The women working to make design education more diverse

Design education, much like the wider industry, is lacking in diversity – here, Design Week speaks with some of the women who are working to change this through collective action.

Like any issue to do with inclusion, there are a number of compounding factors as to why the UK’s design industry is lacking in diversity. From poor maternity support in studios, to inaccessible mentoring schemes for graduates and the 20% gender pay gap, the sum of each added issue is a profession that is 78% male and 87% white.

One of the biggest, and indeed earliest, obstacles in the way of a diverse design industry is education. Sky-high tuition fees and mostly male, mostly white-skewing curriculums can leave women and Black, Asian and ethnic minority students feeling on the margins of the discipline.

These are, according to some design educators, often tough truths to come to terms with for both teachers and students alike. With creative arts and design degrees widely thought of as places of liberal thought and expression, it can be hard to swallow that it is the very pedagogies themselves that are contributing to a crisis of diversity.

“Students are aware of the histories they’re being shown, and not shown”

For Danah Abdulla, designer, researcher and current programme director of graphic design at the University of the Arts’ (UAL) Camberwell and Chelsea colleges, much of the issue surrounding education comes from its focus on “Anglocentric and Eurocentric ways of seeing”.

Part of the founding team of the Decolonising Design initiative, Abdulla says we too often consider design and design education as “neutral”, where we should be opening it up to debate and critique.

“There are literally thousands of ways that we could, and do, talk about the Bauhaus and its designers,” she gives an example. “We understand this to be good design, and these people as good designers, but rarely go any further into the politics of design practice.”

With Decolonising Design, Abdulla has worked to change this. The collectively curated online platform looks to put design pedagogies under a lens, touching on issues such as post-colonialism and decolonialism, feminism, queerness and activism and exploring how these fit in to modern understandings and teachings of design by way of articles, resources and events.

Pushing the boundaries of what is considered “teachable” design, Abdulla says, is necessary for students outside of the “mostly white, mostly male” narrative to feel included in the practice.

“Students are aware of the histories they’re being shown, and not shown,” she says. “How often does a student of Indian origin gets to hear about a good Indian designer? What effect do you think that eventually has on how they perceive the profession?”

The issue that Abdulla points out, that education systems rarely connect with students outside of the Anglocentric/Eurocentric narrative, is one that comes with plenty of evidence: in the academic year 2018/2019, 108,965 white students were enrolled in creative arts and design-related undergraduate degrees, compared with just 5,855 and 5,155 from Black and Asian backgrounds respectively.

A Kerning the Gap speaker event

“You can’t be what you can’t see”

This is a belief echoed by Harriet Harriss, dean of the Pratt School of Architecture and former architecture and interior design research lead at the Royal College of Art.

“You can’t be what you can’t see, and if marginalised students don’t see themselves represented on their reading lists and in their curriculum, this in turn leads to a feeling of being marginalised in the discipline” she says. Like Abdulla, Harriss turned to a collective online platform in the face of an unbalanced curriculum.

The Women Write Architecture reading list features sections on interior design, designing for diversity and gender in architecture among others, and seeks to highlight “the extent to which inequalities in the profession are being sustained and maintained by schools.”

Alongside being a valuable resource for those looking to “read outside the lines”, the resource is a fitting tribute to collective work among women – something she says is so often be discouraged in a male dominated profession.

“In the past, I found that a lot of the women didn’t really work collaboratively,” says Harriss. “In the creative industries, I think, women had it drilled into them that if there is only going to be one seat at a table for them, they had to be that one – there was little sense of collegiality, because there simply wasn’t space for everyone to succeed.”

For this reason, Harriss puts her emphasis on collective action.

“I’m very unsympathetic to people who say more can’t be done,” she says, adding that particularly in today’s climate crisis, a joint response is crucial. “Part of the reasons why the climate crisis response hasn’t been necessarily Avant Garde, or even particularly powerful in our industry has a lot to do with the profile of the profession and by extension the profile of the education community.

“What we’re asking students to produce pedagogically is perpetuating the systems of production and practices that are not really doing enough to tackle the current problem.”

Shades of Noir: Teaching Within Programme

“Representing diversity at leadership level”

Like Abdulla and Harriss suggest, radical curriculum changes are a necessary approach to diversifying design education. But alongside this, positions of power within institutions need to be contested too, according to Aisha Richards, a UAL MA tutor in applied imagination in the creative industries, and director of the Shades of Noir programme.

The university-based programme seeks to address institutional inequality through curriculum design, staff training, the establishment of safe spaces and community support. These are, according to Richards, an important part of levelling a historically and systematically uneven playing field.

But crucially, she says, these must be underpinned by equal representation throughout all levels of an institution.

“If we’re saying diversity and inclusivity should be the number one priority in all organisations and that it should be fed into every single thing that we do, then to me it makes absolute sense to represent that at leadership level,” says Richards

While universities have for some years sought out to enrol a more diverse student body, Richards says a point to focus on is “whether or not those students are valued in a way that means they complete their education successfully.”

“When you don’t have the diversity of staff to offer the diversity of perspectives to the diversity of students, this is where a big part of the problem lies.”

In her work with Shades of Noir, Richards has begun to implement change at UAL. Lobbying with UAL’s Group for the Equality of Minority Staff (GEMS) for equal representation on interview panels and committees. The next target is to get equal representation on all committee co-chairs.

“There has to be acknowledgement that positive action is a useful tool to make change,” she says. “But that means people have to make the space and be willing to give up power.”

Stephanie McClaren-Neckles at a Let’s Be Brief event

Filling the gaps post-education

While there are considerable movements looking to enact change for generations of design students to come, what happens to the women, Black, Asian and ethnic minority students who make it through their design education but come out the other side ill-prepared?

This was one of the motivating factors for Stephanie McClaren-Neckles, co-founder of learning platform Let’s Be Brief.

“We felt creatives needed more support in realising their creative trajectories to explore the venture of enterprise and all that that entails,” she says, adding that her own design undergraduate experience was “quite narrow and homogenous in its cultural outlook”.

Critically, McClaren-Neckles says, marginalised students can be left behind in traditional education, not least because of systemic bias in curriculums and classrooms.

“Design – in the main – is a deeply subjective subject,” she says. “Therefore, its judgement or measurement will always be subject to the whim of structural forces, whether consciously applied or not.”

Taking learners outside of “the siloes of four walls or glaring screens”, and beyond “traditional categorisation”, Let’s Be Brief seeks to tackle education by way of coaching, consultancy services and classes which ultimately aim to get students with marginalised identities into creative work.

“The issue of lack of opportunities for those outside the dominant group is one that is pervasive in society at large,” McClaren-Neckles says. “Without solving the problems of structural inequalities in a paragraph, as a sector, there needs to be a genuine and honest dialogue.”

A Kerning the Gap mentoring event

Investing in post-education

The need for a genuine and honest dialogue is something that is echoed by Kerning the Gap founder Nat Maher. As an organisation, Kerning the Gap seeks to redress the imbalance between the 67% of female design graduates compared with the 17% of female creative directors.

“Yes, education institutions can equip students with the knowledge of how to do great design, and even how to do great commercial design,” she says. “But are all students coming out prepared for the dynamics of the industry they’re about to work in? Not from the experiences relayed to me.”

For Maher, an emphasis on “hard skills” – things like negotiating, risk taking and assertiveness – is needed to fill the gaps left by creative education. These are, she says, things that are routinely drilled into men, while others are rewarded for “soft skills”.

To do this, Kerning the Gap has chapters across the country which focus on mentoring, social events and resource-sharing. But beyond her own work, Maher says design businesses should be looking taking on these post-education education roles.

“We need more design studios to recognise that diversity and diverse staff have huge inherent value,” she says. “But in this, they must also recognise that these people, who will likely have been left out of traditional curriculums in some way, will be on a learning curve and might not be able to do their job perfectly straight away.”

Rather, she ends: “Investing in this side of professional education is necessary for the empowerment of a diverse workforce – until it becomes part of the curriculum for everyone, we’ll have to pick it up.”

Shades of Noir: Teaching Within Programme
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  • Sam Max March 31, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    Myself as a CAD technician, I really appreciate her approach. It is remarkable!

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