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Reflections on hosting our first equality, diversity and inclusion event — Conversations with Black creatives (Nov) edition

Last month, we hosted the first event in our series of conversations with Black creatives on Zoom. The event was inspired by our recent Black Lives Matter statement, which details our commitment to delivering the changes required within our organisation and the sectors we work in, to help create a more just society.

Our goal was to create a series of events to start a conversation about the role of design in tackling systemic inequalities and in amplifying the voices of black creatives.

Here are some of the highlights:

The event was chaired and kickstarted by Kaia Charles, Cultural Projects Manager of NOW Gallery. NOW Gallery is a free public exhibition space for contemporary art, fashion, photography and design in South East London. Kaia’s work is about curating different types of voices in the space, making sure under-represented voices of all sorts are heard and seen. They work with creatives such as Yinka Ilori, Mowalola, Nadia Huggins and Camille Walala and look at different ways to disrupt space and create different experiences.

“We are interested in the visibility of black artists. But for me it is not a monolithic experience, it’s a heterogeneous experience, it’s a diverse experience. The black experience isn’t just one thing” — Kaia Charles, Cultural Projects Manager, NOW Gallery

On Graphic design with a social focus

Greg Bunbury, Graphic Designer and Founder of Bunbury talked about how his design approach has transitioned from output-driven design (Think > Design > Output) to being community-driven, iterative and socially focused. Output-driven design is focused purely on problem-solving whereas the socially focused approach is based on empathy, engagement, and interaction.

“Initially, the way I dealt with structural inequities when I was working with design agencies was to get more people in the room than questioning the room itself. My idea was always to push for more representation rather than to challenge those arrangements” — Greg Bunbury, Graphic Designer and Founder of Bunbury

Eventually, Greg started working on socially focused side projects, which opened up a space for allyship and led to partnerships with outdoor media agencies in London and led to the birth of projects such as Black Outdoor Art, (take a look at the two images below). As part of this work, Greg invited black creatives to contribute to the project and, collectively they were able to build a relationship with the local community by creating dialogue that connects with people on all sorts of levels and is transformative.

Image credit: Black Outdoor Art — White space poster. By Greg Bunbury
Image credit: Black Outdoor Art — I can’t breathe. By Greg Bunbury

How do we move beyond posters and banners?
Greg acknowledges that with activism, posters and banners are not enough. “It’s challenging because a lot of designers still see billboards as a marketing tool and a way to problem solve as opposed to seeing it as an iterative process, where you can improve the process over time”. However, using billboard as a tool in activism is still important as it leads to the next step, which is to investigate how to move the conversation forward and how to use public spaces for good.

On framework Ideas, Arrangement and Effects

Kenneth Bailey, Co-founder of the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) shared his studio’s framework: ‘Ideas, Arrangement, Effectswhich was detailed in the book he co-wrote alongside his colleagues Lori Lobenstein and Ayako Maruyama based on their work with communities in Boston. Their mission is to help organisations develop more creative ways to frame and address social problems.

Image credit: DS4SI studio’s framework — Ideas, Arrangement, Effects

So how do we rearrange social arrangements?
According to Kenneth and his colleagues, ideas about our world are embedded within social arrangements which impact our lives and produce effects. Most importantly, these arrangements are rearrangeable and they produce many of the things we want to change in the world. For example, Covid has led us to question existing arrangements, such as how we work, the economy and our education system. So, now we have the opportunity to tackle hard and soft cultural arrangements that produce systematic inequalities.

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” — Arundhati Roy on the pandemic

Therefore the Ideas, Arrangement and Effects framework empowers us to sense these arrangements and figure out how to change them and imagine new ones. The framework supports what Greg Bunbury shared earlier about design not just being about problem-solving within existing paradigms but about us seeing ourselves as creators working together to bring about change.

As Arturo Escobar, Author of Designs for the Pluriverse puts it “Design is a route to disclosing new worlds and bringing them into existence.”

On research, health, technology and design

Kathy Moscou, Assistant Professor (Faculty of Design) at OCAD University talked about how racism is by design and how design innovations have contributed to the exploitation of black and brown bodies.

“I am struck by how many people still think that racism always has to be intentional and fueled by malice. They don’t want to admit the racist effects of technology unless they can pinpoint the bigoted boogeyman behind the screen,” — Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

For example, Cotton gin (cotton engine) was seen as a great invention in the United States in the 1800s because it revolutionised cotton production and doubled the yield of raw cotton, which led to the increase in demand for cotton. However, let’s look at the implications of this new technology! As a result, the number of enslaved people rose from 700,000 in 1790 to over three million by 1850.

Image credit: A man works a cotton gin, 1940s. via Flickr/USDA

So, why do we design the things that we design?
Kathy also believes that racism is also coded into healthcare. History has shown that minority communities have been used in scientific experiments without their consent or knowledge. For example, HeLa cells known as the most commonly used human cell line was taken from Henrietta Lacks without her consent once it was discovered her cells could live on and be cloned. Lacks was a 31-year-old African-American mother of five, who died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951. As a result, her cells have been invaluable to modern bioresearch and companies have gained financially from using them for decades yet her descendants have not directly benefitted.

In summary, Kathy suggests that designers have an obligation to think of the things we choose to design and it’s future implications.

“It is assumed that technology is objective therefore its use is unbiased yet the use of healthcare technology has reinforced and reproduced existing inequities” — Kathy Moscou, Assistant Professor (Faculty of Design) at OCAD University

To sum it all up, I learnt that although design can disrupt racist ideologies and systems as Greg Bunbury has shown through his work on socially focused designs and also rearrange social arrangements as Kenneth Bailey puts it. However, design can also be discriminatory by design as Kathy Moscou has evidenced. So, I guess it’s up to us as creatives to decide our path. We have the power to design for good. So, let me leave you with another quote from Ruha Benjamin.

“I’ll give you a much shorter answer for the New Jim Code, which is really a specific manifestation of discriminatory design in which racist values and assumptions are built into our technical systems. And how on the surface it looks like innovation.”

Nov edition presentation + recording

To view the presentation slides from the event, click here or you can view the recording here.

To watch the recording, click here

Conversations with Black Creatives 2021 (Built & Natural Environment) Edition

The next event in the black creative series will look at how planning, design and built environment sectors can help make life better for all. Furthermore, we will explore how these structural systems and biases are negatively impacting society and contributing to inequality. The upcoming event is taking place on January 19 at 2 pm GMT. Click here to register and to find out more.

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Subu Ojuola

Subu Ojuola

Freelance Marketing Executive. Writer. Food lover.