Nov 17, 2019 By Novid Parsi
Education Revolution
The fight for diversity can’t be solely waged at the organizational level. To drive a truly inclusive workforce, the industry has to connect with young designers early.
By Novid Parsi Nov 17, 2019
Published in

As a Black kid growing up in Washington, D.C., Jeffrey Gay, IIDA, envisioned a career in design from a young age because of the other African American architects he met working in his neighborhood. But not every child gets that message. So when Gay’s cousin, a secondary school teacher, recently asked him to speak to her students on career day about architecture and working as a designer, the answer was easy.

He met with some members of the class, regaling them with stories about his days working for a design firm and his current role as an A+D representative at Herman Miller, highlighting how they could carve out a career designing buildings and interiors. For the classroom full of students of color, it offered a glimpse into a whole new world of possibility. “None of her kids had heard of architects or designers,” says Gay.

It’s a common refrain—and the result is an industry that remains incredibly homogeneous. Recent research from the Design Council shows nearly four-fifths of the U.K.’s designers are male and only about one-tenth are from Black, Asian, and ethnic minority backgrounds. At the same time, only 36% of newly licensed architects in the United States are women, and only 2% are Black.

“For more than 100 years, architecture has been practiced through the lens of white European men,” says Christopher Locke, a co-founder of the think tank Designing in Color, and a coalition called small talks: LA, both in Los Angeles. “It hasn’t been conducive to minorities in the profession or in school.” Designing in Color provides resources for marginalized professionals, students, and allies to confront environments that discourage their creativity and multicultural identity.

But shaking up that status quo can’t be left to professionals in the field or firm leaders. Design educators must do their part by better reflecting a pluralistic society in who, what, and how they teach.

Open Classrooms

As Gay’s career day experience illustrates, introducing design to people from underrepresented groups should happen early and often. “We need to engage students when they’re young,” Gay says. “Before they even get to college, they need to have exposure to what design means.”

Associations and nonprofits are taking up that challenge. The National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA)’s Project Pipeline connects young people with architects and designers to design a fully realized project that addresses an issue in their city. In Detroit, Urban Arts Collective runs a camp that introduces underrepresented youth to design, urban planning, and architecture through the lens of hip-hop culture. Students make physical and digital models, then create a track and music video to explain their work.

Universities are also building bridges to local middle and high schools by connecting design faculty with students to introduce the profession or even create meaningful projects together. But the projects must connect to the workforce. “If all you do is face painting, that’s not workforce development,” says Jacinda Walker, founder and creative director of designExplorr, a social enterprise that works to diversify the design profession by increasing access to education and corporate organizations in Cleveland. “If it involves design thinking and creative problem-solving, that’s workforce development.”

Along with forging relationships with local middle and high schools, leaders in higher education could stand to make their campuses more welcoming, too. “Universities need to be more open to the community, not just for an elite group,” says Sarah Elsie Baker, a senior lecturer and research coordinator at the Media Design School in Auckland, New Zealand.

Baker’s school conducts outreach through activities like a hackathon workshop where educators work with middle and high school girls to create art assets for video games. “People who wouldn’t usually come into the school get access to it,” she says. That kind of invitation into the world of design is particularly important for people who are the first in their family to attend college. “For those students, even coming into the building can be daunting,” she says.

But before these education programs start sending out their staff and faculty to entice kids into a world of design, they must remember that optics matter. Using a cavalry of white men to spread the message could prove futile. “A lot of the onus is on us as minority designers to expose kids” to design, Gay says. “As a Black person, I could see myself in that career because I saw other Black people in it, and that made a big difference,” he adds. “A lot of kids never see that.”

Early in her career, Walker worked as the head graphic designer for the Cleveland Municipal School District. She recalls that people were surprised to learn that a young Black woman was behind the designs. “Vendors came in and thought I was the secretary,” she says. “They asked to speak to the manager of the graphic design department, and I would say, ‘I’m her.’”

The vendors weren’t the only ones. One young African American woman said she’d never met a Black designer and stopped by to see one for herself. The woman became Walker’s mentee—one of over 75 designers of color she has mentored.

We need to engage students when they’re young. Before they even get to college, they need to have exposure to what design means.
Jeffrey Gay, IIDA
Jeffrey Gay, IIDA

Changing Up the Curriculum

Diversifying design education isn’t just about who gets taught but also what gets taught. “Here in the United States, when you study design, you study European design,” Walker says. “There is a great need for design education in the U.S. to include more cultural awareness.”

As a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Locke says he rarely heard designers of color or women designers mentioned in class, unless it was the rare starchitect like Jeanne Gang.

That has to change, says Kathryn Anthony, a distinguished professor in The Illinois School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When students learn about the history of design, it’s very important that they learn about the special contributions made by a diverse group of designers, not just white men,” she explains. “Their education needs to be inclusive from day one, showing how people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, genders, and cultures have had an important impact on the profession.”

The same goes for those outside the U.S. as well. Originally from England, Baker says she was shocked when she moved to New Zealand about eight years ago and discovered the examples being taught in her new homeland were the same she had learned about in Europe. Students were taught all about Bauhaus and other European movements, but not much, if anything, about Maori or other Pacific indigenous cultures. “As design educators, we need to reflect on the examples and standards we’re teaching,” she says.

More inclusive examples and standards would help students of diverse backgrounds recognize and appreciate design traditions from their own cultures. Baker saw that firsthand when a Samoan student in her industrial design course came to her office with his design for a wearable tech prototype. She asked him why he chose a white, minimalist design, and he replied that, in his experience, that’s what got good grades. When Baker asked the student how he might design it differently, he began to discuss his interest in Samoan patterns and “all of a sudden, he had a lightbulb moment,” Baker recalls. The student ended up doing his master’s thesis on Samoan design.

The answer isn’t to dismiss Western design but to teach it alongside other cultures’ products, from Aztec temples to Japanese hill towns.

A New Kind of Authority Figure

Design education leaders also need to reconsider how they’re teaching. Programs would become more inclusive if they were focused less on individual output and more on collaborative creations, Locke says.

“What’s lacking in schools is what it means to be a good collaborator,” he says. “If we don’t work in groups, if we only do our projects by ourselves, we don’t benefit from the diversity of people around us.”

This perspective can also impact a standard element of design pedagogy: the review. Public evaluations can be challenging for any student but can be especially difficult for women and students of color when the authority figures evaluating them tend to be white men.

Schools can start by bringing in more diverse guest reviewers. While chair of her school’s design program years ago, Anthony contacted groups like NOMA and Chicago Women in Architecture for just this purpose. “Students then learn to have their work critiqued by people who look like them and to see those people as authority figures,” she says. At the same time, those reviewers learn about the budding talent of students with diverse backgrounds whom they might not meet otherwise.

Breaking Down the Cost Barrier

A design education doesn’t come cheap. While the costs can be offset with scholarships, fellowships, and internships, schools must also educate students about the available resources. And when alumni and other donors want to give money, schools can encourage them to be more targeted and more creative with their giving, Anthony says. For example, while an alumna and her husband had previously provided money for a single student scholarship, Anthony suggested that they instead pay for one-day registration fees for all 20 students in Anthony’s graduate seminar to attend a NOMA design conference. “Instead of one scholarship to one student, they helped a whole class,” Anthony says.

Professional groups can also help to defray costs outside of tuition like raising money to pay for design supplies, Gay says. “There’s always a way to kill someone’s dream,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of ways to build it back up.”

Students can also seek internships that pay for their education while providing a less obvious benefit. “Internships and mentoring can help women and minorities see others like them in the field holding senior roles and doing well,” says Taruna Gupta, a project designer at Groth Design Group, and a committee member with Women in Design in Milwaukee.

There are certain financial realities that can’t be dismissed, however. When Gay talked to a high school class about design careers, a student’s father asked him how much his son might earn in design. Gay didn’t sugarcoat it: “I said, ‘To be honest, he won’t make a lot as a designer.’” But Gay didn’t let the conversation end there. He explained that while the student may not make much money as a designer, there are other rewards that come with a design career.

For more than 100 years, architecture has been practiced through the lens of white European men. It hasn’t really been conducive to minorities in the profession or in school.
Christopher Locke, Designing in Color
Christopher Locke, Designing in Color
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