Why are there so few women of colour in design?

By Anoushka Khandwala

Sticking out like a sore thumb in the design industry is a feeling I’m used to. Attending an Association of Illustrators event in November, I was one of just two people of colour in a room of 50. A field that is 87% white, and in London boasts only 12% of its Creative Directors as women, the odds are stacked against women of colour (WOC).

I’ve been taught that design is the tailoring of an outcome to an audience and a purpose. The ability to communicate with this audience stems from the designer’s ability to understand them. If we don’t understand our audience, it is highly unlikely that our outcomes will be effective. It is therefore logical that the diversity of society’s needs should be reflected within the teams that cater to its design needs.

Take the design of our public transport. UX designer Ellie Dori described riding home on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco, and noticed that the only four hands which managed to hold onto the overhead bar were male, whilst the female hands had to make do with clinging on with two fingers, due to the average female being shorter. This is a problem familiar to many female travellers in London too. If women had been represented within the design team, perhaps the handrail would have been accessible to more than just half the customers.

Diversity within teams is proven to result in more effective solutions. It might sound counter-intuitive, but diversity enables more effective solutions precisely because it is harder to work with people who do not agree with you.

In terms of the design industry, it is exactly our ‘perception’ of others that leads to the forming of homogenous groups. We subconsciously assume people’s experiences according to their race, or gender. We are naturally drawn to what we know, because having things in common leads to easier conversation. Finding someone to relate to is the basis on which humans thrive.

Homogenous groups are easier to work with, which arguably aids efficiency in terms of a frictionless understanding of each other, however is less effective in terms of finding a solution, due to the lack of critique. Having had similar experiences, the team is more likely to agree with each other.

A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin required teams in a sorority or fraternity to solve a mystery, given 20 minutes to study the clues. They were then switched around and joined by a fourth team member, from outside their familiar group. When asked to rate aspects of the discussion, the more diverse groups judged their interactions to be less effective.

However, the study found that “adding an outsider versus an insider actually doubled their chance of arriving at the correct solution, from 29% to 60%” (Rock, Grant, Grey, 2016). Despite our immediate instinct to cling to what is familiar, diverse thought breeds more effective solutions to a problem.

So why is there such a lack of WOC in the design industry? There are some incredible women of colour leading the design industry forward, such as Resh Sidhu, the ‘Queen of VR’, Rathna Ramanathan, Head of the Visual Communication course at the RCA and Jessica Antwi-Boasiako, Leader of the New Blood Programme at D&AD. But the reason I have this list of role models memorised is because it is so short.

The gender gap is something the industry is just beginning to address, with initiatives such as Women Who Draw (a directory for women illustrators), and Ladies Wine and Design (a monthly meeting for female designers), as well as exhibitions that focus on the achievements of women that have been misrepresented or forgotten (such as Poster Girls at the London Transport Museum). However, these examples often neglect the work of women from different cultures, firstly, because there are not many WOC in the industry to begin with, secondly due to the mislabelling of work from other countries as ‘craft’ or ‘art’, because it does not fit into a Western definition of design.

That definition is derived from a Western society that has historically benefitted white men while oppressing both women and people of colour. To break down the effect of such power structures in the design industry will need more than positive discrimination initiatives. It is not enough to simply admit a more diverse range of students to undergraduate degree level.

Statistics show that Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority students are 21% less likely to achieve a first or a 2:1 grade than white students at UAL (University of the Arts London). Creating an environment that nurtures these students to ensure that they create the best work they can is more difficult than simply introducing diversity initiatives. Buzzwords and quotas do not tackle the very real manifestations of structural inequality that minorities have to face every day.

We need to ensure that higher education is a positive space for all students to experiment, fail, and iterate on their work. The beauty of the art school is that it provides an environment that mimics the real world, in order for students to question existing social structures, without having to worry about the ever-looming ‘client’. However, if a student of colour is lucky enough to gain a place on a university course, the odds are often stacked against them once they arrive.

They encounter a reading list that mostly lauds the achievements of white men, as well as a host of tutors amongst whom they do not see themselves represented. Their peers are usually from a high socio-economic group and therefore have access to resources which those from a less privileged background may not. A safe space? I don’t think so. When students of colour are repeatedly forced to fight the everyday micro-aggressions that occur in these institutions, we become fatigued, preventing us from making the best work we can. This same fatigue does not occur in students who can excuse themselves from questions of race, because the system is built for them. This automatically sets students of colour back from their peers, resulting in statistics such as the attainment gap.

In order to tackle this, schemes like unconscious bias training have appeared. I recall a tutor recounting her story of how she was totally unaware of her bias against disabled people until she took a university questionnaire aimed at educating staff towards the everyday micro-aggressions and challenges that minority students may face. She talked about how this made her notice the terrible accessibility in the university, and allowed her to tailor her lessons to accommodate for those who may have disability needs. Training schemes like these may seem like small initiatives, but they can make every day life better for students simply by acknowledging their struggles, providing the building blocks in order to solve the wider problem.

Getting kids to think about design as a career is another matter. My peers had to ‘discover’ graphic design, it’s not encouraged as degrees in law or medicine are. The visibility of the design industry is a real problem not just in terms of outreach programmes, but in breaking down ideas about what a creative career can be and what a stable profession is. We need to destroy stereotypes that put parents off ‘allowing’ their children to follow careers in design and instead educate families to encourage it.

The only way diversity can stop being an afterthought and be integrated into our perception of design is if those at the top of the industry, who benefit from these power structures, start to represent this issue. The way we are trying to encourage change at the moment is too slow, and relies on each WOC who, despite the odds, achieves success, doing her bit in helping the next generation follow suit.

As our culture begins to question the social norms that lead to racism and sexism, the design industry is falling far behind. Design should reflect culture, and if we do not integrate diversity into our notion of what design is, not only will we fail to adequately cater to society’s needs, we may actually be guilty of perpetuating society’s ills.

Anoushka Khandwala (who also created the images for this post) is a Graphic Design student at Central Saint Martins in London. See more of her work here.

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