July 21-22, 2021 / Online

Designing for a Better World

Written by Designing for a Better World

March 1, 2021


Hi everyone, my name is Saata, pronounced sat-tuh, like you sat down, and I go by the pronouns of she and her.

I'd like to think I have a pretty interesting point of view. My personal background of being a first generation American whose parents are from Sierra Leone, West Africa, has really helped to have me craft a unique lens through which I see the world. I grew up in the suburbs of San Jose and was always one of three black girls in each grade growing up. But at home I had a traditional West African upbringing and was always around and engaged in a robust Sierra Leonean community in the Bay Area of California. Always around aunties and uncles and cousins who all were either immigrants from Sierra Leone, like my parents, or first generation Americans like myself. And growing up, I was always straddling both worlds of being African and American, while also defining my own understanding of what it meant to be black in America. Because, you see, my heritage is West African, my nationality is American and my race is black.

I share this with you because holding these multiple identities simultaneously speaks to the intersectionality that we all occupy. Everyone is different, of course, but we all bring our own backgrounds, identities, worldviews and everything that makes us us into our work, whether we are aware of it or not. And as I progress into my design career, my design thinking has developed into really striving to always create design of substance and intention. Design without the why is just design confetti, just something that looks pretty and doesn't really mean anything.

I believe that design is the first handshake. It's the first indication of how a business is run and what values they stand for. It's almost like a window into a world of the unknown. And when we look through history, art design and content has always reflected the world around us. But from whose perspective? Usually it's the majority dominant group. And historically, this group has been white people and white men, specifically. White, male, cis, straight, skinny, able-bodied, this has been the norm. And this is what mainstream history has retained and has told us. People who don't fit this template of normal or or power or historically othered and excluded from the narrative. This includes black, indigenous, Asian, and Hispanic people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, women, people of different abilities, et cetera, et cetera. Also, throughout history, the role of the designer has been to reflect the world around us, to observe, translate, motivate, provoke, and so many other things. Designing content has always shaped the world for either bad or for good.

So now I'm going to go through a few examples of how design has shaped the world for bad. Here you see a couple of ads advertising rewards for slave catchers during the time of slavery in the United States. In these posters, posters like this encouraged bounty hunting slaves who escaped Southern plantations and who fled for their freedom. So, as you can see, someone laid this out. Throughout history, there's been negative images of black people that have become ingrained in American culture. One of those images is blackface. You can see the evolution of this racist trope that has characterized black people as lazy and dumb for generations. First, it was popularized in minstrel shows, where white actors would put on black makeup and play black people in theater performances in a derogatory way. Another negative image of black people in America has been the Aunt Jemima caricature, which the syrup brand Aunt Jemima took its origins from, and basically the caricature of Aunt Jemima is that of an enslaved mammy archetype from the 1800s, which basically perpetuates the lie about black people being happy, jolly slaves. And bringing it back to modern times, last year, the Gucci brand released this fashion merchandise that whether intentional or not echoed themes of blackface. Earlier this year, an art director who worked for lululemon thought it'd be a good idea to design a T shirt that stroked false narratives around the coronavirus being started by Asian people eating bats, furthering racism towards the Asian community, which has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic that we're currently in. And here's an example of a billboard, a homophobic one that promotes conversion therapy, which is pretty despicable. And these are just a few examples of how design has been used to spread negative and misinformation and uphold harmful ideas and beliefs which can lead to harmful actions.

So on the flip side, design has also been used as a tool for good. And I'd like to think that's been the primary use of design. Some of the examples are in our day to day lives that we don't really think about a lot of the time, mostly informational design. Here you have a sign that notifies people driving by that it's a deaf child area, which potentially could save lives. Also navigational design, super, super important. This is a image of the London tube line, which is their famous subway system. And then also directional signage, which is so much a part of how we move within this world. All of this brings awareness to help get us where we need to go. Another way that design has been used for good is, and we see it every day in the current world that we're living in, is protest signs. I think protest signs are some of the best forms of content you'll see out there today. And these are just a few examples. These signs saying bold and profound and sometimes witty notions and sentiments in a really succinct way really forces people to think and challenge what they think they know. And I like to say that some of the best copywriters and art directors in the world are protesters.

Here we have the iconic poster series designed by artist Shepard Fairey for the US President Barack Obama for his 2008 presidential campaign. These posters really energized the voting population and embodied a moment in time that symbolized all of these things, hope, change, progress, and so much more. As another example, in 2017, the Uber ride sharing app launched a campaign for National Deaf Awareness Month where they created an in-app experience to help riders better communicate with the drivers who were hearing impaired. And now within this app, writers can learn how to say simple phrases like hello, thank you, and also spell out their name. Within the app, users are given a GIF with these words and also can spell out their names with the animation. This small type of initiative creates such a better sense of belonging, connection, and validation between all parties involved.

In 2019, the other ride sharing app, Lyft, added an in-app feature that allowed for riders to add their their preferred pronouns to their user profile so drivers could refer to them the way that they wanted to be referred as. Another popular app, Pinterest, back in 2018 partnered with Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to better understand how they can make the app more useful for people with different levels of vision. And here you can see a couple of before and after shots. At the end of Pinterest's audit and redesign, they improved the overall screen reading support throughout the app to make sure that signing up, browsing, and saving pins was a much easier experience for vision impaired users. They also improved color contrast sensitivity to make sure that color palettes were more readable. Additionally, they created accessibility best practices for engineers and designers on the Pinterest team, in addition to a new UI library with accessible components. And I just think that that's so great that they created good design and integrated inclusivity, both on the front end and on the back end.

So, as you've seen, these are all great examples of how design can be used in a positive and meaningful way, promoting forward action and thinking. I think we can all agree that some days it feels like the world is upside down. We're in the middle of a global pandemic with a deadly virus that's very much alive and real, the world is shut down, all the while we have a social revolution that's been sparked by generations of injustice. And sometimes it can be a little bit confusing and sometimes it feels like the perfect storm. And perhaps that could be true, but the other side of it is that maybe this could be an opportunity as humanity to truly transform to a new and better way of doing, a new and better way of living, and a new and better way of being.

We're living in a time where the smoke and mirrors around us and all the broken systems and toxic institutions that have existed forever are starting to dissipate. So we're finally seeing things as they truly are. White supremacy, pay equity, health care, and medical disparities, voter suppression, you name it, all of these things are all in front of our faces with nowhere to hide. We're all stuck at home, and this is the most hyper connected we've ever been to each other to ourselves. And the truth is, it really sucks sometimes. But the truth is also that all of these systems are broken, and normal is dead and gone. The truth is that normal was not working, especially not for everyone. So we can't go back to normal, and we're seeing that now. We are all now being given an opportunity to do better. And there have been lots of conversations about how we do that.

And with that, there are so many trendy terms that are being thrown around like diversity, inclusion, and so many others that I'm sure you've heard before. But what do all these things even mean and how do they work together? So I thought it'd be helpful for us to review some of these definitions just to make sure that we're all on the same page.

So starting off with diversity, diversity is the existence of variations of different characteristics in a group of people. And these characteristics can include race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, tribe, caste, and socioeconomic status. Inclusion is the culture of belonging by actively inviting the contribution and participation of all people. Equity is the fair treatment, equality of opportunity, and fairness in access to information and resources for all. Justice is the fairness in the way that people are treated. So think of it this way, diversity is inviting someone to the party. Inclusion is asking them to dance. Equity is asking if they're having a good time. And justice is making sure that everyone at the party has equal access that the party has to offer. Make sense? Great.

So what does all of this mean for us designers and content creators? So I'm gonna go into some pretty tactical ways that you can design for a better world in your own world. So, starting off, we need to work on ourselves. And I think one of the biggest things we can do is to check our privilege. And I know that sometimes privilege can be a trigger word and get misinterpreted into meaning a lot of different things that aren't true, and so the definition of privilege is simply not an absence of struggle or hardship. It simply means that you are afforded certain benefits and advantages for attributes about you that you had nothing to deal with, such as your race, your generational wealth of your family you were born into, what kind of education you had access to, and the list goes on. Privilege can sometimes be seen as a dirty word that gets misinterpreted into meaning that you're a bad person if you are called privileged. And that's absolutely not true. Privilege is not something that you work hard at, it's an advantage that's given to you based on systems that are in place during your time of existence. And it's not necessarily a bad thing to have privilege. Everyone has a certain level of privilege, on varying degrees, and I'll use myself as an example. I don't have privilege based on my race or my gender, but I am college educated and have means and access to healthy food, both of which are types of privilege. So I say this to illustrate that nothing is absolute, and privilege is not a competition. But some people do have more privilege than most. And, again, while it's not a bad thing to have privilege, not using your privilege for good or even denying the fact that your privilege exists is bad. This type of thinking is harmful to others who don't share those privileges. And that denial and apathy creates bottlenecks for change.

So being aware of your privilege is the first step, and using your privilege for good and even sacrificing some of that privilege for the benefit of others who don't have those same advantages as you is the next step. This process starts with yourself. The next step is to unlearn old habits. Unlearning old habits that lean towards what is considered, quote unquote, normal. That's really key and really challenging what normal is to you and why you believe that. This isn't a one time thing, this is an ongoing process. So really going beyond what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself. Examining your worldviews and really becoming introspective will help you to unlearn old habits that you've been conditioned to. The next step is making a shift. And this is a shift in your expectations and parameters, really questioning and challenging what you know and what you think you know, looking past yourself and practicing and exercising empathy, especially if you are a part of the dominant group or associated with that dominant group in society. Empathy for others is imagining yourself in someone else's shoes. So really developing that empathy muscle is going to help to make a really big change. And if you're a designer who they themselves have been othered, some of this stuff may come a little bit easier for you, because you're already forced to move within this world in a particular way, since a lot of these systems were not set up for your success. But it's even more important for you to give yourself the permission to not subscribe to the norm with your work either. So just another reminder to keep pushing if you have been othered. So being aware of your cultural blind spots and unconscious biases is a really, really big, big step.

To go over a couple more definitions, unconscious biases are basically social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside of their conscious awareness. And a fun fact about unconscious biases, unconscious bias is way more common than conscious prejudice. And it's often not even aligned with the person's conscious values. So they're very much unaware of what their unconscious thinking is. And the problem with that is that sometimes unconscious bias manifests as microaggressions. And if you're not familiar with microaggressions or if you've never experienced them, a microaggression is a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group, such as a racial or ethnic minority. So it's really, really important to understand cultural sensitivities to make sure that you're not creating anything offensive when you are designing or creating any type of content, because these things have a way of slipping through and reflecting in the work that you create. You really don't want to let your design become the next thing that a company has to put out an apology for, which we tend to see more often than I think we'd all like.

For example, back in 2018 Heineken Beer put out an ad where the tagline said, where lighter is better. This had a huge, huge backlash because the whole concept of lighter is better has racial undertones that echo sentiments of colorism, which is a sect of racism that upholds the prejudiced idea that lighter skin of any shade is better. Also, in 2018, retailer H&M had a listing on their website that featured a young black boy in a hoodie that read on the front, coolest monkey in the jungle. And this also had an immediate backlash because historically black people have been called monkeys and other animals, essentially stripping them away from their humanity. And we're in the 21st century and this type of stuff is still happening. Somebody designed this, somebody approved this, and at no point was this flagged. So just make sure you do your personal work and so you can avoid situations like this.

Piggybacking off of that, just doing your research and educating yourself, that's one of the biggest things that any designer should be doing regardless when it comes to diversity and inclusion, just really let history be your guide. Don't repeat it if it's bad. Let your research and education inform and inspire you, inspire a better way of approaching tough topics. And if you're a student or a teacher, it's really important to embody the idea of developing and educating the whole person as you develop the designer, because both parts are interdependent. The truth is, we're not machines as designers, we're people first who bring our backgrounds, lives, perspectives, and belief systems into our work. So if the person side of things is not clear, that's also going to show in the work. There's another big one, doing your auditing of yourself and of your work.

So starting off with auditing yourself, it's really important to take note of where you stand on anything, on everything, and just do a personal audit. Ask yourself, what are your design beliefs? What do you consider good or bad, from a content perspective, from an aesthetic perspective? Can you recognize when you're contributing to upholding broken systems, both on a personal level and a professional level? And can you even recognize when exclusion is happening? It's really, really important that you have clear answers for these questions, and if you don't, doing the work to get to a place where you have clarity.

Now, for auditing your work. It's really key to actively review your work from the beginning stages to the very end, to make sure that visuals and all components are inclusive and representative of the world, not just your world in particular. Ask yourself, are you pushing yourself out of your comfort zone with the content of your designs? Does the content represent broken systems and other isms? Can you even recognize if it is and when it does? And how how does the content or design help anyone? Or how does it cause harm? And who is it really for? These are all really important questions you have to ask yourself during the design process.

Also think about how you are integrating accessibility into your work. Thinking about what are the needs of the users and the audiences who have different abilities. Whether it's captions, a different way of presenting information, or something else, those are things you want to be thinking about every stage of design process, because catering to the needs of the users will always make your end product way more impactful and meaningful. And if you're designing anything related to accessibility, also making sure to test it out with the intended audience to prove that it's actually accessible. And lastly, on the accessibility front, if there's any animations, just making sure to see if it warrants putting a trigger warning, because you just never know how it's going to be received or the result it may cause.

Next up, when we talk about data about diversity, we do want to be explicit, but then we also don't want to just check off boxes. So we really have to do our work to understand how different skews of diversity are completely interdependent and affect engagement. And if we're being honest, not just in the design world, but really in just the world we live in, whiteness is the default for everything. We see it in how band-aids are made and how flesh colored crayons have existed for generations. And I think until recently, they stopped calling peach colored crayons flesh. So thinking about how can we as designers, decenter whiteness and introduce forms of representation that represent the world as it truly is.

And here's the thing that we all need to understand about diversity specifically, diversity is not about adding otherness to whiteness or white spaces. It's about reframing our whole thinking behind it and recognizing the core value adds of the people who we are conditioned to view as other instead of just people. And let's not forget about words and language, that's a huge part of what we work with as designers, and copy and text is super important. Super important part of each design project, or most design projects, whether it's in a brief or it's part of the actual project. And I say that because copy and text in each design project require just as much analysis and scrutiny as the visuals themselves, because language is laced with so much historical brokenness and harm and that stuff is so far removed from where we are, it's really hard to recognize that.

For example, phrases and words like peanut gallery, cakewalk, lynch mob, and gyp are just a few examples of everyday words and phrases that have prejudiced origins. And as designers, read your copy, I can't stress that enough, don't just design it. If you're not reading any content related to your design project now, please start doing so, it's really gonna make your work so much better when you fully understand the meaning and the context. And being mindful of language is super important in the design process because it's often what dictates the creative direction of a project, especially in the beginning. And it's at those beginning stages where a lot of these transgressions and cultural blunders that we saw earlier before with Heineken and H&M that that can be caught early on so you can avoid situations like that.

And this is another big one, active and engaged leadership, when it comes to designing a better world, we really need active and engaged leaders who give a damn. The actions required for a better world should not just fall on designers. It should be on the onus of all creatives on every level, including design leadership, because those are the people that are in positions of power and who have decision-making power in organizations. So all the chiefs, VPs, SVPs, directors, managers, I'm talking to you. These actions need to be integrated into all of the design critiques that you give, how your hiring practices are implemented, the job descriptions you make, who you bring into the rooms where things happen, and how you define and determine what is a value. Actively building teams and inviting point of views that have been excluded in the past. These are really, really key things. And they're really specific things that you could do, hiring folks who are black, hiring folks who are Asian, Hispanic, members of the LGBTQ community, people who have a different ability, people have different body sizes. Getting these people in the room because they have their own value adds, not because they check a box. And as people who are constantly othered in life, these are some of the best creative problem solvers you will find.

And lastly, pay designers what they're worth and bridge the gap between racist and sexist when it comes to pay equity. Just to dig into a couple of those last bullets, this is a snapshot of where we are with pay equity and the gender wage gap in America, according to the US Census. And as you can see, we have got a long way to go. And when it comes to race, according to the 2019 design census conducted by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, also known as AIGA, this is a breakdown of the racial makeup of the American design industry last year. And as you can see, it's overwhelmingly white with just over 70%, and Native American and black designers have the least amount of representation, representing just 1% and 3%, respectively, of the American design industry. So lots of room for growth there.

So with all of these steps towards change, we really have to be diligent in being vulnerable to make mistakes and to be wrong, and to hold ourselves accountable when we are. Because change doesn't happen without disruption. We need to create spaces that allow for physical and emotional safety, which is really the key to creative freedom. This allows for designers and content creators to not only show up as their full selves but also create work of substance. So I've compiled some of my favorite go-to resources that promote designing for inclusivity, and more honestly, in order to help you on your journey towards designing for a better world, if you're up for the challenge.

The first resource is called a designer's critical alphabet. So, these, this is a deck of cards that was created and designed by Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel who is a design educator. And she created these deck of cards to introduce designers and design students to critical theory and to help them reflect on their design process and their design thinking. Each card introduces a different theory that starts with a letter of the alphabet, and it also proposes a question or comment related to that theory to help make a connection between the theory and design practice. So I'd highly, highly recommend getting these, I own a copy of these cards. And I think if you don't really know where to start in your journey, I think this would be a really good start to help kind of move things along. It's a really tactical way to help you expand your design thinking and put into practice all of the aforementioned steps that we talked about. And so you can actually get these on Etsy.

Next up is an app called Sim Daltonism, and this is an app that is a color blindness simulator to help you see colors on your screen from the perspective of a person who's colorblind. And this is a really helpful tool to use as a litmus test to see if any important information that's being driven by color in your design is getting lost. So definitely recommend downloading this and using it in your creative process.

And so this is a compilation of diverse stock image sites, they all feature a variety of diverse subjects and content, everything from photos to illustrations and icons. And most of them are free too, so that's great. And even if you don't use any particularly, just browsing through and perusing through these sites and collections will help to open up your mind to the realm of possibilities with what it means to design for a better world and what that could look like.

So, why should we strive for a better world? Like why does this even matter? Well, first and foremost, it's good business. There's proof that diversity and inclusive environments, products, and work lead to more profitable outcomes. In fact, according to Forbes, companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better than average profits. So if you're a designer or content creator, I'd really recommend you pushing for this. And if there's any pushback in featuring more diversity or diverse issues or content, be bold and make management aware of the importance of representation, especially from a financial perspective, because money is the universal language, sad but true. And another reason why this matters is sameness is boring. Diversity leads to designing content that's just so much more stronger, richer, more interesting. And frankly, it's the right thing to do. Sharing and engaging with stories and backgrounds that are not the mainstream may serve as a point of education and inspiration for the audience, and it's more representative of the world that we live in.

And with that, representation matters, I can't say that enough, the idea that you can't be what you can't see. So ensuring that every part of what you create has some form of representation, whether it's behind the scenes or on the front end is how we start to fix the diversity disparities across the board. Because at the end of the day, our collective and individual success relies on the internal and external transformation. So let's not waste this moment that we're in. Design has always had the power to change the world. We've seen it time and time again, for better or worse. We as designers have the power to influence, direct, steer, and change emotions and change thoughts and actions of our audiences.

But we must do that for ourselves first. We're living through history, that's a fact, and now is the time to determine what your part is going to be in rebuilding a new world that works for all of us, not just the select few who have been favored by broken systems and isms that have existed for generations. It's up to us to determine what the future looks like.

So I'm gonna leave you with a few questions. How will you use design for a tool or design as a tool for change? What legacy will your work leave? Think about what kind of stamp you want to leave on the world. How can you tell your truth with your art and still have impact? And how do you want people to feel when they engage with your work and your designs? How will your design and content work create an inclusive framework for the future? These are all really big questions that you don't have to have the answers for at this moment, but I encourage you to truly think about them. And whatever you do, shake things up. Actively get uncomfortable, and be bold about it. Challenge yourself and others to wash themselves of old notions that no longer serve us, and start fresh. This is a time for us to liberate ourselves from colonized mindsets and to reimagine new systems that serve us all. We all have to co-create a better world together, and now's the time to get to work.

So, I just want to thank everyone for being here today. It's been great chatting with you all. If you'd like to keep in touch, here is my contact information. I'm always happy to chat and connect. And I look forward to hearing about your journey. Thanks so much.

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