Why design needs to address diversity

Jan. 15, 2018

Editor-in-Chief Kadie Yale discusses the need for design to be more inclusionary.

“On the Monday after a bomb killed four girls in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, INDUSTRIAL DESIGN’s editor typed out an attack against possible racial discrimination within the design community. But was it relevant, he asked? On reflection, the staff knew nothing about discrimination in design; it didn’t even know whether there were Negro designers.”

When I read this account and subsequent investigation from Ann Ferebee in Industirial Design magazine’s November 1963 issue, it startled me because this topic remains an issue. Not the questioning of racism in America—there is no question there—but the fact that more than 50 years later, IIDA was asking the exact same questions with its diversity panel, the results of which were released in 2016’s “ Is Design Lacking Diversity?”. Unlike Industrial Design’s conclusion of “we aren’t sure,” IIDA’s panel showed that only 3.5 percent of designers identify as black (6.9 percent identify as Asian, while 12.3 percent are Latino)

Being an industry that prides itself on taking in a variety of accounts and world views, the design profession may not be openly hostile to minority designers but that doesn’t mean macroaggressions don’t exist within our bubble. As IIDA CEO Cheryl Durst stated in the diversity panel report, “We all know what it’s like to be the ‘only’ in the room: designer, female, black, disabled, etc. Part of diversity is telling our stories, sharing our full selves.”

[Read also: 2020 Design Trends: Color, Materials + Finish]

Part of the problem of discussing diversity is the pushback. It may or may not come as a surprise that in the almost three years that I have been part of interiors+sources magazine, the only real responses we’ve received to articles have been to reports on race in the industry. Despite articles such as October 2016’s article on the IIDA report acting as coverage of an event and the resulting information gained, writing about the topic of race has resulted in the only times I have received specific letters to the editor—all negative. A majority of the writers have stated that their firms are indeed diverse and such reports only further the racial divide within the country.

To those responses, I have several questions:

  • What do we actually consider diverse? Is it a percentage of a firm being made up of minorities? Is it enough to only have a handful of non-white, able-bodied persons in the meeting?
  • If there are truly diverse firms in the country (and I’m not saying there aren’t; I’m sure there are), how was that achieved? Is there a way for us as an industry to follow such examples?
  • What is it that makes us so uncomfortable with the conversation of diversity?

I don’t have the answers, nor, honestly, should I be providing them. As a white, able-bodied, cis woman whose genes are made up of a mix of pilgrims, Founding Fathers, and recent immigrants from the United Kingdom, it is not my place to make such statements. However, as the editor of a magazine that serves this industry, it is my responsibility to facilitate such conversations and allow space for them to occur.

Of course, this discussion moves beyond the literal black and white of race; the discussion needs to include those with disabilities, non-conforming genders, body types, and more.

During NeoCon 2017, I asked a variety of manufacturers how one would use its product if they were, say, wheelchair-bound or only had one arm. It quickly became obvious who had considered such things and who hadn’t. A month later, I sat on the corner of a busy NYC intersection and watched people as they entered buildings on the block. A group of people that included an older, wheelchair-bound man was told the ADA-required handicapped accessible entrance for the restaurant was around the corner through a service alley. There were only a handful of tables to accommodate them and the bathroom was not accessible unless the man was capable of walking up a short flight of stairs.

Is it enough for ADA compliancy to be an afterthought? Can an interior or product really be deemed well done if it alienates a portion of potential end users?

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule—the prize horse of those who love to play devil’s advocate. There are some interiors that cannot truly accommodate those in wheelchairs and there are products that for safety reasons need to be used with two arms. But we’re designers; we have an inhuman ability to think outside the box and solve these problems. We need to be asking with everything we design whether something cannot be accommodated or whether we’re taking the easy way out.
There’s nothing wrong in admitting we don’t know what the answer is or that we don’t even know what question to ask in the first place. Take Michael Graves, for example. After becoming paralyzed from the chest down in 2003, he repositioned his design thinking to include the healthcare sector. During the Q+A section of his October 2011 TEDMED talk, Graves stated that, essentially, it is difficult for us to design for conditions to which we are not accustomed. With that, he insisted his team working on healthcare lived in a wheelchair for a week to experience the ways in which design does a disservice to those with issues walking.

This is where the importance of diversity panels like IIDA’s or Industrial Design magazine’s 1963 article come in. We cannot stop asking these questions and facilitating these conversations just because it may make us uncomfortable. Now more than ever, it’s important to remember the only way to progress is through education and the only way to be educated about other’s lived experiences is to invite them to the table, listen to the knowledge gained from panels on the topic, and refusing to hide our heads in the sand.

In case you missed it in our November 2017 Product Collaboration article, “A Design Maverick,” athlete, actor, and newly minted product designer Terry Crews stated what should be the rallying cry of the design industry in 2018: “There is room for every gender, race, ethnicity, and culture to have their story told.”

About the Author

Kadie Yale | Former Editor-in-Chief

Kadie Yale holds a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State University and a MA in Decorative Art History and Theory from Parsons the New School. In her role as editor-in-chief from 2015-2018, she led the interiors+sources team in creating relevant content that touches on sustainability, universal design, science, and the role of design in society.

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