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The Problem with D&I


During one particularly cold winter, I was interviewed for a project on black female college graduates. The project wanted to compare experiences in university from across generations. In the interview we we were asked if we wanted to anonymize our university so we couldn’t be identified. At first I told her it was alright, but the more I thought about it, almost 2 years after graduating, I realized I was the only black person in my specific major to graduate that year. It was also in this moment that I realized how isolating university had been, because there was no one, save for one professor, who looked like me.   

Since I’ve graduated, I’ve spent time time doing guest lectures and portfolio reviews. And in this time, I’ve seen how little has changed. We’ve seen the statistics from AIGA’s 2017 Design Census, the industry is still overwhelmingly white, with around 60% of the industry being white. In my own backyard of Chicago, the 2017 survey shows only 97 participants, of the roughly 1200 survey respondents, were non-white. This an abysmal statistic. For a city like Chicago, where the majority of the population is non-white, the industry is a far cry from reflecting the reality of the people we design for.

Facts, figures, and statistics like the ones above are always where diversity and inclusion journeys start. Having become a buzzword in recent years, many companies and organizations have tried to improve these numbers, but not all are reaching their goals, especially in the design industry where the definition of diversity has become so broad, there aren’t meaningful metrics to understand what it means.

Herein lies the problem. Organizations are looking at diversity and inclusion as a figure that needs to be understood, changed, and ultimately abandoned once the numbers can successfully show the company is inclusive enough. But what does “inclusive enough” mean?

Inclusion is defined as having a sense of belonging. But how can “belonging” be measured from the cold facts presented in most diversity reports? The reality is, it can’t. Diversity and inclusion is a much more nuanced issue for a company.

It isn’t just how many black or brown people you employ, it’s about how they are growing in the company. It’s about if they can bring their best selves to work, and about how valued employees feel in the workplace.

This is where we can use a framework we in the design industry are all too familiar with—human centered design.

Human centered design isn’t a holy grail of problem solving, but it does give us methods and practices to employ in helping our organizations solve issues as big as diversity and inclusion. Some examples of how use HCD methods to benefit your organization include:  

  • Conducting interviews instead of just running a normal demographic survey. This could help you to consider how you might really get inside the heads of the most marginalized in your organization.

  • Using co-creation as part of developing strategies and practices to benefit everyone in the organization, and putting creatives of colors first.

  • Prototype ideas to increase engagement with a marginalized group and help get feedback on what is and isn’t working for program.

Diversity and inclusion has to move beyond facts and figures to a human centered approach focused on making an individual  feel as though they belong at an organization. Beyond having a more diverse team for bigger profits and better outcomes, it is the human thing for your organization to do.

After all, how can we authentically build products out in the world if our teams don’t reflect the world?