First published a year ago now, but still all too relevant, Terry Lee Stone has written a terrific article for Step Inside Design entitled White Space: Examining racial diversity in the design industry. The article details the disproportionate percentage of white designers in the U.S., relative to the racial breakdown of the entire U.S. labor force. It also takes a statistical look forward at racial diversity of the the future’s design industry.
We’ve got a problem and we need to talk about it. Graphic design—predominantly a white profession—is already a small, rather esoteric industry, one that San Francisco illustrator Dugald Stermer once called, “The pinky ring on the hand of corporate America.” If we don’t actively seek to reflect the changing racial and ethnic composition of our society, graphic design may well find itself marginalized in a whole new way. Diversity, especially race, is an issue that all designers need to be concerned with in terms of the future of our profession.
Stone suggests that the current lack of minority students in design programs results from a lack of awareness.
Parents and children in underrepresented groups don’t know that graphic design exists, let alone that it is a viable profession for a person with artistic talent. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that certain racial and ethnic groups actually discourage children from going into visual arts, pushing them instead toward science and engineering.
More than just another index finger pointing at a somewhat obvious condition, the author probes a bit into it’s consequences by asking a group of professional designers (of different races and ethnicities) questions like “Do you make adjustments in your behavior because of your race? Do you think you try to slip into ‘white cultural norms’ in your design work? Does race affect your design?” Some interesting responses arose.
The new racism
Stone also reminds readers of the dangers of disregard for race, and how, particularly when exhibited in an effort to be overly politically correct, it “can actually reinforce the gap between whites and nonwhites, trapping us in old prejudices”. This practice, itself a subtle form of racism, has been dubbed color-evasion or aversive racism. The idea of “color-blindness”, as present in the design industry as any other, “often allows people to ignore each other’s racial identity”, Stone writes.
Moving toward solutions
In this regard, kudos to the AIGA’s new diversity initiative. This recently launched program endeavors to establish leadership policies, lend active support for understanding and awareness, and plans to develop education programs for high school students, design students, and professionals.
The racial imbalance seen in the design community is far from unique to this industry. In fact, in many ways I observed the same thing during my nearly 15 years working in the environmental protection field. While both cases are certainly in need of addressing, the design industry perhaps bears a special responsibility to tackle this issue given our work’s ability to shape the visual communications within our society, and the affect of those communications on attitudes.
Solutions begin with honest discussions.