Pause for a minute. Who is a designer?

Pause for a minute. Who is a designer?

Look at these pictures. Recognize anybody?

  • Charlotte Perriand designed several chairs with Le Corbusier including the B301 sling chair and B306 chaise lounge chair.
  • Satoshi Yasui leads the team at Muji and is responsible for their ultimate simplification of daily household products.
  • Susan Kare designed the icons on the Mac in the early eighties including the happy/sad mac.
  • MP Ranjan was an Indian innovator in bamboo and other indigenous products. He also was one of the first people to write about a process called “design thinking.”
  • Lella Vignelli is responsible for most of the products coming out of Vignelli studio from Knoll.
  • Paulo Mendes da Rocha is a Brazilian architect known for his Paulistano chair and several buildings famous for its brutalist architecture.
  • Ray Eames, accomplished graphic designer and textile artist, was overshadowed by her husband Charles. I also realized recently that many people don’t even know that Ray was a woman.

And then are countless others, women and men who have made an impact on our lives through their contributions to design. However, we do not know, remember or acknowledge their impact.

When someone mentions a designer, what image comes to mind?

It’s a white guy who wears colored pants and has a funky haircut. Sadly, your image is unlikely to include anyone who is brown, black or female. Why this archetype? Are the little sensibilities of design only a job that is defined by race or privilege? I watched the move hidden figures a few days back and was amazed by how little life has changed in 50 or so years. I would like to believe that we are learning and growing as a society. As Mahatma Gandhi puts it, we have to become the change we would like to see in this world.

There are several patterns in UX and design industry that we all need to change.

1. Implicit bias.
Search for design leaders in ten companies that you admire. What do you see? Perhaps nine Caucasian guys and a lone woman? This is not uncommon in other areas where women and people of color have not received recognition for their work. Design suffers from the same implicit or unconscious bias.

2. Lack of an archetype to mimic.
Young designers starting in school are left with no examples they can relate to. No pathways to identify with. No entry points and finally no sponsors. In recent years the path has become a bit easier. But it gets hard for anyone who is a bit introverted. We have Indian CEOs running some of the top companies in the USA. We also have had a black president in the USA. Who do we have in design that is a woman, brown or black?

3. Not enough sponsorships.
Leaders who have been in the design industry for a while tend to mentor and sponsor people like them for opportunities. Sponsorships are different from mentorships that mentors advice and show you a path v/s sponsors pave the way and are there as invisible support. This lack of possibilities results in long-term disparity. This starts with pay disparity. The 2016 O’reilly salary survey for designers shows a significant gap in median pay between male and female respondents ; $99K and $85K, respectively. Additionally, there is level inequality specifically for women. This is caused very early in the career due to the level at entry. The gap continues to widen as the experience level grows.

Several people in the design industry, including me, firmly believe that diversity improves the quality of the end product. Ultimately design teams should be reflective of the customer we design for. We can all do our part in creating a design industry of tomorrow.

Here is what you can do today!

Let’s do all this not because it’s better for diversity and inclusion. Let us do it because we can make better products by including a variety of perspectives.

Thanks to Michelle Fulcher, Dan Makoski, Annette Boyer, Dave Lippman, Lindsay Kenzig, Maya Bisineer and a few other long time friends for reading early drafts and providing feedback.

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