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The design industry must take steps towards long-lasting change

Without a doubt, advertising and marketing has opened its eyes more to diversity issues that are littered across the industries; from developing careers to the creative output. But it’s not enough. Pali Palavathanan, co-founder and creative director of the branding and digital agency Templo – which focuses on creativity for change – offers his insight into how the design industry can make long-lasting active change.

I started out in the creative industry over 16 years ago and felt like an outsider from the get-go. When I began my career, I had never come across anyone that either looked like me or had a similar experience growing up as a refugee, living on council estates and receiving welfare. This meant I spent a lot of my early career feeling uncomfortable and out of place.

But it wasn’t until I began searching for a senior role in 2013 that I realized I had hit a ceiling. I had a brilliant portfolio from my time at my previous agency and was hungry to express something different. I had loads of energy and wanted to shed light on issues that weren’t being pursued by the creative industry due to the lack of diversity in design. But agencies just couldn’t see me as part of their senior teams.

Setting up Templo was inevitable. It has given me the autonomy to focus on topics that are not widely discussed and the space to use creativity to accelerate awareness within the design community and beyond the echo chamber. Without settling up Templo we wouldn’t have been able to highlight human rights issues in Sri Lanka and affect change in the United Nations.

Diversity in design

Increasingly the industry is trying to be more inclusive, but often these approaches lack sensitivity, lasting change and a genuine motive. For example:

  • Industry leaders stepping aside for Black and Asian creatives and then taking to social media to announce to the world that they’re taking this action.

  • Recruitment agencies funding young Black creatives for a short three-month course (we need lasting impact, not short-term fixes).

  • Design institutions bringing anyone on board because they tick a ‘BAME’ box (this year I seem to have been on every design panel going).

I’m sure these gestures originate from good intentions, but there is a lot of short-term thinking and point-scoring at play – and Black and Asian creatives are starting to see through this pretty quickly.

‘Designers are paid to care’

There’s been a definite awakening across the industry, but black squares on Instagram and the occasional Twitter post when someone is killed or attacked does not touch the sides.

Movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate go way beyond our industry and are about the fundamental fabric of society. We need to step back and look at ourselves and our conduct as humans, not just designers. We need to think about how we coexist with one another and ask ourselves difficult questions.

I would like to see the design industry make more genuine attempts to actually engage with the people who can create authentic responses. One of the key lessons I’ve taken away from Templo’s work in the political sphere over the last eight years is that real change is painfully slow and like watching tectonic plates move. This is due to the way our industry is set up. I often say ‘designers get paid to care’ – a brief comes in, budgets are agreed, designers devote their time to solving the brief, the project is delivered and then press released, and then they swiftly move on to the next brief to start the cycle again. The real question is once the budget dries up and we’re no longer getting accolades for the work, are designers really motivated to stay with a cause for the foreseeable future?

Developing marginalized employees

I am a massive advocate for equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome. I believe the best person or the person with the most potential should be hired first and foremost. Diversity should not be used as an exercise in tokenism. I personally wouldn’t want to be hired to bump up an agency’s diversity quota. I know what it’s like to receive charity first-hand and I would never want handouts from the industry. I would want to be chosen on merit alone.

Both myself and co-founder and managing director Anoushka Rodda have diverse backgrounds, so inclusivity is part of the inherent DNA of Templo. We have always been open to bringing in all types of talent from different backgrounds. If anything, we need more white males in the team.

Tackling the issues and making active change

It’s a chain reaction. Fundamentally we do not have enough creatives from diverse backgrounds at the top, running the agencies and in boardrooms.

This issue has been accelerated by the hike in tuition fees, which has pretty much ended all hopes for creatives from lower-income families moving into higher education. I teach and talk at a lot of design universities and higher education has essentially become a private education experience. The next generation of creatives now have similar socio-economic backgrounds and life experiences. There is a concerning lack of diversity emerging. I’m not sure higher education would have been an option for me had the set-up been like this when I was 18 years old.

I was recently asked in one of my talks, “how do we employ designers from different backgrounds?” This highlights the issue the industry is experiencing. There is not enough supply to meet the growing demand and need for diverse talent. We cannot expect a different outcome until the root cause changes.

Another factor that seems to get lost in the noise is that certain cultures and communities do not value the creative industry and instead put huge amounts of pressure on their children to avoid the sector for a ‘proper job’.

I’m calling for designers from marginalized communities to stop waiting for the industry to gradually figure out how to accommodate you and create breakaway agencies that create authentic responses and challenge preconceptions within the industry. Setting up Templo has given me skin in the game by allowing me the space to not ask for permission and a seat in boardrooms where the real, lasting change can happen.

Pali Palavathanan, founder of Templo, is a judge for The Drum Awards for Design 2021. Nominations were announced on Thursday April 29 at 3pm GMT. The winners will be announced at a virtual ceremony on Thursday May 20 at 4pm GMT. You can register for the ceremony here.