Inaugural 'Where Are The Black Designers' Conference Explores Racism In The Design Community And How To Move Forward

by Rudy Sanchez on 06/30/2020 | 5 Minute Read

Where Are The Black Designers is an organization that aims to create a platform for BIPOC designers by engaging and connecting them with fellow designers, creative leaders, and educators, fostering an ongoing conversation about how to transform the industry and create an equitable environment.  

The movement held their first conference this past Saturday, bringing together a panel of esteemed speakers, including Dean, Faculty of Design at OCAD UniversityDori Tunstall, Head of Brand at Ethel’s Club and Founder of Design 2 Divest Vanessa Newman, Google UX designer Shabnam Kashani, and more, hosted by Mitzi Okou, UX designer and founder of the event.

Speakers touched on a broad range of subjects, from systemic and cultural biases that become barriers to entry, how racism impacts design, the kinds of disadvantages facing BIPOC creatives in the design industry, as well as possible solutions and strategies towards increasing their presence in the design industry.

Some of the challenges aspiring designers of color face start early on in childhood, where a lack of representation, mentorship, and the pressure to pursue less competitive and possibly more lucrative careers. Dori Tunstall described how Black mentorship changes the preconceptions about design for Black youngsters and makes the field more palpable to them and their families. 

“Connecting young, 8-to-12-year-old Black youth, to see that there are professional designers, to see that there's a pathway to build relationships of mentorship, but also to help them make something tangible," Tunstall said. "So they can go to their parents in their community and say, ‘Hey, I'm interested in drawing. And I met all of these people who make a living drawing.’” 

Elaine Lopez, Associate Professor in Graphic Design at the Maryland Institute College of Art and AICAD Fellow, described her work and insights from her 2016 study on the disparities found in hiring practices across the design industry. The study breaks down the notion that agencies "have a hard time finding candidates of color,” and that pervasive cultural biases thrive within the community to this day. 

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“The number one way people tend to get hired is word of mouth,” Lopez explained. “To me, this was a big moment of revelation. I guess I always knew this, but when you're hiring people, specifically through word of mouth and your networks are not diverse, you get to the source of the problem, right? If your network doesn’t represent a wide range of people, you're not going to hire designers of color.”

Her survey and work is open source, and she encourages others to take her findings and replicate it locally, using it as a means to keep studios and agencies accountable in their commitment to diverse recruiting and hiring. 

We often think of computer software as dispassionate and impartial, but Shabnam Kashani's talk on algorithmic bias spoke to how Artificial Intelligence (AI) inherits systemic societal prejudices of those that design, build, and fund the development of technology, as well as the importance of addressing these biases now.

“Through this pandemic and civil rights movement, we realize that the venture capitalist-driven technology and tech-for-tech sake seldom benefits people of color, and exponentially harms them as algorithms expand their ability to organize,” Kashani said. Essentially, these algorithms create a feedback loop, one that uses Google search results, as well as the policing data and predictive software utilized by law enforcement. There is a danger in not understanding how these systems perpetuate prejudice with their baked-in biases.

The conference also included a roundtable with Lopez, Kelly Walters, Assistant Professor of Communication Design, The New School, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Chris Livaudais, Executive Director, Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), and Antionette Carroll, Founder, President, CEO of Creative Reaction Lab. Roxane Gay, the author of the book Bad Feminist, moderated the panel and they engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of how to move forward, with panelists sharing how they support BIPOC creatives in their respective roles across different segments of the design community as well as the challenges that they see first-hand.

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Many of the speakers talked about how organizations have to make substantial, transformative changes, and press releases and statements of support will no longer cut it. Consumers and the design community need to hold them accountable through their dollars and how they support those organizations. Additionally, agencies and brands need to rethink how they hire for “culture fit.”

I am not coming from a position of economic privilege...I have power in who I am, and for you to sit here and think that you’re going to change who I am so that you can be comfortable is a problem. We need to make these institutions and cultures comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because if you do not have the ability to be uncomfortable, then you are honestly creating safe spaces that are ‘safe,’ but not spaces that are brave and accountable.

Antionette Carroll

“I am not coming from a position of economic privilege,” Antionette said. “I have power in who I am, and for you to sit here and think that you’re going to change who I am so that you can be comfortable is a problem. We need to make these institutions and cultures comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because if you do not have the ability to be uncomfortable, then you are honestly creating safe spaces that are ‘safe,’ but not spaces that are brave and accountable.”

Finally, the event concluded with a Q&A session, followed by a call-to-action from organization founder Mitzi Okou with steps conference attendees can take to their respective corners of the design world and implement to elevate Black designers.

“This is not over,” Mitzi Okou said in her parting thoughts at the event. "This is not a moment. This is a movement, and this conversation is just the beginning of the work that we have to do to have more diversity, inclusivity, and representation.” 

"We will continue to amplify the voices of Black designers. We’ve been here all along."


Video from the Where Are The Black Designers are available on their YouTube channel, and additional resources are available on their website.

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