, and I’ve rarely felt any overt obstacles to my progress. But there was a point when I realized that there was a reason behind this. I’ve made sacrifices to be accepted into an industry where people who look like me are woefully underrepresented. I’ve become distant from my culture, my heritage and my own personal history, in order to be more palatable to a white standard. This leaves me feeling stuck between 2 worlds. Obviously not able to pass for white (and not wanting to), but also not “black enough” for those who look like me. I want to try to convey this sacrifice and its consequences in hopes that others in my position feel some solidarity. — Marco Rogers on Conforming to Succeed and What it Means For People of Color

Behind The Scenes: Slack HQ

I was the designer working with the platform team on the Add to Slack project. When launch day began to loom and we didn’t have any marketing images, it fell to me to quickly whip assets together for our blog and social media accounts. The venerable Matt Hodgins previously made a sweet little chunky hand for a banner on our API site, so I decided to use that as a main element. The hand vector file was made of many distinct overlapping pieces, so I asked him to make the change to save time.

You really can’t got wrong with Hatt Modgins.

A few iterations later — and some discussion about whether my visual metaphor of the button coming from the cloud was too…“and glob said, let there be Slack button” — I sent off what I needed, and we were ready for launch.

Behind the Scenes: My Brain

Having decided to use the hand but needing to ask Matt to change the color, I was first torn about whether it was okay to ask him, then upset at myself for hesitating so much. The internal dialogue went something like this:

Diógenes, Brown Person: This hand should totally be brown. I’m brown.
Diogenes, Person:
I’m trying to get good design work done and get this project out, not become an activist and start a movement or something.
Diógenes, Brown Person: It’s not a big deal, you’re the designer, you get to make it brown.
Diogenes, Person: Yea but, I’m going to ask Matt to do it, that’s like, making a thing of it.
Diógenes, Brown Person: So what‽ You should make a thing of it, you never see this sort of thing.
Diogenes, Person: True. Dang. Now I feel bad about thinking so much about whether this is okay. This is okay right? I mean, no one’s gonna say anything. What could they say? Saying something about it would be racist.
Diógenes, Brown Person: Dude, even if he was the designer on this project he should make it brown. It’s like, affirmative design action.
Diogenes, Person: Yea!
Diógenes, Brown Person
: Yea!
Diogenes, Person: Good talk, bro.

These Little Things Matter

After the announcements, I surprised myself by staying on edge until I saw that folks had responded positively to the image. This thread by @belaurie on Twitter in particular, put me at ease:

It may not mean much to y’all but it signifies..
1. POC work at slack.. making visual decisions that are seen by millions (impact)
2. Visuals matter…. specifically around product users and what a “technologist” looks like. Seeing a brown hand is HUGE — icons matter.
3. slack is serious about elevating POC in my opinion not just through press releases but through business decisions..
This content is going to be on a lot of blogs, posts and shared to a global audience..having imagery that highlights an “anomaly” — — HUGE
In a world that highlights “white is right” and “optimal” brings me great joy to see some melanin on the page. :)
You da best Slack team.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. These small choices matter, so make them whenever you can. People will notice, and they’ll feel good. Things will be better.

I mean this: White Americans can care about more than just themselves. They really can. And the rest of us? We are DYING to see ourselves anywhere. — Mira Jacob

You too, white people. Don’t be afraid to mix it up and use images depicting non-white people. There is certainly enough imagery of white people to go around. If you do so mindfully and with intent to avoid an ignorant caricature of a whole people, then things will work out and you will have made a small but important difference. Our choices as creators matter.

As system designers, we have a responsibility (and opportunity) to design systems with stronger values. They may not change us (we are old), but our children will see the values in these systems as normal. That is both scary and exciting.
Buster Benson on Eric Meyer’s XOXO 2015 Conference Talk

Now watch some great talks and gain some empathy:

P.S. Follow me on Medium below, or on Twitter @uxdiogenes.