Just a Brown Hand
Diógenes Brito
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Renderings from Wood Partners for Oakland’s redevelopment

The Color Palette Of Design

The future of Oakland is bright but is it also white?

While attending the annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit, I had a chance to see Wesley Taylor speak at the Future Design Lab. He spoke about the architectural design of gentrification, which naturally resonated with me as a non-white person living in Oakland.

Taylor presented renderings of new Detroit and other historically black urban cities and slide after slide showcased white populations against pristinely rendered neighborhoods, where the erasure of neighborhood history and people of color seemed strategic and intentional.

Again, there were near zero people of color in renderings of the new Detroit.

A few weeks ago when Uber announced the purchase of the historic Sears building in downtown Oakland, it sent shockwaves through the city. Amidst Oakland’s epic housing deficit, residents began to worry about the future of one of the most diverse cities in America. Conversely, the technocrati of Silicon Valley weighed in on discovering affordable new real estate in proximity to Silicon Valley with little mention of any existing populations.

A few days later while walking down Telegraph Ave, I noticed an industrial building was scheduled to be demolished and rebuilt as a condo. They had posted the city approved renderings as is required of developers. For a unit located in the middle of Oakland’s Koreatown on a colorful multiethnic street, the renderings were predictably Caucasian on unpolluted streets. Nowhere in the renderings were there any of the Blacks, Koreans or Ethiopians that currently occupy the block.

As Taylor indicated, from design inception, a redeveloped city block is imagined as a blank slate to be populated by palatable white residents.
New Housing Development, 2605 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA © Yung Rama

Silence too is a choice

Whether designers choose to showcase one population or silence another — in this case, long time residents of our neighborhood — they are complicit in gentrification. Design is not an amoral practice and as a product designer, I’ve grown increasingly weary of my industry. Like Diogenes, I’ve had to distance myself from my personal history and my neighborhood in order to acclimate to the palate of culture.

We are told that designers are changing the world, but for whom? InVision’s recent short film Design Disruptors, prompted many to ask, are Designers only white male? The backlash highlighted the lack of diversity or social accountability in the field. It’s led me to increasingly turn to writing and speculative fiction. And unlike the design world, I don’t have to be palatable to a standard, I can be every bit as brown and Oakland as I am.

So the next time you see a design, take a closer look at what populations are represented and what that says about the designer’s or developer’s intentions.

So designers, what do you think, should we consider socioeconomic conditions in our designs?

Renderings from Wood Partners for Oakland’s redevelopment