Diversity talk is cheap: Why perceptions of the design industry are deceptive.
I’ve been a practicing graphic designer for six years, working as a problem-solver on strategic branding projects and campaigns. My designs often have a specific purpose to improve perceptions of the organisations I work with. So the irony isn’t lost on me, that for an industry whose primary function is a deft sleight of hand in how things are perceived, on the whole denies there’s an issue with diversity. Design businesses and designers often presents themselves as a bastion of liberal culture and progressive ideals. However, the industry’s record on diversity couldn’t be further from this image..
As a designer from a minority and working class background, I had similar perceptions of the creative industries prior to beginning my career. I became a designer to do a job I love, and I wholeheartedly believe in many of the progressive ideals of diversity and equality that design agencies love to talk about. I have been lucky in that most of my life I have never knowingly felt much prejudice – it’s something I put down to the success of the multicultural and plural society that I was lucky enough to grow up in here in the UK. It had never crossed my mind that my race would be an issue when I embarked on making a career, especially in the perceived progressive and liberal creative industries.
When I first started out, I struggled to gain internships, and then struggled to get jobs. At first I didn’t want to believe I was being overlooked, as it’s something that is never explicit. It’s more subtle. It becomes evident through the patterns that emerge and I learnt to read between the lines and identify instances of unconscious bias and rampant nepotism. Jonathan Mildenhall (below), the Chief Marketing Officer of Airbnb, who is black knows this all too well as he recently recounted in an interview. When he sent off an application for an advertising agency as a graduate, in which he deliberately included a large photo of himself, he received the following answer “Dear Mr. Mildenhall, We received your application form and unfortunately you are not [this agency’s] persona, good luck with your quest to get into the industry.” Flabbergasted by the note, he continues: “That was the first letter I got back. I was 21 years old and the first letter I got back was ‘you are not our persona’! I knew what that meant.”
The response Mildenhall got is something that is all too familiar to me. I know I have had to work twice as hard as my white peers, for half the success. It’s a tiring, demoralising and soul destroying struggle where I have frequently wanted to give up whenever I was filtered out of the recruitment process based on my name or I lost out on opportunities to less able white peers without any meaningful rationale. The worst part, however, is the sense of hopelessness caused by the invisibility of the issue and feeling silenced. Early in my career, while out for informal drinks, I mentioned my frustrations to a white colleague who I thought might be sympathetic. She told me that I must have been mistaken because the “design industry is so liberal”, that she wasn’t prejudiced and that I must have been imagining it. It is true I didn’t think my colleague was prejudiced herself, but design agencies, in their structure and culture, often are. However, what was most hurtful about this interaction was that, as minorities in the industry, our experiences are not believed. We are gaslighted for raising our concerns and at worst blacklisted as troublemakers. The issue is a taboo. You aren’t allowed to talk about it, because if you do, and do it too loudly, it would disrupt the narrative that the industry likes to promote about itself. For many people covering positions of power in the creative industries, diversity is cheap talk, a gimmick, and not a sincere belief to be put into action. And if pressed on the issue, like true creatives, they will give a creative answer to refute there is an issue.
The barriers to creative careers today are numerous, but for people from minority backgrounds they can be particularly challenging. The three key issues I’ve identified are economic, nepotism and a lack of robust processes. Firstly, there are the economic barriers; many careers, such as graphic design, now require degrees which are often costly and with the advent of exorbitant top-up fees. This has meant that minority students who are generally from poorer backgrounds feel compelled to eschew creative courses and, eventually, choose not to pursue creative careers. Culturally, working in the creative industries are often perceived as less viable options in some communities, so people from these communities are discouraged from the start. Parents know the challenges their children will face in the workplace, so they encourage them to go into practices that are more likely to yield results – I myself was the only person of asian background on my course in my year group.
The graphic design industry has also become rather inflexible with non-traditional routes into the industry, and they are not really considered a viable way into the industry. The proliferation of unpaid internships for fresh graduates, which are often based in London – a place well known for its high living costs – constitutes another financial barrier. This often means that even if someone from a minority background has finally obtained a degree, they often won’t end up in a creative career, as they are simply priced out of getting the experience to gain their first graduate job. Secondly, there is the issue of the “closed loop” nature of the design industry. It’s a very nepotistic culture, and it suffers particularly from a casual relationship to recruitment. For many years I thought there was some secret I was not in on, but I quickly realised it is just about knowing people. Minority people will tend to come from a different demographic and may not mix in those circles, so it is often even more challenging for designers from these backgrounds to get their foot in the door. Thirdly, most design businesses tend to be small and run by people who are indeed very creative, but lack business skills. They have a laissez-faire attitude to things such as HR processes, which often means there aren’t robust policies to deal with issues like unconscious bias, which leads to automatically filtering out someone with an ethnic minority name or hiring people with perceived similar backgrounds. Finally if you manage to get your first job, the remuneration is very poor, often not even meeting the living wage in London. So after studying yourself into debt, almost bankrupting yourself doing a series of meaningless internships, driving yourself mad getting a job, you are rewarded with poverty pay for your efforts!
I am aware that I have painted quite a bleak picture. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. During my time in the industry I have seen greater recognition of the issue. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the lack of diversity in the design industry, and by highlighting the issue, some change might be on its way. You might ignore individual experiences such as mine, yet the statistics speak for themselves. Research revealed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in 2016 shows overwhelmingly the design industry as 90% white and 60% male. This has been acknowledged by the Creative Industries Federation as rightly “worrying”. There’s also some optimism in the fact that senior figures in the industry, both from minority backgrounds but also their majority peers (like Jonathan Mildenhall, Wendy Clark of DDB, or the presenters at Cannes Lions in 2017), have consciously made diversity an issue. This has shown there is an acknowledgement in some quarters that the design industry has a problem with diversity and representation. The fact that some leaders from minority backgrounds themselves have gone further and also expressed open frustration at the lack of action also shows that we might be on the cusp of change. The same DCMS data also showed that between 2011-2016 there was a 50% increase in black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) creatives working in the industry. This could be down to initiatives aiming at tackling unconscious bias in organisations, like in the case of Wendy Clark’s DDB, promoting race and representation through photography like Autograph APB did, or YCN’s Placement Pledge to ensure that a living wage is paid for internships, thus helping to mitigate some of the challenges minorities face in getting into the industry. The design industry could also learn from initiatives that have been started in other sectors, particularly from some unlikely areas such as financial services, which now have some of the best HR practices.
These industries are not traditionally known to process change well or have a good record on diversity, yet it is here where we can see some models of how things could change for the better. These include structured paid graduate schemes that not only train and develop graduates on an even playing field at entry, but also encourage diversity and non-traditional routes into the industry. They have achieved this by conducting blind selections where name, sex and educational background are stripped out, selecting people based purely on aptitude. These measures have been so successful for the auditing firm Grant Thornton that, in 2016, 17% of its intake would have been previously not been selected and 8% of those people have been deemed to have done so well that they have been described as “game changers” — the firm’s top performance category. The firm was also named the top firm in last year’s Social Mobility Employers Index and has caused change at its much larger rivals, with three of the big four auditing firms, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC, featuring in the top ten last year. Grant Thornton has shown that where there is a will, change can be achieved not only in one organisation but within the industry as a whole. The design industry can no longer say it is ‘too difficult’ or ‘too complicated’, because organisations far more complex than themselves have achieved and are achieving greater diversity on levels we have not previously seen. For OCA students from minority backgrounds, there is a lot to be hopeful about. The issues are being acknowledged and talked about, the barriers are now known and we have models for change. This is a lot more than there was when I started in the industry. But change will only happen if we have more young designers from minority backgrounds working for change from within the industry in the first place. Design, like any industry, performs its function better when it is reflective of the society it serves.