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Diversity in design: how to build inclusive teams and create better work

Judges from The Drum Awards for Design share their thoughts on fostering diversity in the industry.

The design sector, and the marketing industry at large, still lags behind when it comes to progress on diversity. So, what can be done to improve matters?

The Drum Awards for Design highlight the best art direction, strategic thinking, and execution, and are open to anyone using design thinking to make a difference. In this webinar, the second in our Judges’ Verdict series, co-chair of the jury and chairperson of the British Design Fund John Mathers hosts a discussion on diversity in design.

Co-chair Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative partner and founder at Bow & Arrow, and fellow judges Pali Palavathanan, co-founder and creative director at Templo, Stephanie Edwards, director and co-founder of Urban Symbiotics, and Forest Young, chief creative officer at Wolff Olins, talk about their experiences, the challenges facing the design industry in terms of cultivating and encouraging diverse talent, and what they think needs to happen for progress.

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What are the main issues facing the industry, with regard to diversity?

Early in her career, Edwards recalls her race coming as a surprise to some. “At my first job interview, the first thing they said was, oh, I didn’t expect you to be Black. And that has meant that often in my career, at the back of my mind, I’m thinking I’m not supposed to be there. People make dangerous assumptions about what an architect, or an urban designer, looks like. Two years ago many acted like Black architects didn’t exist.”

Palavathanan says that over 15 years in the industry, his progress has hampered by the way others saw him. “I definitely felt like an outsider. I saw myself as a creative director – I felt ready to be accepted. Unfortunately these big agencies, which I thought would have been my perfect match, didn’t. I was that person there behind the scenes, but they didn’t see in their mind's eye that I could fill that role.”

While things are changing, even the pursuit of diversity is not without problems. Edwards has been asked to speak on diversity 20 times in the last year. “Because of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve come to the forefront. I’m conflicted, because it is tiring to constantly be asked to talk about it.

“People are realising they shouldn't have all-White, all-male panels, although sometimes it’s merely a box-ticking exercise.” She maintains this is a good starting point, because even as a formality, it has given a platform to some exceptional people that were previously hidden talent.

Young agrees visibility is essential. “You can only choose to become a designer when you see a role model that looks roughly like yourself.” And because that happens early in life, he believes it is the job of design professionals to provide representation and show that this is a welcoming space.

But the barrier to entry is more complicated than that, he adds. “For some, an art school education is a difficult argument – it’s certainly not becoming a doctor or lawyer. In certain communities, like first generation immigrant families or BIPOC families, your educational experience is seen as a bridge to a vocation, an income. Students that don’t have those particular concerns can afford to be more expansive and experimental.”

How can agencies drive meaningful change?

Young’s agency is focused on three aspects which he thinks most organizations can get behind: nourishing young talent, supporting minority-owned businesses, and pro-bono work. By creating corresponding job codes, Wolff Olins is encouraging staff contribute to causes in the course of their work. “By being able to bill time to a BLM job code, somebody can address a black owned business, or take a pro-bono opportunity, or do something related to talent.

“We’re working with high schools and providing outreach programmes, talking to young people about our jobs. We have a task force focused on Black-owned businesses, especially those hurt by Covid-19, offering our strategic and creative services.”

Chetiyawardana believes most organisations have good intentions, but that retention is a key challenge. “We can get diverse talent into the funnel now, but it be difficult for those people when they palpably feel like they don’t fit in.” So how can agencies create inclusive cultures, that make people want to stay?

“Get feedback very regularly,” she advises. “Ideally by third party. I’m a fan of measures and metrics – knowing things is the first step. Unconscious bias lies everywhere, and microaggressions are commonplace. While they aren’t intentionally offensive, it is tiring having to explain yourself.”

Edwards was a part of the Learning and Growing Council at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for three years. “I was working with the RIBA as an architecture ambassador, letting students know how they can get there. People are often given wrong advice about architecture, told they need be great at physics and maths. I was told I couldn’t be an architect because I was creative.”

The current qualification process for the RIBA takes at least seven years, which can be a disincentive for minority ethnic students, those with lesser financial means, and women. So Edwards is keen to make changes at an institutional level. “Nothing happens overnight,” she acknowledges. “But it’s about chipping away and continuing change, both grassroots up and top down.”

Are clients on board – do they want to see more diversity in their agency partners?

Young has noticed more demand for diversity. “We definitely get a lot of specificity now in RFIs and RFPs – asking about diverse teams. The industry is starting to expect transparency in terms of who has been commissioned and why.” These changes are perhaps motivated by the increasingly undeniable benefits of diversity in the workplace.

“According to sources like the McKinsey report, neurodiverse teams simply outperform homogenous teams. So we should start reframing equity and inclusion as a competitive advantage, instead of penalising less-diverse organisations, and setting tick-box targets.”

Chetiyawardana says that being part of a big management consultancy, one that prioritises the diversity and inclusion agenda, has enabled her to feel comfortable speaking up. “That is a huge first step. It’s also enabled me to work on a project that I wouldn't have been able to as an independent agency.” Developed in conjunction with Mobo, called Mobolise, this Accenture-supported platform is built to enable and empower black employees, particularly those seeking roles in creative and tech industries.

Palavathanan’s experience has been different, and less positive, and it drove him to start his own agency, Templo. “Templo is a product of the industry, because I was never going to be accepted by a bigger agency, because of how they saw me.” His own life experience has made some issues very important to him.

“Living as a refugee, living in poverty, receiving charity as a child growing up - I've got personal things I see as key issues around the world, and I think design should be a part of that global dialogue.” Those issues drove him to build an agency around projects that he says would never exist at another shop. And now that he is at boardroom level, he’s ready to see more people who look like him. “I want to see more melanin in the boardrooms, because I think that’s where actual change happens.”

If design were to become a truly inclusive industry, what do you imagine it would be like?

Young believes the possibilities are endless. “It could mean moving beyond all the -isms, from ageism, to sexism, to racism. And we might start to see types of performance and leadership that we can’t even imagine in terms of the power structures of today. But I think it’s incredibly exciting, that we could let go of competition and market demands, and allow that to unfold.”

Palavathanan describes an industry that would be able to fully embrace its caring side, and focus on longevity. “Fundamentally we get paid to care. We work on something, we get paid to think about it for three to six months, and then we're off again.” In an ideal world, to drive lasting change, he wishes we could stay on those issues a little longer. “When I graduated, everyone was designing the same things, for the same rosters of clients. I made a real point with Templo to work on stuff that no one cared about. That was really one of the core mantras.”

For Chetiyawardana, the current surge in awareness, with time, can turn honest conversations into real change – for the benefit of all. “I think it will make for happier teams, that will then change the thinking process, and the creative output. It will enable us to create better stuff, because if we are starting to question, is this good enough? What else could we do? What else could we be? What else could we create? Then we're going to start making real change in the world. And that's what the power of design can do.”

For more information about The Drum Awards for Design, visit the website.