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Diversity in Design: How Agencies Can Strive to Hire More BIPOC Creatives

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 08/06/2020 | 6 Minute Read

There are a lot of meaningful conversations happening now about race, privilege, and how something as seemingly inconsequential as the color of someone’s skin affects the opportunities they do (or don’t) have access to. For many white people, this is a revelation, or at the very least something they don’t consider day today. 

For Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), it’s par for the course.

Diversity in design benefits everyone, and not just with the clients we work with and the projects we work on—but the people design agencies hire. You, like many, may be wondering where are the black designers and, more importantly, trying to determine what you can do about it. 

Elaine Lopez, Faculty Member at the Maryland Institute College of Art, conducted a project on diversity in design with AIGA Chicago in 2017, and the findings offer us some paths to progress.

Elaine worked as a designer for over ten years before entering graduate school. She’d had the opportunity to work in a few different sectors of the industry—from marketing and advertising to social impact—and during that time, she noticed there weren’t a lot of people of color at the places she worked. Elaine, whose parents are from Cuba, always felt an instant bond with someone in an office when they were non-white.

“There was a sense of solidarity,” she said. “So that drove me to take a step back from my career to return to school and really research what the causes of that were. It was just baffling to me that there weren't more people of color in this industry. I think it's actually a detriment to the industry when you don't have people with a variety of experiences working on projects.”

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Greater Good Studio branding.

When the AIGA 2016 Design Census was released, it revealed that of the 293 designers who participated, 215 were white. So in 2017, Elaine was the Diversity and Inclusion Lead at AIGA Chicago, and she created a survey for agencies there to dig deeper into why, in a city so diverse, so few designers seemed to be non-white.

To learn more, she reached out to 17 small, privately-owned design studios in the city, asking them questions like what ways they reach out when they need to hire someone, the top priorities when adding someone new to the team, and the challenges they face in hiring diverse applicants. The responses helped Elaine better understand the lack of diversity in the industry and, more importantly, consider ways agencies can improve.

One of the big things agencies seem to desire when hiring someone is “cultural fit.” But the issue with that is someone with a diverse cultural background may not seem like a cultural fit, and that’s the point; diversity inherently means different points of view.

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Lopez's Babson Boulders
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“It’s a real problem,” Elaine said, adding that in some instances it’s illegal to hire based on something like cultural fit, since it’s technically discrimination. In her own experiences in the workplace, she never felt like she could fully be herself—she was always trying to fit into an environment where she had little room to express herself, bring in aspects of her identity or culture, or even propose different ways of doing things. For BIPOC, that creates an unpleasant and even unsafe work environment, and has led Elaine to leave jobs over time.

“As a person of color within an industry that's predominantly white,” she added, “you really feel like you have to fit into that industry versus the industry-changing and shifting to accommodate you and the benefits that you can bring." If a designer can share their cultural experiences that can include different approaches to doing things, it could mean that these places of work would be better for everyone.

The 2017 survey also revealed how the majority of agencies found their new hires-word of mouth. But that can also create a massive barrier to entry for BIPOC since most of these professional communities get formed in school—so the diversity of someone’s network could depend on how diverse their university’s student body was.

“I was in graduate school when I realized the problem begins in academia,” Elaine explained. “The reason it's difficult for some of these companies to hire BIPOC is that maybe while they were in school, they didn't really meet a lot of different kinds of people, and therefore their networks are homogenous.”

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From PDG Posters.

So what can design agencies do about this glaring diversity in design problem? After all, design is for everyone, and clients who hire designers and agencies are diverse—so why shouldn’t design teams be, too?

First and foremost, Elaine advised agencies to prioritize expanding their network. Hiring by word of mouth will result in more BIPOC applying when that initial pool of people you’ve got connections with already includes them. Consider attending events or conferences that focus on Black designers or LQBTQ+ designers to branch out and meet people.

“Companies need to do a better job of building relationships with universities,” Elaine mentioned, referring back to her thoughts on how the problem starts with school. “They should also encourage colleges and universities to accept a more diverse student body.”

Elaine added that, as many agencies are sitting down and reflecting and trying to make plans for a more diverse team, they should reframe their mindset. “Right now, it feels like a really challenging conversation to have. But people can see it as a positive thing and an opportunity for growth. It’s something that's going to make every company stronger and better and fun to work at.”

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From PDG Posters.

So instead of asking, “What do we lack?” ask, “How can we strengthen our company?” Then, from there, create the kind of environment that will be welcoming to different people rather than a mold candidates have to fit into perfectly.

On a larger scale, Elaine wondered what would happen if the industry shifted its focus from big brands that have a ton of money towards work that involves civic duty, like voting or education—things that can make a more significant impact on society.

“There are so many opportunities for design to engage people in more ways,” Elaine said. “I’d love to see design shift towards that.”

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Elaine Lopez

Since her time in graduate school and serving on the board of AIGA for a year, Elaine has had time to reflect on the root causes of the glaring issues she—and so many other designers—experience. It led her to view her work more as an artistic practice, considering the role of design within the gallery or as an artist. Most importantly, and, what has been taking up most of her time, is her work as an educator. She is continually thinking about how to bring these values into the classroom and prepare students for the road ahead.

Because, unfortunately, that road is a bumpy one. Elaine believes that the industry is burning people out—expectations are high, and rewards are low. And, quite sadly, designers, especially BIPOC, are not valued.

“We really need to slow down and reconsider our project briefs to be more humane,” Elaine said. “We need to reconsider who we're bringing into the companies, and even reconsider who we’re working with as clients.”