Diversity makes a difference. Diverse teams innovate better, make decisions quicker, and build more world-friendly products, as shown by several studies.
In the multidisciplinary field of design, diversity exists on several levels, and in large part it’s what makes our work rich. But even when an organization has good intentions of creating a diverse team, it can be a challenge to find that talent.
Enter Jules Forrest, creator of the online directory Women Who Design. Inspired by a Twitter thread in which people gave shout-outs to more than 600 influential women designers, Jules launched the site in May 2017. Elevating underrepresented designers was also behind the making of Latinxs Who Design, which Pablo Stanley launched in September 2018. “There can’t be enough of these resources out there,” says Jules, “And if there’s a problem that there are too many of these, then that’s a great day.” By the time Wes O’Haire launched Blacks Who Design in February of 2019, he had strong models of how to get it in from Jules and Pablo.
Whatever unique perspective you’re hoping to bring into the design mix, these tips from Jules, Pablo, and Wes will help you make headway faster and learn what to expect along the way.
Be the first to put yourself out there
In July 2018, Wes posted a Tweet offering to connect with black designers during his lunch hours for a week. The response was overwhelming. To continue the dialogue with the 40 or so designers he couldn’t squeeze in, he created a Slack group. It was there that the seed of Blacks Who Design took root when someone mentioned a need for a site featuring work by black designers. “It’s important to help people that are in a similar situation that you are in,” says Wes. “That’s the first step in terms of connecting with more people.”
How to do it: Whether you’re part of a marginalized group or an ally, sharing your story is powerful. Channel your bravery for the greater good and draft that blog post, sit on that panel, or be number one in a Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Employee Resource Group (ERG) for your company. Chances are you won’t be alone for long.
The tweet that started it all for Blacks Who Design, from Wes O’Haire, who is a designer at Dropbox.
Leverage emotional fuel
Within 24 hours of the idea for Blacks Who Design taking root in Slack, Wes had secured the domain name, sketched out a project plan, and put out a call for volunteers to help design and build the site. “Knowing that everyone was vibing on this idea and there was momentum,” he says, “I wanted to do as much with that emotional fuel as early as possible. That tank doesn’t last forever. So the more you can use it to fuel getting through to-do items, that goes a long way.” Jules also drove at a speedy clip on her gas — she launched Women Who Design just three weeks after her aha moment on Twitter. “It was on people’s minds and I wanted to get a basic site up as fast as possible.”
How to do it: Emotional fuel is a renewable resource, but can burn out fast. Make a to-do list right away that you can outsource to others while they’re excited. The sooner you get granular, the quicker you can start checking stuff off the list.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
Recognizing there was already a pattern out there that worked, Wes reached out to Jules and Pablo for advice from the beginning — and with their blessings borrowed heavily from what they’d done. Pablo also modeled Latinxs Who Design after Jules’s work. “I was a little bit afraid,” he jokes. “Is she going to sue me? Because this is totally copied.” Not only did leaning on the work of each other make their processes quicker, it ended up fostering a connection between the three sites. “I knew that Latinxs Who Design was similar to Women Who Design,” remembers Jules, “but I didn’t know if there was an actual correlation until Pablo, Wes, and I were talking about how Women Who Design sort of kicked that off. That was really the moment that it became bigger than this side project of mine, taking a life of its own.” Jules recently made the code for her site open source, so anyone can copy it and get a head start on their own project.
How to do it: Before you create a website or construct a detailed project plan, see what else is out there. If you find something similar, reach out to the person behind it to let them know you think they’re doing something cool. Not only will that lift up a champion of diversity, chances are it’ll make them more inclined to let you borrow their ideas.
Don’t wait for things to be perfect
In design, it’s easy to fall trap to pushing pixels or going in circles with a copy string. Same goes for when you’re trying to get a new thing off the ground, especially if it’s related to creating a community that’s not already out there. “See what works for you, but once you find something that’s almost there, just do it,” says Pablo, who manually entered the data for some 80 profiles before creating a form to let designers do it themselves. Eventually Latinxs Who Design started pulling data from Twitter, just like Blacks Who Design and Women Who Design. Jules came up with the concept of plugging into the Twitter API, so profiles self-updated and the bios designers had written for themselves could be used to sort and filter. “Building something like this, a lot of the stuff was not very scaleable, but that’s how it should start,” says Pablo. “Keep moving and do it, knowing that later your process is probably going to change.”
How to do it: Start with tools you know, but challenge yourself a little bit. Pablo even counts learning how to create CMS collections on a dynamic site as part of the spark that energized him to keep going. Your openness to input will be what helps your endeavor get better. That’s just good design practice too.
Wear all the hats — or at least try them on
“I just took the role of creating places for people to jump in,” says Wes, recalling how he started making to-dos with rough dates immediately. “I put on my product manager hat as well as I know how to. So I broke it into phases.” Even as Jules was honing her engineering skills to code Women Who Design, she was doing double duty as a marketer, generating buzz by tweeting updates of her progress. “I posted in the days and weeks before the launch,” she says. Jules posted GIFs to show features taking shape. She even waited to flip the switch on the site until Monday morning at 9:00 am. “I was hoping people would be at their desks settling in for the week.” Her marketing plan paid off — buckling under the weight of so many visitors, the site went down right away. But the growth was organic. More than 10,000 visited the site the first day.
How to do it: Take time to sketch out a plan for the entire product life cycle, then float your idea by people who do the things you don’t know how to. By asking for advice, you may end up rallying someone to take on a to-do or two. If not, strap on those start-up shoes. You’ll end up broadening your skillset while getting things done.
Own up to your own privilege
When Women Who Design first launched, it drew criticism from designers of color on Twitter and Medium for largely featuring white women. It was feedback that initially stung Jules, but for which she’s now grateful. “Everyone comes from somewhere and you have blinders on and you have to work to take them off,” she says. “You can’t expect that you’re going to come into the world informed, but at a certain point, staying uninformed is a choice. It’s a passive choice made possible by privilege.” And even within a directory of an underrepresented group, there are layers of bias to consider. Pablo admires how Women Who Draw puts the illustrations by women in the directory front and center rather than their profile photos. “I feel like it removes a lot of the unconscious biases that you might have,” he says. “You see the work, you like it and you think, ‘I want to work with this person because I like what they do.’”
How to do it: Before you jump in, consider where you fit within the community you’re trying to create, and ask yourself the tough questions that critics likely will. Do research to build a full understanding of perspectives. “If you think something isn’t about privilege, it’s because you have it,” says Jules. “Not having to think about stuff is part of the privilege.”
Be opinionated about what you’re doing
When Women Who Design was named 2017 project of the year by a popular design blog, the directory was praised for “giving young designers references to look up to,” a description that completely missed the mark for Jules. “I want hiring managers to be using it to change their teams. I want conference line-ups to be diverse. And when I go to listen to a design podcast, for it not to be all white dudes.” While a welcome recognition of her hard work, that award prompted her to take a clearer stance on the site’s About page. She also recently added a job board to help move the needle. Pablo recalls wrestling with questions of exclusion and asking himself, “Are we creating more divisiveness with this, where we’re not including other people?” Ultimately he leaned into giving more visibility to people who don’t usually have it. “There are already many sites that include people that sometimes look almost like one single color. We’re just elevating people who usually don’t have the platform.”
How to do it: Draft a mission and get real about your intentions. Make it ambitious so it buoys you when you need a boost. Write it on a stickie and put it in your workspace where you’ll see it day in and day out. Even if your mission evolves, staying grounded in the why will help when it’s time to share the story with others.
Expect trolls and tough conversations
Anytime you’re challenging the status quo, naysayers abound. “Especially in online communities, there will always be people who don’t agree with your point of view,” says Jules. Pablo suggests channeling empathy. “Assume people are not just questioning your stuff because they are evil or because they don’t like you. They’re probably just curious and coming from a good place. At least assume that at first. That will help you be more kind with your answers and have a better conversation.” But when that doesn’t work: “You can flag or you can block them and that’s it,” says Pablo. “Don’t escalate. They wanted to trigger you. If you get mad, then they win.” Jules advises, “Try to focus your energies on what your gut is telling you to do.” So instead of spending an hour telling off someone who called Women Who Design sexist, Jules spent that time working out performance issues with the site.
How to do it: Have an action plan for dealing with questions from inside and outside the community. Craft a boilerplate message, but give yourself license to personalize when it feels right. Whatever your plan, try to stick with it. At the end of the day the emotional labor of convincing someone who doesn’t want to be convinced is a high price to pay.
Let the community come alive
“You’re not creating a community, you’re just trying to connect it,” says Wes, who looked for organizations at the intersection of African Americans and tech, like AfroTech, to effectively spread the word. After the Blacks Who Design directory launched, the Slack group went from 30 people on one channel to 400+ people across 30+ channels. Exponential community growth is something that Pablo experienced too. “We started a Slack channel that was suddenly more alive than the actual directory,” he says. “This Slack community is helping each other, being vulnerable, talking about these hard things that they face, and giving each other the support that we don’t usually get. That was a great outcome. We were not thinking of building this — this was not our goal, but it happened and it was magical.”
How to do it: Once you’ve seeded the community and it starts growing, resist the temptation to moderate, even (and maybe especially) spicy dialogues. “Give them the tools and the power so that if they want to, they can block someone or make something private,” advises Pablo. “Let the community have control of their conversations.”
With these tips in your tool belt, you may be ready to start building, but if you’re looking for a bit more inspiration, check these out:
We hope these tips inspire you build a more diverse community, wherever you are. We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts with us on Twitter at twitter.com/dropboxdesign.