Q&A: How Mitzi Okou Founded Where Are the Black Designers? to Promote Diversity and Equity

User-generated content helped promote group's inaugural conference

The founders' call for posters to promote the organization resulted in 600 submissions on social media. Where Are the Black Designers?

Where are the Black designers? We know they exist, but where are they in design agencies and companies that push culture forward, in places that influence the world and how we live or use products?

This question, posed by Maurice Cherry in a SXSW Interactive presentation in 2015, has resurfaced in light of the racial unrest of 2020. The months of protests have illuminated race-based disparities in all sectors of life, and designers are fighting to close the opportunity gap for Black designers by calling out white design companies for supporting Black Lives Matter but not actually hiring Black people in their agencies.

Where are the Black Designers? (WATBD) is a conference-turned-organization created in June by Mitzi Okou and Garrett Albury, designers at HP and Capital One, respectively. To spread the word about its inaugural conference on June 27, they asked people to create their take on what a WATBD flyer would look like and post them on Instagram.

Within days of organizing the conference and issuing the call for posters, they went viral on LinkedIn and Instagram, receiving hundreds of entries.

It’s not a coincidence that in the process of asking for justice, Black people have also demanded inclusivity in other spaces this year, including schools and workplaces. Conversations about inclusivity in design date back to the ’80s, with Cheryl D. Miller’s essay Black Designers Missing in Action starting important conversations.

Adweek sat down with Okou to discuss how meeting the needs of a moment, reading the room and user participation pushed WATBD to the forefront of the conversation about racial diversity in design.

How and why did the idea of WATBD come about?

I started WATBD with Garrett Albury not necessarily inspired by any one thing, but I was more frustrated with the performative activism coming from tech companies and creative spaces and how they were contributing to racial injustices by not hiring Black people. The idea came from just wanting to have a small, public community discussion about the lack of diversity in the creative and tech space. Not asking Black people the question, rather asking companies, “Where are the people that look like me?”

WATBD went viral on LinkedIn and Instagram. Walk us through some of the strategies you used to create buzz around this event.

It was all thanks to the call for posters going viral. It was a combination of a protest in the digital space and engagement with designers using their skills to contribute to an important cause of speaking against racial injustice or calling out racial injustice in a field that we occupy. That was the strategy that really made it go viral, to be honest.

User-generated posters were a real success in terms of marketing the event. What insights did you gain after seeing how the message spread?

I’m guessing it was super effective because it really put our event on the map because of its engagement. We received over 600 submissions because the hashtags really helped it show up on people’s feeds. More specifically, I gained insight on how to manipulate an algorithm through repetition. This illuminated how we can use design and algorithms to actually manipulate what’s trending and what we can call attention to.

Every event has its challenges. What were yours, and how did you overcome them? What did you learn?

Gathering resources such as speakers, funding and volunteers for an event of any scale is a challenge that we definitely ran into. We had no idea that our event would get so big. We only planned for 300 attendees but ended up having 5,000 attendees. Since we streamed the conference online, we have over 15,000 streams. But a lot of people came through, including our fiscal sponsor The Design Vanguard, to help us financially make this happen. I learned a lot about scheduling, prioritizing, time management in terms of working really fast because this was all put together in under one month, believe it or not.

Adebukola Ajao is a freelance writer and digital media consultant.