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Customer Experience Experiential #design

Fostering racial wellness: The power and responsibility of experiential design

By Darien LaBeach, Senior creative strategist

MAS

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May 24, 2024 | 7 min read

Design should do no harm, says Darien LaBeach of Mas. In fact, good experiential design can promote healing and foster racial wellness.

The interior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. is open and inclusive in its design / Alan Karchmer via the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Imagine stepping into a space that doesn‘t just engage your senses, but actively promotes your well-being. This is the promise of experiential design, a practice that crafts immersive experiences that resonate on an emotional and intellectual level.

For Black communities, reality has often fallen short of this promise. Experiential design, a field historically dominated by white narratives, has frequently perpetuated racial harm through both conscious and unconscious bias. However, there‘s a growing movement to leverage the power of experiential design to foster racial wellness, creating spaces that are not only inclusive, but actively healing. To better understand all of this, I spoke to three designers at different intersections of experiential design: Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah, Sarah Zewde, and Jocelyn Joy Williams.

The legacy of exclusion

Experiential design thrives on storytelling. It shapes environments that evoke specific emotions and guides how people interact with a space. Unfortunately, the stories traditionally told through experiential design have often been homogenous, reflecting the limited perspectives of a predominantly white design community. This lack of diversity has resulted in what Jacquelyn Iyamah, author of the book Racial Wellness, calls “environmental racial microaggressions”. These are subtle, yet harmful, design choices that alienate Black people. Imagine walking into a store where security measures disproportionately target Black patrons, encountering displays that fail to acknowledge Black aesthetics, or navigating a space where touch-sensitive technology doesn‘t recognize dark skin tones. These details create a cumulative experience that reinforces feelings of invisibility and exclusion.

The harm goes beyond the physical. The historical absence of Black voices in design contributes to a larger narrative that erases Black contributions and reinforces a sense of disenfranchisement. A deep dive into the history of experiential design reveals a parade of white male pioneers. Sara Zewde, a landscape architect, emphasizes the need to disrupt this narrative by acknowledging the contributions of groundbreaking Black designers like Sylvia Harris, a pioneer in social impact design. By including these voices, the field can begin to dismantle the power structures that have historically excluded Black perspectives.

Design can foster healing

Thankfully, some spaces demonstrate the immense potential of experiential design to foster racial wellness. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), colloquially known as the Black Smithsonian, serves as a powerful example. From the moment visitors step inside, the museum uses design to create a space for dialogue, reflection, and healing.

The open floor plan bathed in natural light fosters a sense of openness and inclusivity. Culturally relevant soundscapes, perhaps evoking familiar church music or the murmur of community gatherings, create a sense of belonging. Even seemingly minor details, like an audio guide narrated in a warm, familiar voice reminiscent of a “church auntie,” contribute to a sense of cultural affirmation. The NMAAHC demonstrates that design is not merely about aesthetics; it‘s about crafting experiences that resonate with the specific needs and cultural touchstones of the intended audience.

Actionable steps towards racial inclusivity

The path towards a more equitable future requires a multi-pronged approach. One critical step is the development of clear standards for racial inclusivity in experiential design. Similar to the accessibility guidelines that ensure physical spaces are usable by everyone, these standards would equip designers with the tools to create experiences that consider the needs and cultural context of Black communities. These standards might encompass considerations for space utilization, lighting design, sensory experiences, and the incorporation of culturally relevant narratives.

Beyond establishing design standards, fostering genuine collaboration with Black communities throughout the design process is crucial. This requires a shift in mindset from designing “for” Black people to designing “with” them. As Iyama suggests, community design jams, consultations with Black creatives, and incorporating user testing panels with diverse representation are essential steps. These collaborations not only ensure the final design is culturally relevant and avoids unintentional bias, but they also empower Black communities to have a voice in shaping their experiences.

Decolonizing the design process

True racial inclusivity requires a deeper reckoning with the historical foundations of experiential design. As Maria Nicanor, director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, suggests, design doesn‘t exist in a vacuum. It‘s a practice deeply intertwined with social, economic, and environmental realities. The historical exclusion of Black voices is just one facet of a larger issue.

Experiential design needs to move beyond replicating the power structures that have historically marginalized Black communities. This necessitates a critical examination of design education, ensuring that curriculums incorporate diverse perspectives and celebrate the contributions of Black designers. Furthermore, design firms need to actively recruit and cultivate Black talent, fostering a more inclusive design landscape.

Customer Experience Experiential #design

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