Design Council is calling for industry leaders and educators to embrace designers from more diverse backgrounds to ensure products and services are designed for everyone.
Speaking from Clerkenwell Design Week, Design Council CEO Minnie Moll said that “only 23% of designers in the UK identify as female”, while “88% of design managers identify as white”.
She also noted that, over the last decade, the number of students taking the design and technology GCSE has dropped by 68%. Putting the consequences of this decline into context, she revealed that seven in ten practicing designers studied GCSE design and technology.
Blocking the pipeline into an industry already struggling with diversity can only result in one thing, according to Moll: “bad design”. Using real world examples, she explained how design choices can sometimes be a matter of life and death.
“Some automatic hand dryers don’t pick up hands with darker skin tones” and even mobile phones that we use every day “are not made to fit in smaller hands”, says Moll. Meanwhile crash dummies used to test car safety features are “modelled on male torsos”, resulting in “more women dying in car crashes”, she adds.
A “360” way of thinking
Other experts weighed in on the subject, with Trifle founder and designer Emma Morley admitting that she only considered that one third of London’s 270 tube stations are accessible when she became a mum. Even within “accessible” stations, Morley said it took her “twice as long to get anywhere” because of where things like lifts are placed.
At school, Morley said she was denied the opportunity to take art as a GCSE because she “drew an abstract fruit bowl instead of still life version”. Instead, she went down the drama and business studies route, inevitably meaning she came to design later in life, eventually emerging into the industry as a commercial workspace designer.
As is the case with many design disciplines, such as architecture and product, Morley said that the office design world is “dominated by men”.
She explained how her design perspective began to shift three years ago, when she was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, a long term, progressive vestibular condition. Symptoms of the disease including acute attacks severe dizziness, fluctuating tinnitus, increasing deafness, and light and sounds sensitivity.
According to Morley, 20% of the UK population has a disability and 70% of those are what we call “invisible disabilities”, like Ménière’s disease. Her experience drove her toward a “360” way of thinking and now, she says she “always designs spaces to really consider all types of people and their experience of work”.
Industry role models
London design director of the Surveyor’s Collection and Royal College of Art associate lecturer Simon Hamilton was inspired to take up design in secondary school at a career’s convention. Hamilton says that he was captivated by a landscape architect from America who took the time to speak to him. Now Hamilton is an educator himself and aims to “give people the opportunity to be themselves whatever that may be”.
He believes the design industry “is already doing an awful lot” to try to foster diversity and “give people opportunities that didn’t exist before” and that, in ten years’ time, it will be “in an even better place”. Morley adds that her hope for the future is that “creativity will be more embedded in schools”.
Putting diversity on clients’ agendas
“Educating clients is very difficult”, says Design Bridge and Partners’ Taiwan-born digital art director Vicky Yang. While clients are already seeking diverse teams, Yang explains how she takes a gentler approach to embed diverse thinking into a project.
She suggests that diving straight into dense diversity topics could scare a client, suggesting that designers should favour a “drip feeding” approach. This involves showing them examples of diverse work and doing seminars and workshops, which – in her experience – results in clients naturally wanting to learn more about it.
OPX art director Lilliana Saldanha was born and grew up in a city in Portugal with a large African population. She says, “Equity in the community of design means we are stronger and more capable because of the collaborative aspect of [a bigger pool of voices]”, says Saldanha. She argues that designers should look encourage clients to look globally when commissioning illustrators, type designers and whoever else they might need on a project, because “more people means more perspective”.