Over the course of my career, I’ve noticed most design organizations—from multinational corporations to startup agencies—have a shared problem: Their teams don’t reflect the world we live in. Diversity in the design community is minimal at best.
According to the 2019 American Institute of Graphic Arts census, Black designers represent just 3% of the field. For Hispanic/Latinx designers, it’s just slightly better at 8%; for Asian designers, it’s 9%.
And yet, if you speak with designers, they’ll likely tell you how much they value diversity in their teams and communities. Designers routinely pursue a diverse range of experiences, thinking and dialogues to inspire our work. But this level of awareness doesn’t translate in the numbers, a problem that we’re facing within our own design organization as well.
We must create clearer and more accessible paths for these underrepresented contributors. It’s time to focus our passion on creating meaningful solutions for people in our own profession.
Designers are people in love with people
Above all, prioritizing racial diversity is the right thing to do, period. But diversity is also at the core of what makes any design team successful. Diversity is one of the most powerful catalysts of innovation in any context, and the design community is one that demands innovation 100% of the time—to solve problems, push boundaries and do something that’s never been done before.
What’s more, companies that are more racially and ethnically diverse are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians. To put it bluntly, a range of voices can mean the difference between a company’s success and its failure.
What I come back to, though, is what it means to be a designer. Designers are people in love with people. Everything we create is meant to improve the quality of others’ lives, and ultimately, collectively produce a better world. That should be the principle we follow as we seek to address the lack of diversity among our teams.
How designers can drive inclusivity
To this end, we must all take steps to contribute to a truly equitable design industry—in our own organizations and beyond. To make the change we want to see, we must do the following:
Educate ourselves. Our ultimate goal is changing the industry. But we must start with ourselves, and at the community level, asking questions like: How can we excite students about a career in design? How can we help solve for the high cost to enter? How do we create awareness around our professions? How do we support the inclusion and advancement of diverse hires?
Inspire people to want to work in the field. I asked several Black designers why they think there is so little representation in design jobs, and it became pretty clear: We need to provide more access to information about creative careers early on.
Through events like roadshows and back-to-school drives, we can connect with students in underserved areas. We can create awareness that these jobs even exist by engaging with Black and Hispanic communities to spark interest in our profession. We can also work with local community organizations to provide discovery, access and education about the creative field.
Recruit differently. Many times, we fall into the habit of hiring from our networks of contacts and collaborators, and to recruit from the design schools we’re familiar with. As a result, our talent pool is too small. Diversifying our recruiting outreach will help us source talent from underrepresented groups.
It’s important organizations consider expanding geographic reach, building programs from alternate talent pools, and seeking input from external organizations and leaders. The existing networks at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) are also important talent hubs. Partnering with alumni groups and HBCUs/HSIs that have strong design programs can expand talent acquisition efforts and offer new ways to reach underrepresented groups.
Address economic factors that can be barriers to entry. If we want to provide more opportunity, we can’t ignore this issue. It is critically important to support college students transitioning from 2-year to 4-year programs; to create and expand scholarship opportunities and support for community college and trade certificate programs.
Support and develop your people internally. Once you’ve hired the talent, you have to do the work to ensure people feel valued and inspired. We must create spaces for underrepresented groups to thrive, spaces where they feel safe sharing their opinions and have opportunities to rise in the ranks.
This means offering leadership training, elevating diverse talent to key senior roles, considering all teams’ dynamics through an inclusive lens and building internal platforms such as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to amplify voices that are traditionally marginalized.
Track your progress. It’s important for companies to be held accountable and to provide updates on progress to increase representation in the workforce and help our communities thrive. This can be done through regular, transparent reporting.
Recruiting, hiring and retaining diverse talent will require the same innovative approaches that we apply to our work every day. As design leaders, we employ curiosity, optimism and agility to drive great innovation and great business.
We can apply similar thinking to transform the makeup of our teams. It’s up to us to create more diverse spaces that pave the way for true social change.