July 21-22, 2021 / Online

An interview with Saata Bangura

Written by Steve Fisher

June 29, 2020

Today’s chat is with Saata Bangura who speaks to us about design; it needs to be factual, substantive, mindful of biases and help the broader design community think less narrowly, inviting in people who don’t represent “the norm”.


Steve: Welcome to another episode of the "Design and Content Conference" podcast, and I'm excited to welcome Saata Bangura, who is award-winning artist, designer, and art director, who operates from the intersection of creativity, mindfulness, and curiosity, to build transformative visual works. Saata's design efforts have shaped numerous organizations in tech, marketing, entertainment and nonprofit sectors. Working with brands such as Disney, Star Wars, and Major League Baseball. As a proud first-generation American, who has passionately written about diversity and inclusivity, Saata joins us today to speak about how we can design for a better world. Welcome, Saata.

Saata: Thanks so much, Steve. I'm excited to be here and chat with you.

Steve: Why don't we dive right into it. So how does design exclude either purposefully or inadvertently when we're doing this work?

Saata: When I think about that question, I think about bias. I think as individuals we all have our own personal biases, whether they're conscious or unconscious. And as designers we bring, hopefully we bring our full selves into the work that we do. And I think when it comes to representation, sometimes if you're not aware of your blind spots or your biases, you may create work that just represents who you are or what your little silo or community looks like. And if that's not representative of the whole world across all diversity skews, not just race or gender, but also sexuality, gender identity, so many different skews, ability, body size, that can be a problem, and I think it's important to make sure that you are aware of those blind spots and check your biases so that you are creating more inclusive work. And just to kind of take a couple of steps back from that, as a black woman who is a designer, the majority of my career has been me being one of few black people on the design teams, and 100% of the time I am the only black woman. So I think as an industry, as a design community, we have to think about and evaluate how it is that we bring people who don't look like the norm or what is considered the norm, and make sure that those people are being invited into the building as well.

Steve: I can definitely identify with the opposite end of your spectrum here, in that I feel like a lot of the teams I am part of, well, just to be blunt, look a lot like me, and have and share my experience. So I'm curious then, as we think about that, how can design cause further harm in difficult times? So if we're thinking about what's happening all around us, how the world feels like it's on fire?

Saata: That's an accurate description, Steve. We are living in a world of misinformation, if you look at our current political climate, obviously with the world being turned upside down with the global pandemic for Coronavirus, and now the social revolution that is much needed that we're all experiencing on different levels. This is the most hyperconnected we've ever been as humanity, and as a society. So it's like the amount of information that is just passing through all of our screens, through all of our conversation is exponential. And with that comes a lot of misinformation. And I think, at least from what I've seen, a lot of information is designed, whether it's in the form of a meme, or an article header, things like that. And I think that if there is design that's not vetted or checked, it can be harmful, depending on how the information is received, or who that audience is on the receiving end. Making sure that any type of communication with the design is factual and effective is important because it could backfire. I mean, I came across this meme that actually my mom sent me. It was a meme about how you could cure Coronavirus by drinking boiled garlic water. This was back in March. So somebody designed that, there is a lot of harm that can be caused by it. And another interesting example that always comes to mind when it comes to bad design that can cause harm, I think about Steve Harvey saying the wrong winner's name of the Miss Universe competition a few years ago, based off of how the information was laid out on the cue card he was reading. I believe hierarchy matters. Very important. So I think, yeah, there're ways that design can be not positive.

Steve: Yeah, well, I think design is quite powerful, which is part of why I love the work.

Saata: Yeah.

Steve: But also I have appreciated some of the gravity of the work especially as I gain more experience. I think some good examples too are when we were first hit with COVID-19 as a world, and trying to grapple with where it was, and what was happening. We'd see these giant like red dots representing infection rate? And it just felt so overwhelming. And the more you dug into it, the more you realize it wasn't really accurate to the information that was current, it was a past representation. And it was someone's bias coming through, or lack of experience, I suppose.

Saata: Yeah.

Steve: So if we think about as designers, what do we owe people then? If design is powerful and has this level of influence, what do we owe everyone who interacts with what we build?

Saata: I can just speak from my experience, I think it's important to design from a space of truth, and honesty, and authenticity. And sometimes those things are not always readily available to you, you have to go out and build that, and seek that and do whatever you can to operate from that space. I think the responsible thing to do is have the mindfulness to take a look around you, like you were mentioning with your team. It's like, hey, does everyone look like me? Take a look at the breadth of work that you're creating and analyze like, wow, does this reflect only me or does it reflect other parts of the world or other communities that I don't identify with? And that could be anything from words that are included, to icons that are included, to photography that's included. One of my longtime clients as a freelancer is actually my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University here in Los Angeles, and I've been working on a recurring project for them every year. The library comes out with a multipage year in review booklet. It's just kind of like what's been going on over the last 12 months. Write ups, and infographics, and photos, and things like that. I remember one year, the initial batch of photos they had me select from was just all white students. And I was like, I know, this is a predominantly white university, there's no mistaking that I went there for four years, but I know there're some black people, there're some Asian people, there're some Latino people, et cetera. And so, I pushed I'm like, "Hey, can we get more representative photos?" And they were like, "Oh, yeah, no problem." And that was just one example that taught me that we as designers, we have power to push back and kind of steer the wheel a little bit when it comes to working with clients or employers that may not, like operating from that space of truth and authenticity, may not be their default way of working. But I think it's our responsibility to have our eyes and ears open to make sure that those things are happening.

Steve: I completely agree with that. I know that this event was transformed after its first year, partially by a blog post, and a phrase spoken by Shonda Rhimes, around how she was--

Saata: Wow, I love her.

Steve: Trying to create, yeah, how she was trying to create the world that she saw around her on television. And so her writers' room needed to be truly a diverse room of voices, so that the characters on the shows didn't come out as cliche and shallow. And as well intentioned as a person as I might be, I have a narrow experience, and so we created a production team, which includes the producer for our podcast here, and other things that come at things from different experiences, perspectives, backgrounds. 'Cause I just have this one sliver of experience.

Saata: Right.

Steve: And it is only one picture of that.

Saata: It's really important too 'cause you see the difference in the end result, it's so much more impactful, so much more rich. Even if you're on the receiving end, or if you're part of the audience, and you're like, "Oh yeah, this has nothing to do with me, "but I thoroughly enjoy this, "or I can imagine myself in those shoes." I think, it's a win-win for everybody.

Steve: Looking back, I'm happy to see progression every year. But it is definitely this moment of richer experience to be doing this with our production team. And I think too, as I surround myself, and all this different people as we create, I think that is a real responsible thing to do, to have those voices around us, especially when we know that we don't have some of the experiences ourselves.

Saata: Yeah, it keeps you honest and accountable. And I think that's important. And so, you're not just in an echo chamber.

Steve: Yeah, it's so easy to do that. It's so easy.

Saata: So easy.

Steve: Sometimes it's like the turtling mechanism like, oh, I just need a moment but--

Saata: Yeah.

Steve: So when we're thinking about creating, and what does create responsibly mean? I guess both generally, and as a designer, who is often authored, how is this reflected in your work and your approach to it?

Saata: Yeah, I know I touched on this a little bit, but yeah, I think it's worth being responsible with your design is making sure that it doesn't just represent you, unless if it's like a personal project or a passion project for yourself that's fine for your portfolio. But if it's outside of that, I think making, sure that you are designing through an inclusive lens. One of my blind spots personally that I've had to work on over the years, 'cause I'm not a product designer or a UI designer, but we all have end users. But one of the things I didn't always think about in the beginning of my design career was members of the disabled community. When it came to people who couldn't hear, or couldn't see, or had some other type of physical disability, that's something I never really considered, but there're so many things that we can do to factor that in into our designs, no matter what it is that you're designing. So I guess my point is that we all have room for growth, and everyone has to start somewhere, but just having that mindfulness is really, really key. But yeah, if you design something, and in the end result and you take a look at it, and you're like, "Wow, this represents everything about me." I think you're not doing enough to push it further to design responsibly.

Steve: One of our past speakers in the event, Kat Holmes, when she was at Microsoft, she talked about, thinking about that subject matter, how we're all temporarily able, and that over time, like my prescription hasn't changed much. I know that sometime in the future, I'm gonna need progressives or something like--

Saata: Yeah, same here.

Steve: When those moments bring a different kind of empathy that you couldn't have without either gaining that experience or having someone that understands or has had that experience.

Saata: Right.

Steve: And it is transformative to our design and content work, the experiences we create, I think.

Saata: I agree.

Steve: So when you talk about substantive design, how do we as designers move towards less confetti, and move towards substance?

Saata: That's such a great question. And it's honestly one of my design pillars, I guess. Going back to where it all started at Loyola Marymount University, I grew up being a fine artist, I was a painter, I liked to draw. It wasn't until my senior in high school, we had to do a career project. And I learned about commercial design or commercial art, and that's what they called it back then in the 2000s. And I had no idea I was like, "Oh yeah, this sounds nice. "I don't have to be a starving artist." And so I studied design at LMU. And part of the reason why I chose LMU was because of their mission statement of, "Education of the whole person." That just always resonated with me. And what that means is, education of everything that makes you, you as an individual. It's not just academic, it's not just sports, or spirituality or anything else, it's the whole encompassing experience. And so when it came to my design education, they really took that to heart, everything, all the classes I took, it was about designing through the lens of why, and really pushing us to attach all of our design decisions to substance, whether it's something we found in our research or a story, or something that is meaningful to the target audience, making sure that everything we designed was intentional. And not that there wasn't room for play or exploration in design 'cause that's important too, but when it came to the end result, it had to make sense. So that's something I've carried with me throughout my entire design career, because otherwise, it is just design confetti. If I had a dollar for every time I had someone ask me to make something "look pretty," I would have no student loans, like seriously. And the way I see it, my job as a designer is not to make things look pretty, anyone could do that, that's what Canva's for, even like PowerPoint or whatever, there's templates for that. It's about getting to the why, and figuring what that is.

Steve: Yeah, I've always seen, well, I haven't always, I'd like to believe I've always seen design as problem solving of helping people move forward, really understanding how to make something work for someone. Substantive design, getting to that point really is more meaningful to everyone, and for everyone.

Saata: Yeah, absolutely. Aesthetics are important but it's, like you said it's a what is, what are we doing here? What are we trying to achieve? What problem are we trying to solve? That's where the design thinking should start. I'm always super adamant about educating those askers about that. It's like, well, okay, but what like, and asking those probing questions, and then it gets to more meaningful conversations. So like, "Oh yeah, "okay, I get it now, I'm on board."

Steve: I appreciate you giving us some of your time today. And thank you so much for chatting through your work today.

Saata: Thanks so much, Steve. It's been a pleasure.

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