A read-out from the first-ever survey of LGBTQ+ people in design

We’re taking the queer experience in design out of the closets and into spreadsheets

John Warren Hanawalt
Jun 23 · 11 min read
The queer design count 2019 banner
The queer design count 2019 banner

A survey designed by and for the queer community

The idea for the came to me and my cofounder Rebecca last year, shortly after the launch of our community for queer designers.

We had just finished analyzing the data from to compare responses from LGBTQ+ designers to their cisgender heterosexual peers. A surprising 11.7% of respondents identified as LGBTQ+ in the 2017 census (that number went up to 15% in the 2019 results). Less surprising were the .

We wanted to know more about the queer experience in design behind these disparities, but there was nothing in the data that could give us further insight. LGBTQ+ status was also collected as a single checkbox, so we had no indication how the experience varied across diverse queer communities.

If we wait for marginalized communities to produce perfect data about themselves before we listen to them, we will never achieve the diversity and inclusion we as a field claim to value.

Around the same time, the San Francisco chapter of AIGA held their annual Design Week the same week as San Francisco Pride without a single event dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues.

So we worked with to host an event for queer people in design to share their experiences and decided to back it up with data of our own.

Over the next several months, we designed and launched the , which ran for 6 weeks at the end of 2019. After reviewing responses, analyzing the data, and putting together so many charts, we’re proud to share the results with our community.

78% of our respondents had less than 10 years experience, compared to 59% of AIGA Design Census Respondents
78% of our respondents had less than 10 years experience, compared to 59% of AIGA Design Census Respondents

What we heard from our community

We collected over 1,000 responses. We filtered out blank responses, obvious trolls, and people who identified as exclusively cisgender and heterosexual (yeah, we got a few of those). In the end, our read-out represents the voices of 956 queer people in design throughout the United States and countries across the world.

Because our sample size is small and the total number of LGBTQ+ designers unknown, we are cautious about what we can claim authoritatively in this read-out. However, the smallness of a community cannot be an excuse for neglect or inequitable treatment.

If we wait for marginalized communities to produce perfect data about themselves before we listen to them, we will never achieve the diversity and inclusion we as a field claim to value. And several things are coming through loud and clear from our community.

Better than most, but still a way to go

Many queer people are attracted to design and adjacent fields for familiar reasons — the mix of creativity and problem solving, the potential to help people, the chance to practice something like art while getting paid.

Queer people are also drawn to design by its reputation as being a progressive inclusive field. As one respondent said:

I feel lucky that I’m in an industry that has an earned reputation for being LGBTQ+ accepting and positive. Whenever I’ve worked with other designers, any kind of homophobia is profoundly uncool and reputation-damaging.

In many ways, that reputation appears to be earned. Queer Design Count respondents were half as likely as respondents to to report overhearing anti-LGBTQ+ comments or being told to behave or present less queer.

However, better than most industries still leaves massive room for improvement.

  • 83% of respondents reported experiencing some kind of anti-LGBTQ+ bias at work or school.
  • Only 41% of queer people in design reported working in an environment with any kind of diversity and inclusion programming. And of those, only 72% and 60% said their D&I programming included diverse sexualities and genders respectively.
  • 13% of respondents reported not having access to any kind of LGBTQ+ inclusive benefits, like benefits extended to same gender partners or gender-affirming healthcare.
  • 40% of LGBTQ+ designers reported having to point out design decisions that excluded queer people to their colleagues.
  • 13% been asked to work for anti-LGBTQ+ clients

The tension between inclusive ideals and biased experiences leaves many of the queer people in design we hear from feeling, “frustrated and grateful,” and “accepted, but not understood.”

83% of respondents have experienced some kind of bias in design
83% of respondents have experienced some kind of bias in design

The queer experience in design is a spectrum

We also found that the design field is not as accepting of everyone within the LGBTQ+ community. People’s experiences vary along familiar lines of gender, race, and sexuality.

Gender

In our results we see large disparities between cis people and respondents who are trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer.

For example, over half of our trans respondents earn less than $50,000 annually compared to 35% of cis respondents. Trans respondents were also 10% more likely to report experiencing anti-LGBTQ+ bias at work or school (90% compared to 80% for cis respondents).

Among cis respondents, familiar gender divides are visible with men frequently outearning and achieving higher levels of advancement than women.

Nonbinary and genderqueer respondents were less likely to be employed full-time.
Nonbinary and genderqueer respondents were less likely to be employed full-time.

Race

Queer people of color face additional barriers within the field of design, the first of which is representation. Our race & ethnicity breakdown appears to be in line with AIGA’s, with white people accounting for around 70%, latinx people around 10%, and Black people around 5%. (Our report included several race/ethnicity descriptors that AIGA rolls up into one “Asian” choice as well as several they did not include at all, so those numbers are harder to compare.)

The underrepresentation of queer people of color is a symptom of broader issues of representation in the design field:

I have not met or have had friendships with LGBTQ designers. I often see the design world as a very straight, white sphere which alienates me from it. I don’t know where to seek community within the design industry for QPOC like myself.

Because of our sample size, our numbers can really only speak to the divide between queer people of color and white queer people, but there is a divide.

Non-white respondents were more likely to be new to the industry, with 48% having 0–5 years of experience compared to 40% of white respondents. At the senior end only .6% of respondents of color possessed 20+ years of experience, compared to 4% of white respondents.

For queer designers of color, their queer identity and their racial identity are inseparable; and so we cannot talk about LGBTQ+ inclusion without specifically addressing the experiences of LGBTQ+ people of color.

13% of queer people in design have been asked to work for anti-LGBTQ+ clients

Sexuality

The queer experience in design also differs between sexualities. Repeatedly, we saw instances where folks who are monosexual (gay or lesbian), faring better than bisexual, pansexual, and queer respondents.

For example, 19% of gay people and 22% of lesbian people reported making under $35k/year compared to 29% of bisexual respondents and 31% of pansexual respondents. Bi and pan people in design were also more likely to report experiencing bias than their gay and lesbian peers.

There is some obvious interplay with gender here, as people who identify as gay are predominantly men, who — let’s face it — just generally have it easier in the workplace. But bi and pan respondents reported additional barriers to acceptance in design.

Respondents whose identities challenged the gay/straight binary often felt like coming out required extra work educating peers.

Explaining to people what “agender” and “pansexual” mean can be exhausting and make me more visible than I’m really comfortable being. I’ll often just tell people I’m “bi” because explaining that I identify as pansexual because it’s more affirming for my rejection of gender is a little more than I care to go into with most co-workers and casual acquaintances.

They also had a harder time getting their queer identity recognized because of heterosexist assumptions — especially when they are with opposite gender partners.

Being bi and married to someone of the opposite sex, there are a lot of assumptions that get made. Passing is the default in an uncomfortable way.

The erasure of bisexual, pansexual, and queer sexualities can heighten the experience of bias by isolating people from LGBTQ+ affirming spaces. As one respondent put it:

I am afraid of discrimination in queer spaces against not-obviously-queer-enough people, as I have encountered this in the past.

Challenging assumptions about what being LGBTQ+ means or looks like is an essential step toward queer inclusion in design as many workplaces and community spaces use the absence of openly or visibly queer people as a reason not to work on LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

Environment

Queer experiences in design differ not just by who you are but also where you are in the field. The size and sector of a company along with industry all seem to influence LGBTQ+ acceptance.

For example, LGBTQ+ people in very small and very large companies report less bias than those who are in medium sized companies. This may be in part because larger companies are more likely to offer D&I programming and queer-inclusive benefits. Whereas at smaller companies, “culture fit” may play a stronger role, meaning small companies that aren’t LGBTQ+ friendly may be less likely to hire queer designers in the first place.

Additionally, LGBTQ+ people in design in-house at for-profit companies and at agencies, studios, and consultancies report less LGBTQ+ visibility through their organization than those working in education or the nonprofit sector.

We also see differences by industry. Respondents in tech were more likely than respondents in advertising, branding, and marketing to report that their employer offered D&I programming.

Queer Design Count respondents were significantly more likely to work in tech than traditional design environments like studios and agencies. We also heard how anti-LGBTQ+ bias plays out in design decisions in these environments.

Despite the fact that many people in our company are LGBTQ+, our leadership team recently made a decision not to use a model because “they look like they could be trans”. A large part of our brand’s fanbase is queer and the brand is popular among the drag community. And yet our CEO is fearful of offending the bigots.

While the network from which we recruited participants definitely played a role in this, these results suggest it’s worth considering if there are specific things tech is doing for LGBTQ+ people that the old guard can learn from.

Blazing a trail forward

Our read-out offers not just a look at the current state of the queer experience in design, but also a path forward. In our responses we see early lessons that design organizations across disciplines and sectors can put into practice.

Diversity and inclusion must be LGBTQ+ inclusive

One of the most exciting things in our responses is correlation between offering diversity and inclusion programming and a reduction in LGBTQ+ bias experience. This comes with the additional insight (and caveat) that D&I programming must address diverse sexualities and genders to achieve this.

If your D&I programming is designed to address race or the traditional binary gender gap in isolation, it will not have any impact on anti-LGBTQ+ bias. In fact, the conspicuous absence of LGBTQ+ identities from your D&I might be seen as tacit approval of that bias, making it worse.

Diversity and inclusion programming can reduce the experience of LGBTQ+ bias by up to 12%
Diversity and inclusion programming can reduce the experience of LGBTQ+ bias by up to 12%

LGBTQ+ inclusion is a precondition for a diverse workplace

Design organizations must include LGBTQ+ identities in their diversity and inclusion efforts and offer queer-inclusive benefits whether they believe any queer people exist within the organization already or not.

Only 55% of LGBTQ+ people in design are completely out at work or school. Many companies waiting for their first queer employee to get on a trans-inclusive health plan or write policies for anti-LGBTQ+ bias incidents have fallen behind their own timeline without realizing it.

And if you truly do not have any queer employees, students, or members in your design organization, that is not likely to change until you make concrete steps to welcome them.

I was really relieved that my colleagues already knew about gender identity and were prepared to talk to users who were nonbinary. We were open about our sexual identities and also about issues like sexual harassment in the workplace. I didn’t feel like I had to choose between my identity and being considered professional.

Visibility matters

Having visible LGBTQ+ leadership can make a huge difference in building a welcoming workplace for queer people in design.

Queer people in design with highly visible LGBTQ+ peers and leaders were 20% more likely to be totally open about their identities than people in environments with scattered to no LGBTQ+ visibility.

It made a world of difference when working with another employee with an LGBTQ+ identity, I felt more at ease and comfortable expressing queerness in front of management and other employees.

If you are in a leadership position, being open about your queer identity can have a profound impact on others in your organization. And if you are looking to fill a leadership position, know that diverse hiring can have a flywheel effect on your organization’s culture.

Supporting junior designers is a matter of inclusion

One of the disparities we see between queer and non-queer people in design is in seniority. LGBTQ+ people are more heavily represented in groups with less than 10 years of experience and less visible in groups with more than 10 years of experience. We see further disparities between white LGBTQ+ people and queer people of color.

While it’s possible changes in the field of design are attracting more queer people than before (see the predominance of tech in our responses), it’s also likely queer people’s experiences in design are driving them out earlier.

If we want to have a truly diverse and equitable field of design, we need to not just welcome new people in but support them throughout their career so that they can achieve the same levels of success as their more privileged peers.

The junior LGBTQ+ designers of today are the LGBTQ+ design leaders of tomorrow.

40% of LGBTQ+ people in design reported having to point out design decisions that excluded queer people to their colleagues.

This is the beginning of a conversation

This read-out is the beginning of a conversation about LGBTQ+ inclusion in design that must be had. And like any good conversation, there are still many questions to explore.

We still don’t have as much detail about the experience of queer people of color in design and how it differs from their white peers.

We asked about benefits and programming that companies offer to their employees, but not what benefits and programming was most meaningful to them.

We completely neglected to ask about immigration status and disability and how that might relate to one’s experience in the field.

This is not to downplay our own work, but to illustrate how rich and diverse the experiences of LGBTQ+ people are. It will take more than one survey by more than one organization to begin to truly understand and appreciate it.

We invite others to join us and hope you start by digging into what we found.

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