White Space: Black Designers Needed Part 1

It is no secret the design industry desperately needs more black people. In part one of our three-part blog series, Speck Design explores the disproportionately small number of African Americans in the various design verticals and the implications for human-centered design firms that fall short in representation.
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February 18, 2022

If you are black and a designer, you've probably heard many of the startling statics we are about to use on black representation in the industry. If you are one or the other, you have likely heard some of them. And finally, if you are neither, you probably haven't heard any. And, so the story of diversity in design goes. A problem that ostensibly affects us all relegated to be solved by--and we do not use this word ironically--the minority. This article is certainly not the first to broach many of these ideas, problems, and solutions, nor will it be the last. But, sufficed to say, the topic of diversity in design disciplines of any nature (graphic, industrial, product, web, and most others) needs to be discussed, ad nauseam. Why? Because believe it or not, it is working...in ways. And in other ways, it is not. Both are compelling reasons to keep the conversation going.

Change for Some is Not Change Enough

When we say the conversation around diversity in design has succeeded, it looks like this:

In 1991, the AIGA published an article titled Why is Graphic Design 93% White?  

Twenty-six years later, in 2017, a new AIGA report showed the Design industry is 73% White.

On the surface, the change in the AIGA survey data would appear to tell us ample progress has been made bridging the divide in the creative economy. But, 20% less white does not mean 20% more black. In fact, the current state of affairs is the number of black men and women in design is still so abysmal that there is no statistical difference to calculate. Just look at the numbers: graphic design 3.5%, product design 1.6%, industrial design 1.6%, interior design 2.3%, web design 3.5%. Even if the percentage of black creatives in any of these professions was 0% in 1991 (which it wasn’t), the proverbial needle--from then to now--has been woefully still.

percentage of black in design professions
Percentage of black vs. white designers 2022

The Paradox of the "Segregated" Human-Centered Design Firms

seg·re·gate: to set apart from the rest or from each other; isolate or divide.

Using the word segregated to describe any design firm, much less ones with purportedly "human-centered" values, is admittedly harsh. But any organization lacking a certain amount of representation, if not segregated within its walls, is certainly segregated from the reality outside of them. The word "token" comes to mind here. Frustratingly, the numbers on diversity in the design field reflect an uptake in hiring "people of color" in a broader sense but too broad to be helpful to African Americans. Are there more minorities in design since 1991? Yes, to the tune of about 20%. Are there more black people in design since 1991? Barely. To the critical eye, it looks as though design firms have become more willing to hire brown people--just not too brown. This is the paradox of the so-called human-centered design firms (and there are plenty) whose minority makeup (if any) does not mirror the actual makeup of our country. Nobody is saying the ratio needs to be one-to-one. But, twenty-five-to-one is so disproportional that it borders on absurd. Our verdict: you simply cannot claim to be human-centered and ignore nearly 14% of our population within your own ranks.

The Problem with Designing for Any Audience of One

“So if the vast majority of those designers are white, the systems they create are only "user-centered" for people like them; they are created from a perspective of white privilege."  
-UX designer Mitzi Okou

The truth of not meeting the needs of a mixed-race society when your human-centered company is not mixed is incredibly relevant, but it belies something much more sinister. Designing for an audience of one, white people, who already possess a disproportionate majority of wealth in the US, perpetuates the existing cycle of ignoring black people's needs, voices, and aesthetics while feeding wealth back to white people.  

This point could be taken two ways. First, design companies consciously or subconsciously fear the transfer of wealth that will almost assuredly accompany fully realized black designers. Or more likely the case--white people in design want to do better but are simply unsure of what to do, ignorant, or perhaps a little bit lazy: likely all three. The scarcity argument is not an excuse, but it has merit--black designers are scarce. But they are there, and they are brilliant, and we promise you--they're ready to break the cycle. 

We'll talk about that cycle in part two of this four-blog series. Join us for the next installment of the series to understand the systemic roots of black exclusion from the design field, which starts nearly from birth and extends deep into higher education.


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