Design Humbly

Featured in Communication Arts Magazine (November/December 2016)

How did you get started in social entrepreneurship? 

Since I was younger, I’ve always had opportunities to get socially involved. For example, when I was in third grade, I was selected to mentor second graders—tutoring and teaching them how to read while being the oddball who would design and create actual books. At that age, it was an innate interest. Today, many of the experiences that influence my work come from personal injustices.

When I was working in higher education, we were looking to hire a new associate—the finalists gave an office-wide presentation. One female finalist, who did a phenomenal job, showed us a picture of her son at the end of her presentation. She finished with the statement, “This is why I do what I do. I love my son.” Suddenly, the reviewers’ focus switched—the conversation shifted from whether she was a good candidate to whether she really had time to devote to the position. This really irritated me! In that moment, I argued, “How dare you move beyond her credentials to determine whether she would be appropriate for this position!” A lot of what I said came from my own experience.

I am a mom, and I’ve been asked in job interviews whether I qualify for positions because I have twin sons. When I was pregnant, people constantly asked me whether I was going to leave school—I went on to pursue my master’s degree. As an African American, I’ve been in a corporate situation when one of my colleagues calmly used the N-word—until he realized I was in the room. I’ve been in staff meetings when a CEO and the top leadership joked of a competitor’s accent. All of these situations have built my mindset toward diversity and inclusion—not just to tolerate others, but also to really accept and understand that we are all individuals, and that we should be OK with that.

Designers need to meet people where they are.

What has the Creative Reaction Lab accomplished since you founded it in 2014? 

My stumble into the social enterprise space was an accident. Creative Reaction Lab was founded in response to what was happening in Ferguson at the time, as I’m a former Ferguson resident and a Saint Louis native. The Lab began as a 24-hour event that catapulted completely into the social entrepreneurship and social innovation design fields.

Naively, my first lab only included designers as problem solvers, but then I realized that doing this excluded everyone else. Today, we have evolved into a model where designers still represent an important pillar—stakeholders who will always be seated at the table—but now we include business and social/civic figures alongside community members, the living experts on local issues. When we have all four of these representatives at the table, we can create the most impactful approaches to solve the issues we’re trying to address.

Our greatest success? Transforming our city by helping to transform the individuals who go through our programming. Whether they’re still with Creative Reaction Lab or somewhere else years from now, they will continue to enact creative changes in their organizations, neighborhoods or local and federal governments. We want to inspire this new generation of civic and social creative change makers. And when I say new generation, we’re talking about people who might be in their seventies or working in retail! I want people to realize that they are creative problem solvers, and thus, everyday designers. Additionally, I want people to recognize that, no matter how many powerful individuals have gone to law school, that doesn’t discredit your expertise. That doesn’t discredit your passion.

What does diversity inequality look like in today’s design industry? 

Many different types of diversity inequalities exist, which is why AIGA started its Diversity & Inclusion Task Force in 1989. The 1991 symposium article “Why is Graphic Design 93% White?” responded to the lack of racial diversity within our industry. And today, Jacinda Walker, who serves as my successor on the Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, looks at the statistics of racial representation within our industry. It’s extremely daunting, the racial lack of diversity. But then there are other issues, some of which you might not even be aware of.

Tell me how many designers with disabilities you know. We haven’t properly considered or spoken about the individuals with disabilities who are missing from the table. One of the highlights during my term as Founding Chair of the AIGA Diversity and Inclusion Task Force was seeing Justin Skeesuck speak on the mainstage at the 2015 AIGA Design Conference in New Orleans; he’s a designer who became disabled, but showed that his life didn’t end. He went on to tell his story through a documentary, and I felt honored to hear his perspective. There’s many stories like his. But, then there are other stories that were never able to develop due to the lack of access for designers with a physical disability. We need to build an industry that’s inclusive of all ability statuses.

How does design thinking uniquely challenge such diversity inequalities? 

I think of it as social innovation because design thinking, a way of approaching problems, has been branded in so many different ways. You have human-centered design, but within the entrepreneurship space, they call it something else. Or if you talk to people in the science field, they call it the scientific method or behavioral science. All of these need to be integrated together to come up with solutions, so I use the inclusive term creative problem solving, which also allows us to expand the different methodologies that we use when approaching certain issues. Different systemic issues require different approaches.

We’re so focused on the buzzword and the steps of design thinking that we forget the overarching lessons within it. Design thinking—really, problem solving in general—can be messy. There are going to be mistakes. There are going to be moments when you have no idea what you’re doing. There are going to be moments when you have to lean on someone else’s expertise, moments when you’re not a leader. Design thinking is not a 45-minute lesson. People who are too focused on its base level are not diving deeply enough into its rich overlap of behavioral science, anthropology, sociology, design, science and business. We need to strive for mastery instead of just buying in.

Interestingly enough, the same can be said about diversity and inclusion. These are not just base goals that can be changed in a simple design thinking session. We continually have to address many of the root causes of inequalities, something that takes time, resources, dedication and, most importantly, interdisciplinary collaboration. Do I believe that design thinking can be used to address issues such as racial or gender inequalities? At the microlevel, yes. But, in the larger context of systems, we need to look to other creative problem solving methodologies, such as social innovation and transition design, to construct approaches to begin to dismantle many of these systemic constructs. Oh, and power in its various forms.

Have you noticed actual progress toward greater inclusion in the design industry? 

Honestly? Not really. While diversity numbers have improved in some cases, diversity is not interchangeable with inclusion. Inclusivity is another goal within itself. Whether we want to admit it, the very nature of design is exclusive.

To become a designer, you need to have a tremendous amount of access. And when I say access, let’s be honest: How many times have you been in a setting where everyone opens up Macintosh laptops, and if you open up a PC, everyone’s looking at you like you’re below par? MacBooks aren’t cheap. Community members who don’t have access to computers, let alone a computer that costs thousands of dollars, are already behind. And the younger generation, many of whom didn’t learn about the design profession until later in their careers, are also behind. Then there are students who have had their craft nurtured since they were in elementary or middle school, been exposed to portfolio days or attended a private design school, such as the Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Automatically, they have a greater opportunity for success than their later counterparts. We need to help youth cultivate their craft and their portfolios so they find entryway into the design field. In our field, it’s all about the portfolio and your skillset. Part of it is talent, and part of it is access. And say you’re already in the industry: Are you being nurtured and cultivated within your organization? Do you feel that your voice and your viewpoint are being viewed and understood?

Also, what we define as design is very Eurocentric. It’s like when you’re in college, and the African American or the Asian studies are separate from history, even though they’re all history. But there’s a reason these courses exist: to bring awareness, understanding and appreciation to a culture that wasn’t deemed the majority. It’s the same when we think of “ethnic” design—if there is such a thing. Think about it: who defines what classifies as good design or the quality standard? I’ll let you answer that on your own, but here’s a clue: not the DYI, inventive, lower-income or limited-education class. Are we really being as inclusive as possible? Or are we only focusing on what we know? We have a long way to go before we truly reach inclusivity within our industry. We need to address many different areas for that to truly happen. But this larger scale issue can’t be changed overnight. It’s up to us to change our culture and redesign diversity and inclusion. How is it that we can solve problems for clients, but we struggle to solve problems for ourselves?

What excites you about the design field right now? 

Design, as a concept, becoming more accessible and understandable to the general population—and I don’t mean everyone suddenly loving Photoshop! Design and design thinking are becoming common terms throughout the professional community. This allows us the opportunity to show the true value of design beyond the craft. It’s now up to us to refine the types of design within our industry while holistically defining the umbrella that is design—similar to the science and public health fields. We’re at a great point to paint the viewpoint of our industry. Who wouldn’t be excited about this moment?

What advice do you have for people just entering the design field? 

Step up. Step up. Some schools tell their students that they should not work for free. I get it. But in reality, participating in an internship program helps designers build stronger portfolios. The majority of the students who come to meet with me have the exact same class projects in their portfolios. That’s not telling me who they are as designers. That’s telling me what their teachers’ choices and aesthetics are. We need to challenge ourselves. Designers shouldn’t give away their craft for free—unless they want to. You should find what drives you and gets you excited. And then step up.

Lastly, designers are the invisible innovators in our world, so don’t be stifled down. Arch out and disrupt. We’ve always been disruptors, even before disrupt was a word. Continue to challenge the status quo, not by only musing on the client brief, but by focusing on how we can change our society for the better. As designers, we have the power to meet people where they are. Using design to create change with the people and by the people. So use it.