White Space, Black Designers Needed
It is no secret the design industry desperately needs more black people. Which is why we at Speck Design–the only black-owned product design consultancy in the US–chose to explore the disproportionately small number of African Americans in the various design verticals and the implications for human-centered design firms that fall short in representation.
If you are black and a designer, you’ve probably heard many of the startling statics we are about to use on black representation in the industry. If you are one or the other, you have likely heard some of them. If you are neither, you’ve probably heard none. And, so the story of diversity in design goes. A problem that ostensibly affects us all relegated to be solved by — and we do not use this word ironically — the minority.
Speck Design is not the first to question the lack of diversity in the design disciplines (graphic, industrial, product, web, etc.) and we would hope not to be the last. It bears repeating– ad nauseam. Why? Because believe it or not, it is working…in ways. And in other ways, it is not. As you will see, both are reasons enough to keep the conversation going.
Change for Some is Not Change Enough
When we say the conversation around diversity in design has succeeded, it looks like this:
In 1991, the AIGA published an article titled Why is Graphic Design 93% White?
Twenty-six years later, in 2017, a new AIGA report showed the Design industry is 73% White.
On the surface, the change in the AIGA survey data appears to tell us ample progress has been made in bridging the divide in the creative economy. But statistics often mask reality; in this case, 20% less white does not mean 20% more black. In fact, the current state of affairs is the number of black men and women in design is still so abysmal from then to now a meaningful statistical difference does not exist.
A look at the numbers bears this out. African Americans make up very little of the design industry: graphic design 3.5%, product design 1.6%, industrial design 1.6%, interior design 2.3%, and web design 3.5%. Even if the percentage of black creatives in any of these professions was 0% in 1991 (which it wasn’t), the proverbial needle — from then to now — has been woefully still.
The Paradox of the “Segregated” Human-Centered Design Firm
seg·re·gate: to set apart from the rest or from each other; isolate or divide.
Using the word segregated to describe any design firm, much less those with purportedly “human-centered” values, is admittedly harsh. But any organization lacking a certain amount of representation, if not segregated within its walls, is certainly segregated from the reality outside of them. In fact, the word “token” comes to mind here since the numbers on diversity in the design field reflect an uptake in hiring “people of color” in a broader sense but too broad to be helpful to African Americans.
Are there more minorities in design since 1991? Yes, to the tune of about 20%. Are there more black people in design since 1991? Barely. To the critical eye, it looks as though design firms have become more willing to hire brown people — just not too brown. This is the paradox of the so-called human-centered design firms (and there are plenty) whose minority makeup (if any) does not mirror the actual makeup of our country. Nobody is saying the ratio needs to be one-to-one. But, twenty-five-to-one is so disproportional that it borders on absurd. Our verdict: you simply cannot claim to be human-centered and ignore nearly 14% of our population within your own ranks.
The Problem With Designing for An Audience of One
“So if the vast majority of those designers are white, the systems they create are only “user-centered” for people like them; they are created from a perspective of white privilege.” -UX designer Mitzi Okou
The truth of not meeting the needs of a mixed-race society when your human-centered company is not mixed is incredibly relevant, but it belies something much more sinister. Designing for an audience of one. This happens when white people–who already possess a disproportionate majority of wealth in the US–perpetuate a cycle of ignoring black people’s needs, voices, and aesthetics while feeding wealth back to white people.
This point could be taken two ways. First, design companies consciously or subconsciously fear the transfer of wealth that will almost assuredly accompany fully realized black designers. Or white people in design want to do better but are unsure of what to do, ignorant, or perhaps a little bit lazy: likely all three. The scarcity argument is not an excuse, but it has merit — black designers are more scarce. However, they are there. They are talented. And we promise you — they’re ready to break a cycle they were born into.
“The System”: Working for Some Broken For Others
You just have to follow the money to find the root causes of MIA black designers. From underfunded public schools — desegregated in name only — to privileged cultural institutions raking in the lion’s share of the arts donations, the systems are broken for some and working wonders for those who designed them.
The White Collar
The absence of black designers has been a topic of speculation for decades and likely will be for years to come. Even as black professionals begin to make progress towards breaking into “college-educated” disciplines of all kinds — design remains an outlier. Sadly, not by that much. As it were, the white-collar working world is still very white indeed.
Uptake has been so slow that according to the Economic Policy Institute, it will take black professionals (who represent only 10% of all “white-collar” occupations) 38 years to overcome the gap. In fields like product design and industrial design, in which black ranks linger around 1.6%, that timeline pushes out even further.
When it comes to diversity, we understand (but do not endorse) the truism, “You win some, you lose some,” but it’s hard not to wonder–why do black designers keep losing? The answer: An abject failure, on many parts, to derail a feedback loop fueled by poverty.
Money is the Root of All Privilege
“Yes, there are a lot of different factors to why there are not a lot of black designers, and so I’m going to first start with the one that’s more obvious to me is most of the black community is still kind of poor,” -Tim Hykes/UX Designer
Tim Hykes is not wrong. He is so right that a close examination of the racial wealth gap is cringeworthy. With a net worth of $171,000 (2016), white families are almost ten times more prosperous than black families, who, on average, have $17,150 in net assets. This startling wealth gap started in the US well before emancipation — ostensibly the day the first enslaved black person set a chained foot on this country’s shores.
But even if we examine the trends since 1866 — when the legal barriers to black property owners began to dissolve — that’s over 150 years of questionable progress. At every turn, African American efforts for wealth equality have been hampered: The Tulsa Massacre, Jim Crow “Black Codes, the GI bill, and even the so-called “Fair Labor Standards Act” in the New Deal. Yet, perhaps no one way has been as devastating to the rise of black professionals in design as segregated districting.
BOUND BY DESIGN
“Non-white school districts get $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same amount of students…For every student enrolled, the average nonwhite school district receives $2,226 less than a white school district.” -Edbuild.org
From a 30,000-foot view, this statistic points to the frightening reality that schools in the US are still segregated. A nicer way to say it is “racially concentrated.” *In this case, the benchmark for racial concentration is that three-quarters of students are white or nonwhite within an educational institution. Zoomed in to a community level, it shows the power redlining has on future wealth distribution.
In Education, Funding Matters
When districts are drawn and schools funded based on race, students of color are essentially redlined out of white-collar jobs. By political design, black children become black laborers sent into the lower echelons of the workforce, not because that is where they aspire to be, but because that is what their schools are funded to produce. Black parents, teachers, and administrators know this, so when it comes time to fund college journeys or endorse a career path, “design school” or “designer” are simply not practical enough to make the cut. Altruistic efforts to supplement art education and exposure in communities of color, while well-intentioned, are, for the most part, only a gesture and sometimes exploitative.
THE PHILANTHROPIC 2-PERCENTERS
The philanthropic funding and grantmaking processes for the arts are not immune to conscious or unconscious racial bias and inequity. Many startling statistics support this argument. However, for our purpose, the one that most stands out is this:
“Just 2-percent of all cultural institutions receive nearly 60 percent of all contributed revenue, up approximately five percentage points over a decade.” Helicon Collaborative Report 2017
Understanding the definition of “cultural institution” in the context above is essential. It’s cultural with a big C, meaning all cultural institutions, meaning it includes Western European ones, like The Met. These behemoths are disproportionately funded and primarily white, causing sustainability issues for those who are not. To be fair, the Met’s board of trustees is made up of 25% POC, ranking well in diversity for an institution of its size and influence. But remember, NYC is over 50% people of color — the mirror is still broken.
PRIVILEGE AND PIE SLICING
To Large arts organizations: It’s time to recognize your historical privilege and the physics of pie slicing.” — Diane Ragsdale
The presence of top-heavy arts funding to already privileged institutions reveals this — in a charitable space that presumably should supplement underfunded community arts, white people are once again taking the biggest bite of the pie. A bite so big it’s forcing the fractured subset of minority institutions to fight amongst themselves for scraps from the table.
The big losers of this Darwinian struggle for funding tend to be black and Latino arts organizations. A recent study even suggests that cutting off funding to some struggling black and Latinx cultural arts programs may be the only path forward to save their stronger peers. According to the same study, even when the predominantly Western European cultural institutions at the top feature minority exhibitions, however well-intentioned, it does more harm than good. It diverts attention, attendance, talent, and funding away from organizations of color.
Systemic Poverty and The Elusive Black Designer
The lack of arts funding and education, publicly or privately, has a slew of repercussions in communities of color. When children are not exposed to things, they cannot aspire to be them. Specific enculturation windows are missed, robbing young black minds of the chance to see themselves represented during certain developmental milestones.
This hole in representation is present not just in the abstract but in the real world, too, in the form of mentors, sponsors, and role models. Even children who are not inclined to enter into the industrial design, product design, web design, or graphic design disciplines grow up to be skeptical parents. They, in turn, tend to be unsure about supporting their children in becoming something they have practically never seen before — the elusive black designer. They are rightfully reticent to thrust their children into what they believe to be a rigged system with little reward. This is the feedback loop of poverty as it relates to black people in design: resource scarcity breeds resource insecurity, undermining support systems where black kids need them most — at home.
The Quid Pro Quo of Representational Diversity
The trend of leaving not just people of color but specifically black people of color behind in the design world is not only alarming — it’s painful. It represents the continued oppression of the black creative voice, except perhaps for appropriation. It echoes a dark segregated, racist past in the US and makes one wonder — have we really come that far? Regarding the integration of black professionals into design in the US, the answer is no.
So while the answer to “how do we get more black designers” looms large, like all good capitalists, we must first answer the question, “what’s in it for me?”. As it turns out — there’s plenty.”
By the Numbers: Diversity Breeds Innovation
“Diversity begets diversity, which in turn breeds innovation. If we keep the door closed to diverse talent because of subconscious or unconscious bias, we limit our access to change, innovation, new solutions, and financial success. Diversity of thought, perspectives, age, gender, experiences, cultures, race, etc., should be reflected in the images that we project to reach all consumers.” -Cici Holloway
The lack of diversity in design fields that exalt innovation, specifically industrial design and product design, is one of the most quizzical disparities of all. The power of combinatorial thinking, hallmark of diverse teams, has long been understood and explored in study after study. For our purposes, studies pointing to the notion that industry outsiders are more likely to develop solutions to complicated R&D problems are especially constructive. Marginality, it seems, has its advantages.
Therefore, if breakthrough insights and solutions are what design firms truly seek, there is no better place to “mine” for innovation gold than with the perennial outsider — the black designer. To take it a step further, how many novel products are we missing, given the starkly white nature of product development and industrial design?
Diversity: The American Competitive Advantage
Sidestep with us for a moment to the world stage, and the implications of diversifying our innovation industries become even more critical. In a race between the US and China to take the biggest bite of the world economic pie, there are scanty more than seven percentage points that separate our respective pieces (41.89% and 34.75%).
In this scenario, diversity could very well be the fulcrum on which our country’s economic superiority hinges. If the statistics proving diversity to be the wellspring of innovation tells us anything, it should be — we must be color-blind in mobilizing our best minds. Our economic superpower — diversity — does nothing when mired in the muck of racial bias.
Interestingly enough, just because China is less diverse than the US does not mean it cannot be. The Harvard Business Review points out that diversity traits can be both inherent and acquired or “2-D”. While 2-D diversity, as seen in the US, may be more prevalent, that is no guarantee of success. The Chinese are smart and formidable. Should Eastern companies choose to invest in diversity in the abstract — our competitive heterogeneous advantage could become moot.
Dollars and Diversity: One Hand Feeds The Other
“A 1% improvement in racial diversity similarities between upper and lower management boosts company efficiency by $729 to $1590 per year per employee.” ~Lauren Turner
One must never underestimate the almighty dollar’s power to persuade people to depart from their prejudices. However, researchers have long struggled to establish a causative relationship between diversity and profitability. The reason? Motivational factors of large companies in the US are obtuse at best — therefore, hard to scrutinize accurately. One of the best studies on the subject involves VC firms. Since the compensation structure of these entities is primarily determined by profit-sharing, not dubious corporate interests, their motive is more readily identified — money and more of it.
Comprehensive data in a working paper on VC investment (out of Harvard Business School by Paul A. Gompers and Sophie Q. Wang) overwhelming showed that the more ethnically similar VC investment partners were, the poorer their investments performed (up to 32.2%). On the flip side, teams led by ethnically and culturally diverse executives did better by 32%-35%. *In these contexts, better or worse means profitability. It appears, either way, the die is cast, inclusion is always a money roll; the type the odds the house always takes.
“We’re Not Gonna Take it”: The New American Worker
The pandemic was a devastating disruption that ripped most of us out of our routines across many vectors. But no place did it have such a profound effect than in the workplace. The way the world works is changing — especially in The States. The cage, an outdated Henry Ford employment model, has been rattled. The door is ajar, and the new American worker is ready to walk free. New jobs, remote work, better wages, work-life balance, and, yes, ethical employers are no longer aspirational — they are the demand.
At the same time, or because of this, Generations Millenial, X, and Z have combined forces to correct boomer-era prejudices in the form of social justice movements. The combination of these two cultural phenomena — the pandemic and the great resignation — has resounding implications for employee equality and employer economics. They also make room for opportunity and growth for diversity in design.
Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion or Extinction
In the information age, assessing a company’s homophilic proclivities is as easy as a search on Google or LinkedIn. Given that emerging data shows a full half of American workers already want a commitment to diversity from employers, a brand’s reputation and ability to recruit and retain talent could become contingent on the American workers’ shifting penchant for inclusive companies. In other words, as workers are given more latitude on where they work, how they work, and who they work for, companies that do not reflect their prismatic values are sure to fall behind.
When we apply this shift to the highly competitive fields of product and industrial design, black professionals hold the keys to the castle. This is true not only because they are profoundly talented, eager to succeed, and frot with fresh ideas but because giving them a seat at the table–at last–is the most innovative thing a design company can do.