Summer 2020. Placards. Marches. Screaming. Crying. Chanting. Lying. Exposing. Tweeting. Educating.
Black. Lives. Matter.
For most of that Summer, I would lay awake at night overwhelmed with what was and is going on in America. There was a lot of change happening in those few weeks, some of it unnecessary. People were asking for basic human rights and companies were responding with here look we changed our logo, hey look at us we deleted an episode of this show that aired 10 years ago and look at this generic social media post we made. That was all fine I guess, change is change, support is support, but the real issue at hand was being overlooked. The systematic issues, the problems we may not even notice until someone points it out. The issues so deeply rooted in society that we turn a blind eye to. One of those issues I didn’t expect to pop up on my Instagram feed one depressing morning was phrased in a rhetorical question, “Where are the black designers?”.
I first asked myself this question during my first year in design school. In our history of design module, we were learning about various design movements and influential figures in design. I remember learning about Dieter Rams, Philippe Starck, James Dyson, Jony Ive and the Eames and was amazed with all they’ve accomplished and their timeless influence in the world of design and beyond. I had read Dyson’s biography, I did a project on Starck, I watched the Rams documentary and I found it all inspiring. But, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were any superstar designers that looked like me. Naturally, I googled it, “famous black industrial designers”. I came across “Charles Chuck Harrison”, one of the first few industrial designers of his time, and some other notable car designers. But none that were glorified for their work like the aforementioned designers. None that you would say “oh I’ve heard that name before”. None that appeared on the design timeline we were given in our history module. None that had documentaries about them. It’s not that I need a role model to look up to; I’m not motivated by the chance of fame. But when you’re often the only black person in the room, you can either be motivated by this or question it. I go through both experiences. At times I’m like “I’m super lucky to be here and to be supported by my family who’s cultural background generally doesn’t approve of careers in design”. And other times I think “there are not a lot of people like me doing this, maybe I shouldn’t be here”. I was never really one to have role models in life, but I realise now that maybe it’s because I couldn’t find one that inspired me. None that inspired my desire to be a zookeeper, nor my spy stories, nor my economics phase (that was weird) and now my aspiring designer dream.
The Where Are The Black Designers? conference took place last Summer. The answer to the question was that they are everywhere but not being employed. I think there’s sort of a circular causality that happens, where black designers are rare in the workplace, and then potential black designers notice this and think this career is maybe not for them so there are less black designers meaning even less are being employed. The issue here is that as societies continue to diversify and globalise, design solutions are still being designed by predominantly white designers. So “user-centered” design is often what the majority needs and minorities are left out or just an after-thought. Not all of this can be solved by stepping into a minority’s shoes or including them in user-research. Rather, give the minority designer a seat at the table, a stack of sticky notes and a whiteboard marker and let them bring their cultural background and unique upbringing directly into the design process.