Creative careers elude people of color

Beyond Basquiat.
Beyond Basquiat.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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What makes a designer successful?

As long as I’ve been working in this field, the answer to this question has been “skills”: command of typography and layout, mastery of process, empathy for users, savvy with technological change, and the ability to spin a compelling narrative around your work.

Indeed those all matter, but for people of color, there is a larger prerequisite for success: opportunity.

I’ve been working as a designer in some fashion for more than two decades—as an employee and as an entrepreneur, in small studios and in large agencies, and at tiny startups and late-stage enterprises. What I’ve seen is that as an industry, we are teeming with progressive-leaning professionals, most of whom would avidly applaud the idea of greater diversity and inclusion in design workplaces.

But if I’m honest, I can only count a handful of times that I’ve worked with an African American, Hispanic, or Native American designer at any level. The reality of the design industry is that we’re homogenous—overwhelmingly white and, like myself, Asian American. According to the 2016 AIGA design census, 73% of respondents self-identified as white.

For the past two years as a principal designer at Adobe, I’ve been thinking about this problem in earnest, and strategizing how to best use our resources to help solve it. Last month, we took the first step in the right direction by releasing a new report called “Creativity’s Diversity Disconnect.” The findings begin to shed some light on why we see a disproportionately small number of creatives of color.

What we found was that these circumstances start at, well, the beginning. The moment when people of color become aware of design as a profession and as a vocational possibility tends to come later than it does for the majority of those who ultimately become designers—if it comes at all. Door-opening triggers such as access to tools, introduction to core concepts, and skills training are often out of reach or lacking for people of color. More than half of creatives of color say a lack of awareness and an absence of support are barriers to entering the creative industry, and fewer graduate with a creative major compared to their white peers. To compound the situation, those who are able to successfully navigate these tripwires continue to face a steep climb throughout their career, citing lack of mentorship, support from senior management, and new opportunities when compared to white peers.

This egregious situation reflects an ongoing, industry-wide failure to prioritize the development of diverse and inclusive workplaces. I’m as guilty of this as anybody: When I was starting out in the design field, I readily accepted the commonly held belief throughout our culture that problems of race and cultural diversity were largely solved. And if things weren’t perfect, the consensus opinion seemed to imply that the best way to resolve them in everyone’s favor was to just ignore race, gender, and culture entirely.

Clearly, that hasn’t worked. If that were the only problem, it would be significant enough to motivate us all to act decisively. But this is more than just an issue of doing the right thing—it’s a challenge to the very notion of design itself.

Design and race

Ours is a profession whose very premise is that we bring unique perspectives to the briefs we tackle. Those perspectives make products more usable, technology more relatable, and culture richer. But unique perspectives rely on a diversity of experience.

Maintaining the status quo and acquiescing to homogeneity is not an option for the creative industry, just as it’s not option for any industry. A 2013 study from the Center for Talent Innovation found that, across industries, diverse workforces make for potent sources of business success. We found a similar belief expressed in Adobe’s own study: 82% of respondents told us that diverse teams produced their most successful group projects, and three quarters expressed the desire to work for companies that take these issues seriously—and avoid those that do not.

As long as creative careers remain elusive to people of color, innovation will be stifled. Clearly the desire is there, but what do we do about it?

Today’s creative class can begin discussing these issues openly together and take action. Leveling the playing field for people of color will require industry-wide focus and investment, starting in the pipeline. Specific actions individuals can take include:

Support local arts programs: We can start with engaging with our youngest generation by promoting arts programs in schools. Oftentimes, schools will not have the proper resources to offer a robust curriculum. If we can go in and offer our time and expertise, it can spark an interest in a child of any background.

Mentor interested students: Students of color who are interested in the arts may be unaware of the vast array of career opportunities. Mentoring students is an effective way to expose them to the possibilities and help them navigate their pursuit of an education and hands-on experience in the creative field.

Voice your concerns with local representatives: Advocate for the importance of maintaining arts budgets in public schools. Reach out to the public-school board in your neighborhood and your local representatives to make your voice heard. They will be interested in hearing from constituents who have benefited from these programs and are passionate about exposing children to the field.

The responsibility is on industry professionals to ensure that all top talent, regardless of race or ethnicity, has an equal opportunity to enter and succeed in this industry. The desire to improve is there. Now, let us take action by starting with a focus on diversifying the next generation of creative talent.