A More Diverse Workplace Is Good for Society — and for Business

AIGA Los Angeles
Design Toast
Published in
9 min readAug 27, 2020

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Justin LaBaw-Rivers is a Creative Director and Designer with a unique and inspiring journey. After starting his design career in the halls of a small high school in rural Indiana, his jaunt led him from Design School at the University of Florida to the halls of Vibe Magazine in New York City to where he’s at now — a Design Partner at Hypothesis VC and one of LA’s sought after CDs in the startup scene for building beautiful brands and experiences for digital products.

Nonette Llabres spoke with Justin about his solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, his experience as an African American designer, the need for more diversity in agency leadership roles, and taking inspired action to balance working for yourself and making a difference in the world.

Justin LaBaw-Rivers

Nonette (Interviewing for DesignToast): While walking in solidarity with other peaceful protesters during the All Black Lives Matter March, what thoughts were going through your head? How did you feel?

Justin LaBaw-Rivers: It felt very empowering to be part of the All Black Lives Matter March. Anyone who marched that day or has attended any of the protests happening the past few months can tell that there is pent-up rage, frustration, and emotion amongst everyone. What is even more apparent, though, is the amount of unity and love also felt during this protest in particular. I truly believe radical change happens when we’re united and not divided.

Participating in the All Black Lives Matter March was incredible, empowering, and liberating. It felt like this was truly America. I’ve never felt more connected to my Angeleno brothers and sisters.

There were moms and families there marching who had lost kids to police violence, and then you had protesters who were marching, just wanting and needing some form of hope or redemption so that they knew these young Black American men were not killed in vain. The fact that there’s no empathy and proaction coming from the top of our current judicial system is one of the many reasons we’re marching — to make a difference, to let our voice be heard.

Nonette: You mentioned how diverse the current Black Lives Matter movement is and how radical change is happening now because of this and unity; what are your thoughts on the current diversity gap in the design industry?

Justin: Agencies have to make diversifying their creative teams more of a priority and put boots on the ground to attract BIPOC talent. Some of the best work I ever did in my career came from the most diverse teams I led or was a part of when I was in the agency world. I feel it’s important not to discredit a person’s culture and how that has helped shape their human experience and style. Each person brings a different perspective to solving a problem. If you give designers of different backgrounds the same problem, they are most likely going to have different solutions based on their own unique relation to the world. This will naturally create more sound concepts in campaigns, commercials, products, etc.

It’s very common to not have enough diversity, especially in the traditional creative agency world. One figure I’ve seen is that only 10% of workers on agency teams are people of color.

So each person brings a different perspective into a project. Which is why I think you have to, at this point in time, truly strive to create a diverse creative team. And if you don’t have diverse teams, you have to work harder at it. You have to dig harder, you have to dig deeper.

You have to find diversity. Which is why people are hiring specifically to diversify teams — because they work better. It’s proven. There’s a ton of articles out there about how some of the best work is done by the most diverse teams. One of the reasons I decided to start my own independent creative agency was because of this initiative.

Nonette: Can you talk about some of the projects you’ve worked on that involved a diverse group of collaborators and designers?

Justin: I’ve worked with some highly talented and diverse teams over my career. It’s probably no surprise, but some of my favorite and best work was produced with these teams. The ones that stick out the most are Apple, Pluto TV, Walmart, and Vurbl. Each of those creative and development teams were very broad.

Nonette: What inspired you to start your own agency?

Justin: I listened to my heart and my gut. I had reached a point in my career where I felt unsettled with the work I was doing. I wanted the ability and flexibility to work with creative professionals of all backgrounds from all over the world on designing products that will hopefully change the world or help people live better lives. I was truly seeking more meaning in what I was doing, and to accomplish this I had to first start by clipping my agency wings and going after the type of clients that spoke to me.

All of them want the same thing as I do — we want to create really dope products that can change the world and work with fun people at the same time.

Nonette: What has it been like working for yourself? With the journey of working from in-house to agency and then for yourself — was it an easy transition? What advice can you give to those who want to work for themselves?

It’s all about relationships. I think deep down a lot of designers and people in general want to work for themselves but simply don’t know where to start in pursuing this path. The first step is just committing to doing it and knowing that there will be some false starts and hiccups the first few years. I definitely had mine! There were days I would wake up like, “What in the f*ck are you doing, Justin? Go back to the agency life and get that consistent check.” I struggled the first year or so, but then once I got my feet going and after landing contracts with Google, Pluto TV, and a few others, it seemed that momentum had shifted.

For anyone looking to make the jump, I would say to create a valuable network that extends beyond just your design peers. A majority of my initial client base that I built when I started Original Thought were developed from past relationships at different agencies and startups. They were former VPs, Heads of Product, and Marketing professionals. There was always that great core of people you vibe with at every job that you continuously take with you throughout your career, and a lot of what Original Thought was built upon was this philosophy.

It wasn’t easy. I think before even jumping from an agency into working for yourself, the biggest thing for me was asking: Have you established yourself enough amongst your peers and industry? Have you garnered enough great relationships throughout your career in order to build enough of a client base?

I think, as a young designer or creative professional working their way up the ladder, it’s important for people to understand that every job has a purpose.

I manifested that two or three years before I left. I decided that my next step was not going to be working for someone else; it was going to be working for myself. I asked myself: What do I need to build for it? What tools do I need? How can I set myself up for that success? It started with relationships. Keeping in touch with people. Building my skill sets, including management skills.

Nonette: What recommendations would you give to companies to help diversify their organization? Especially in leadership roles.

Justin:

  1. Build diversity within your company’s DNA and brand voice. (e.g. Brand Decks, Job Descriptions, About Us pages, etc.) Rewrite your company’s mission statement and redevelop your brand’s visuals and values with diversity and equality in mind.
  2. Lead by example. Promoting and instilling diversity doesn’t just happen overnight at companies. In my experience, people are inspired by actions and not words — so if you’re at a Director level, take an active stance in:
  • Eliminating unconscious bias in meetings.
  • Promoting BIPOC faces and voices in campaigns that you oversee Creative Direction for.
  • Volunteer with your team at organizations that champion the arts and technology with local youth.

3. Conduct a virtual town-hall with your company and ask your current employees what you all can do as an organization to address this topic. Create an environment where your teams feel encouraged and safe to speak out loud about how to bring greater diversity into the company.

I think you have to start with baby steps. You have to first start the conversation with the company as a whole. And I think you have to create an environment where people feel safe and feel inspired to want to discuss topics that are relevant today.

Nowadays, I think pushing forward, it’s not going to be taboo like it was before — to not talk about the lack of diversity in companies.

If companies really want to begin looking at diversity they have to build it within their DNA, and it has to start with open forums, open conversations with their employees, or even breakout groups — or whatever it may be. The voices of people of color need to be heard at companies. Ask: How can we be better? Because some organizations may not know what to do. But they have talented people of color in their company that have never even been asked, never even talked to about what their background is, where they came from. Ask: How can we reach out?

For tech companies, are there code camps? Are there parts of the city that we could recruit kids from? Or we do our own code camp here and offer it as a weekend thing to young kids of color that live throughout LA. How can you ask your tech recruiters to make it a point to find people with diversity. You can hit it on multiple levels, but it starts with the very top of these organizations with leaders being forthright and speaking about how important diversity needs to be so that people in their groups can begin to absorb it all and let it sink in and they can ask questions back. There’s a bunch of things — it’s not a silver bullet. It’s a variety of things like that.

But companies need to work harder to hire diverse teams. Anyone who says they can’t find diverse candidates isn’t working hard enough.

RELATED LINKS

Justin’s Instagram

Find Justin’s work

Connect with Justin on LinkedIn

Interviewed by Nonette Llabres.

Nonette Llabres is an Art Director for Verizon Media, Illustrator, and is on the AIGA LA Board of Directors for the Content Team.

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AIGA Los Angeles
Design Toast

Los Angeles Chapter of AIGA. Empowering the local creative community.