Design + Diversity

This is one of the more difficult posts I’ve written. Not because I don’t want to write it, but because I know it will be a challenge to do its subject justice. I need to make the attempt though, because the event I just attended, its organizers, and the people who participated in it deserve recognition and gratitude.

I returned this weekend from the Design + Diversity Conference in St. Louis, and it was easily one of my favorite conference experiences ever. As George Aye said at one point:

“A conference full of unicorns.” That’s how it felt for the three days we were in The Moto Museum and Centene Center for the Arts in St. Louis. I looked around the room many times and thought, “this is the world I want to live in.” Everyone in the room, regardless of their background, their lived experience, their skin color, their professional skills, their age — we all came together to explore, learn about, discuss and advance the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

No Trespassing

This is as good a spot as any to acknowledge that as a white, cis, hetero man who enjoyed an advantaged upbringing, I can sometimes feel awkward engaging in topics of diversity and inclusion. I wonder if I’m a trespasser in that room full of unicorns. A horse, maybe? An ass? (a horse’s ass?)

Occasionally, in the past, as I’ve tried to engage people on these topics, I’ve encountered suspicion or even what feels like hostility. Of course, that’s understandable, given history. Once, someone asked a friend of mine, “Why does he think this is his thing?”

I suppose I could answer that question by pointing to people I love who are members of marginalized groups, like men who use their daughters as a justification to speak out against sexual assault. But the reality is that I care about this stuff because I DO. Equity is self-evidently important. Social justice matters. And the inequities in our society hurt me. Especially in this time of outright discrimination and violence towards black people, Jews, immigrants, Muslims, gay people, trans people, and just about every form of “other” people.

Another reason I sometimes feel awkward about my own advocacy for equity is that I know that I will screw up when I open my mouth to speak. We all have unconscious biases that pop up and reveal themselves at awkward moments. I screwed up a couple of times in conversation at this conference. And my conversational partners did me the kindness of pointing it out to me, so that I could become more mindful of my patterns and improve on them. But others slipped up too, even speakers at the podium. It turns out even unicorns aren’t perfect.

As a friend of mine said, embracing the work of diversity and inclusion means knowing that you will put yourself in awkward situations, that you will expose your own biases to critique, and that you will accept the consequences of that critique and work to improve your own actions and relationships in the world. After all, we force people from disadvantaged backgrounds to live in awkward, uncomfortable social situations every day. If the price for creating a more equitable world is occasional discomfort, I’ll start ponying up.

And speaking of social comfort, I have a strong preference for smaller, intimate conferences. I gave up on SXSW years ago, and shows like CES leave me footsore and overwhelmed. Design + Diversity was perfect for me; about 200 people or so, I’d guess. It was large enough to meet a variety of people, small enough to have meaningful conversations with them. Somewhat to my chagrin, I think D + D is going to blow up next year. I can see it becoming immensely popular, although I hope it can retain that “unicorn” feel.

As we wrapped up, one of the other attendees and I talked about encouraging a few other people to attend next year. I observed that while some people might need to hear and see the content that was being shared, their presence might dilute the environment that made everyone feel so connected and included this time around. It may be a difficult challenge for D + D to address in the years ahead as its popularity grows, but probably a good challenge to have.

Some Faves

Everyone who contributed deserves gratitude, but I feel compelled to give some extra love to some of the speakers and facilitators who made a special impression on me. In no particular order, and with apologies to all the equally fabulous people who I’m not writing about this time, here are a few of the people whose content, presentations, work, style, or some combination of all of the above occupied my brain as I drove west along I-70 toward Kansas City and home.

Crystal Martin, Slalom / Aaron Mann, author “Equal By Design” / Jessica Bellamy, Grassroots Information Design Studio

Crystal Martin

Crystal provided some of the most crowd-pleasing moments of the conference with her presentation about game theory and what strategies it takes to build trust. Hint: it isn’t being Grudgy McGrudgeface.

Crystal’s primary encouragement to all of us was to cultivate a mindset of abundance by teaching and mentoring, giving credit, seeing opportunity instead of failure, being mindful, and getting plenty of sleep.

Aaron Mann

One of the first crop of newly minted Design + Diversity Fellows, Aaron blew everyone away with his work on “Equal By Design.” Aaron went looking for book that showcased black designers, and failing to find one, decided to create one himself. His work is both beautiful and important.

Jessica Bellamy

If there was an award for most enthusiastic presenter, Jessica Bellamy would’ve won hands down. She delivered powerful wisdom and practical knowledge with a glowing smile and warmth that bowled everyone over. Her principled approach to infographics produces powerful persuasive “weapons.” Everybody loved her, for good reason.

The thing that stands out for me most about Jessica’s approach and work is her commitment to principles. Her work is designed “for” the people she is representing, not just “about” them. It shows.

Jamila Smith-Loud, Google / Paul Sohi, Autodesk / Dian Holton, AARP

Jamila Smith-Loud

Jamila is a User Researcher at Google on the Ethical Machine Learning team. Since I just recently earned a professional certificate in Data Science and Machine Learning from UC Berkeley, her talk was especially interesting to me. I was not expecting Machine Learning bias to be on the schedule at a design conference, but her presentation was really well received by everyone. A couple of definitions were among the things I’ll take away from her talk: “Allocative Harm occurs when systems allocate or withhold certain resources,” and “Representative Harm occurs when systems reinforce the subordination of some groups along the lines of identity.”

Paul Sohi

Paul is an industrial designer working on Autodesk’s Iconic Projects team, which I have to admit sounds completely badass. Paul gave one of the most autobiographically intimate and professionally compelling presentations of the conference. He was candid and generous with stories about his personal experiences with racism and other challenges, but his stories of his professional work were delivered with humility despite the amazing work. I especially enjoyed his case story of creating a 3D-printed, prosthetic leg for Paralympic cyclist, Denise Schindler.

But just as importantly, Paul shared stories of his journey and his philosophy that emerged from it: Be a part for something, not just a part of something.

Dian Holton

Dian wasn’t actually a presenter, but she was perhaps the most important person on the stage. As our Mistress of Ceremonies, she held our room of unicorns together with more generosity and subtlety than I’ve ever seen. She deserves a lot of the credit for creating that sense of inclusion and community that I wrote about earlier.

Ruki Ravikumar, Cooper Hewitt — George Aye, Greater Good Studio — Antionette Carroll, Creative Reaction Lab

Ruki Ravikumar

Ruki is Director of Education at the Cooper Hewitt. Her perspectives on teaching and Design Thinking resonated with me personally. In particular, her belief that Design Thinking is a life skill that teaches resilience especially in the face of constraints. My practice includes teaching Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design to a variety of audiences, and she underscored the importance and relevance of that work. She also scored one of the best laughs of the conference when she quoted her father:

I think I’ve tripped over that line a time or two.

George Aye

George explored topics of power both in his workshop, “Finding Your Sources of Power,” and his presentation on “Understanding the Role of Privilege and Power.” Both of these experiences took on topics that are seldom addressed in design circles, like the imbalance and abuses of power in design work, who has power, how is it wielded and exactly what are the ethical applications and implications of power in the designers hands? Getting to listen to George expound on his principles of design and talk about Greater Good’s Gut Check was some of the most valuable time I spent at the conference.

George’s workshop set the stage for open conversations and introduced the topic of power as a recurring theme throughout the conference.

Antionette Carroll

I would be remiss in the extreme if I didn’t give a shout-out to Antionette. She and Timothy Hykes co-founded this conference, and along with Timothy Bardlavens, made this whole thing happen. The three of them deserve a bow, and some rest, for pulling off a conference that featured terrific content, and just as importantly an empathetic, inclusive environment for all the unicorns that participated. Without their vision and their efforts, none of this would be. Thank you.

Reflecting on Principles

As I reflect on all this now, a common thread that seems to run through many of these presentations and workshops is principles. Some of the presentations articulated them explicitly, like George Aye’s Three Principles of Good Design and Jessica Bellamy’s Grassroots Infographics Design Principles. Some presenters talked about personal principles that guided their lives or career decisions, like Paul Sohi’s “be a part FOR something” or Ruki’s “what did you teach today?” Others illuminated their principles through action, like Aaron Mann’s “Equal By Design,” which for me was another reminder to be, or do, the change you want to see in the world. All of this underscores the importance of refining and articulating my own personal and professional principles, and building my work around them, so that I can, in turn, help build the world I want to live in.

I look forward to coming back to that conference full of unicorns next year. And even if the room has been infiltrated by a few horses, or even asses, or even horses’ asses, there will still be a bunch of amazing unicorns there, and that’s something you don’t get to enjoy every day.

The MotoMuseum was a great venue, but my favorite part might have been this sign. I can relate.