Design. Diversity. Two powerful words. What happens when they collide?
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
2018 saw a number of events that brought design and diversity into a sharper focus and a closer relationship to each other. How we recognise good design was challenged. Industry body governance was put under the microscope. Hui and panels on diversity were organised. Emotionally charged online conversations took place. This is important, because if design has a diversity problem, it’s a problem for all of us. So much of what we encounter in the world is designed. Who is doing the designing and who it is being designed for, makes a difference to us all. If diverse needs and opinions are not being expressed within the sector, if what we value as good design is skewed to a minority voice, then we are not using design’s full potential to create a better future.
One indicator of the sector’s diversity problem is the gender gap between studying design and working in design. In Aotearoa almost 70 percent of design students in tertiary education courses are women. This is surprising because when we look at various gauges of what’s happening in the industry, like senior leadership positions, conference speaker line-ups, awards, industry body governance, we don’t get any sense of female dominance. Of course gender is only one marker for diversity, but how well a company or an industry does on gender equality, is a good predictor of how diversity is valued across the spectrum.
As we grapple with unprecedented social, health and environmental challenges, design’s role could not be more vital. If there was ever a time when diverse perspectives are needed to design our way to a better future, it’s now. We also know that design is significant to our future prosperity. The Value of Design report published by DesignCo in 2017 shows design contributes over $10 billion to the economy of Aotearoa. Understanding what makes up that figure, design agencies are only one component to the design economy. It is the increasing use of design and designers in all types of businesses and the way design has become the driver for innovation across multiple sectors that pushes the scale and impact of design.
Design also speaks strongly to our sense of self. Consciously and unconsciously we reflect our identity through design, it’s an empowering force in how we define our relationship to each other and see ourselves collectively as a nation. If we don’t recognise ourselves in all our diversity in the images, artefacts and environments we create, our connection and sense of belonging is weakened. But, when we experiences spaces like Ti Ara I Whiti, Auckland’s much loved lightpath designed to welcome everyone, use an app like Pepeha that normalises use of Te Reo, see a family like Dee and her transgender son Hunter as part of a corporate campaign, more of us feel included and connected. This is the power of design to change our minds, our cities and our sense of who we are.
Design is a powerful tool to challenge the status quo and see our world differently. The projects and initiatives we’re highlighting show how designers are looking within to make the industry more diverse and using design to create a more inclusive and compassionate society.
So, what’s already happening?
Well, turns out there’s a lot already happening in this space in Aotearoa. Here are some of the initiatives that have caught our eye and their perspectives of why they believe diversity in design is important.
Designers Speak (Up)
From the initial poster series, to the pop-up protest, the blog and Directory of Women Designers, Designer’s Speak (Up) has been instrumental on multiple fronts in igniting the conversation on design and gender. Catherine Griffiths’ 40/3 poster focused the attention of the design community on the failure of the Designers Institute of New Zealand to recognise the contribution of women over a period of two decades, by honouring 40 men and three women with their prestigious annual award, the Black Pin. Designers Speak (Up) is an open and democratic platform for all designers in Aotearoa, New Zealand to have a voice. We’re big supporters of Designers Speak (Up) and the important role it’s playing in changing the design landscape. If you’re interested in contributing, be sure to consider participating in their poster project ‘Present Tense : Wa?hine Toi Aotearoa’.
“The posters gathered the attention of the design community to the Designers Institute of New Zealand’s failure over two decades to address a significant gender imbalance. The objective of the posters is to encourage meaningful change, not only to gender imbalance throughout the Institute’s processes, but to have those processes embrace cultural and other diversities too.” – Catherine Griffiths, co-founder of Designers Speak (Up)
Louise Kellerman’s vision has always been to expand the conversation in the design community and we really admire that. She founded Design Assembly in 2008 to be a home for Aotearoa’s visual design community and soon discovered her organisation was providing a channel for design voices not finding an outlet elsewhere. Last year Design Assembly hosted design and diversity panel discussions in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. We participated in the Auckland panel along with Desna Whaanga-Schollum, Kaan Hiini, Raymond McKay and Anzac Tasker. A truly diverse groups sharing real-life experiences and strong opinions about design and Ma?ori identity, gender, LGBTQI, ethnicity and the many ways in which diversity intersects with being a designer. To continue the conversation, this year Design Assembly has launched the DA Women evenings.
“We need to get better at working together and supporting all the different views and approaches to living in this world. We will be stronger, healthier and richer living in this way. It’s time to look at the world through many lenses.” – Louise Kellerman, founder of Design Assembly
Designers Institute of New Zealand
We are pleased to see the Designers Institute of New Zealand (DINZ) stepping into the diversity space, holding Diversity and Inclusivity hui in the three main centres. To respond to the growing social media conversation around diversity, DINZ invited the design community to participate in workshops to help determine the best way to effect change in the sector. The hui generated a stack of ideas and DINZ has made a commitment to its members to implement initiatives fostering inclusivity, including hosting an annual event to discuss challenges facing the industry, showcasing a wider variety of the design community and prioritising diversity as a basis for selection of Best awards judges, Board members and other voluntary roles. We believe this greater transparency will make DINZ a more mature and relevant organisation.
“There is a deep level of commitment to diversity and inclusivity and we plan to maintain the momentum generated by the hui, with a number of projects to support positive change.” – Cathy Veninga, CEO of DINZ
Women in Urbanism
Women in Urbanism brings an incredibly important gendered lens to the design of cities. We’re 100% behind their mission to transform the towns and cities of Aotearoa into more beautiful and inclusive places for everyone. During Emma’s time as a designer for Transport and Urban Design Consultancy, MRCagney, she discovered a lot of the key issues with cities are gender based, and that by focusing and resolving women and children’s needs in urban environments, we can start to plan cities that include and are designed to benefit everyone. Women in Urbanism wants to see more wa?hine, women of colour, new New Zealanders, women with disabilities, LGBTQIA+, girls and older women become influencers and decision-makers. Two of their current campaigns are The Amazing Speaker List, leaving no excuse for an all male panel line up, and Elect Women, encouraging women to run in the 2019 local body elections.
“When you plan a city for waahine, girls and non-binary people, you plan for everyone” – Emma McInnes, co-founder of Women in Urbanism
We’re in awe of the perseverance and persistence of the Nga? Aho leadership and their collective impact. They were one of the first to be championing cultural authenticity and diversity in design and continue to do so today. With a strategic partnership with DINZ Best Awards and a whole range of Ma?ori designers across the design industry, Nga? Aho has truly been leading the way around this korero and mahi. Nga? Aho is a national network of Ma?ori design professionals who come together to support each other to better serve the design aspirations of our Ma?ori communities.
“For me, it’s all about diversity of thought. The more diversity you have the better the solutions, bringing different perspectives together around a table in a fruitful manner. And essentially, it’s best practice in the best creative teams globally. To be honest, I feel like we’re a bit behind the times with that, in design in Aotearoa. It’s not just about ‘ticking boxes’ anymore. We need to decentralise monoculturalism and the privileged position that the design profession has been at in a long time” – Desna Whaanga-Schollum, chair of Nga? Aho
Indigenous Design and Innovation Aotearoa
We’ve been following and admiring Johnson’s graphic design portfolio of work for a while now and were delighted to hear about Indigenous Design & Innovation Aotearoa (IDIA) launching a couple of years ago and the kaupapa behind it. Indigenous Design & Innovation Aotearoa’s kaupapa is to create indigenous solutions to commercial, social and environmental issues. Through their mahi, IDIA aim to support indigenous growth and excellence, and push back against the homogenising and colonising effects of globalisation and technology.
“Diversity in design leads to better outcomes for everyone. When we design from a single cultural perspective we can end up accidentally designing people right out of the system. This can lead to some unexpected outcomes. We created IDIA (Indigenous Design & Innovation Aotearoa) because we saw that there wasn’t anyone really asking the pa?tai we were interested in. These include; how do we push back against globalisation in Aotearoa, how do we better design for Ma?ori, and how do we design bi-cultural or multi-cultural systems.” – Dr. Johnson Witehira, founder of IDIA
The Pepeha Project
We think the Pepeha project is a beautiful, strong and meaningful piece of design that can be embraced by all in Aotearoa, NZ. A pepeha is about identifying who you are through your connections to the whenua and the acknowledgement to people who are important to you. Initiated and lead by Ma?ori, Pepeha is a not-for-profit initiative from Designworks. As a studio, they have been telling great New Zealand stories for many years and saw Pepeha as a simple way to use the power of design to give back to New Zealand.
“For me diversity sits at the heart of creativity. It unlocks the conscious mind streams of individuals to shape and develop relevant solutions. Whether that’s cultural, gender based or across the spectrum. It acknowledges the emotional considerations of the audience by having relevant representation at the table of ideation. It taps into the tacit and provokes the unknown. As a creative industry we sit between ideation and consumer, we communicate to the mass and influence public opinion. Diversity is not a burden but a responsibility we should own with pride.” – Anzac Tasker, design director, Designworks
Spark OUTLine partnership
We take our hats off to Spark, who has a long running commitment to inclusion and diversity, illustrated in their ongoing partnership with OUTLine, a charity that offers a free support line to members of the LGBTQIA+ community and their friends and family. In 2019 the two teamed up again to remind the nation that when we talk – love wins. The online film features Dee and Hunter, a rural New Zealand mother and her transgender son. It’s rare to see transgender representation in corporate advertising, and this is a powerful example of what happens when the client, the creatives and the crew involved have roots in the LGBTQI+ community.
“The ultimate reward for a creative mind is to make change in the world. The phenomenal Leila Fataar once told me that can’t happen without influence. True influence. The kind that connects properly with a cultural community. To achieve that, we need creative people in the room who deeply understand those communities and how to talk to them.” – Beth O’Brien, group creative head Colenso BBDO, NZ
So, where to from here?
Across the globe we see multiple ways in which the design industry is working from within to achieve positive change.
AIGA has established a Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce with the aim of encouraging diversity in design education and practice. Founding chair Antionette Carroll believes that design as a profession is lagging in both demographic diversity and a culture of inclusion, both of which are crucial for the future success of the industry. Last year, the Design Management Institute launched its Diversity in Design Manifesto. Their mantra is a diverse and inclusive culture is not just ethically sound, it’s good for business. The UK Design Council is on a mission to make life better by design through championing inclusive design. CEO Sarah Wier says inclusive design tends to get pigeoned holed as being for people with specific needs but it’s about design that creates a better world for everyone.
As well as industry body leadership, practitioner-led initiatives are having an important impact. Tackling issues of gender are Womentor, a mentorship programme for women in graphic design, which for the first time, includes three NZ mentors. Also based out of Australia, Parlour is a voice for women, equity and architecture. Taking a broader approach to diversity is RARE, a four-day masterclass aimed at keeping rare talent in the industry. Founded by Clemenger BBDO’s Stefanie DiGiavincenzo and Google’s Tara McKent, their mission articulates perfectly the importance of diversity – celebrate difference, break dusty conventions and realise leadership potential in minorities, for the good of culture and creativity.
From Aotearoa we can connect and build on international initiatives as well as creating home-grown responses. Industry organisations can and must provide leadership, but they don’t own the diversity space. The thing about diversity is that we need to approach it in diverse ways. The 40/3 campaign caused a resounding YES! from a large group in the design sector. There were also those who disagreed with the approach. That’s not the point. Diversity challenges us to be open-minded and move beyond the unconscious biases we all have. Diversity and design is an increasingly popular topic in conferences, design events and articles, but it needs to move off the stage and the page to inside workplaces to have an impact. “The most effective creativity happens when contrasting thoughts collide,” says Beth O’Brien of Colenso, “the best ideas are born out of diversity of thought.”
” As we grapple with unprecedented social, health and environmental challenges, design’s role could not be more vital. If there was ever a time when diverse perspectives are needed to design our way to a better future, it’s now. “
Judith Thompson is a design consultant who believes in the power of design to transform everyday life. She is former director of Design at NZTE, inaugural head of Better by Design and member of AUT University Council.
Jade Tang-Taylor is a designer, dreamer, doer. She is passionate about design for social impact, with a focus on diversity. She wears a few hats, including consultant, catalyst, associate, activator, guest lecturer, design strategist and creative collaborator.