Design That Embodies Diversity
(Snippits from our oh so popular Digital Glue Podcast!)
To some, talking about diversity can be challenging, and implementing business-wide changes to create a more diverse marketing strategy can feel overwhelming. Creating a diverse business requires more than simply good intentions — it takes work and accountability to be successful. By broadening tactics, making conscious internal changes, and setting diversity goals, one can create a more competitive and culturally rich community.
I personally feel many (sadly) still have much to learn from leaders in diversity and inclusion, but it is important to remember that every company’s initiatives will look different. Diversity means different things to different people, and businesses must apply those definitions to their goals and plans — no matter the size — accordingly.
Diversity and inclusion cannot be a one-time campaign or a one-off initiative. Promoting one’s business inclusively is a constant work-in-progress and should be maintained and nurtured to guarantee effectiveness. Empathetic leadership is key to this transformation. For real change to happen, every individual leader needs to buy into the value of belonging — both intellectually and emotionally.
The business world must come together and be more engaged and vocal than it has been to promote the message of a diverse and tolerant society. It’s an uphill battle, but peace, prosperity and advancement depend on it.
Our hope here at Virtually Untangled is that by sharing today’s “untangling” episode on this topic, that it be a simple reminder to help inspire others to grow their businesses by growing the diversity of their virtual image.
Which bring me to the main topic …
Design that embodies diversity. Because DIVERSITY IS BEAUTIFUL.
When folks like us (design nerds!) choose a career in design, it is often explained by our desire to make a difference in the world. And through the level of our creativity, we want to make an impact on people’s lives. We all know that design is an immensely powerful force which tends to illuminate complex issues in society, so with that comes a calling, a duty even, to make sure that what we create represents every single beautiful human being on this lovely planet we call home.
As designers, what we create cannot come from a place of safety and privilege, it must originate from a place of authenticity and inclusion. And in contributing to that movement of positivity (which we here at VU feel ever so strongly about!) we are designing a more tolerant, accepting, beautiful world to live in.
Many people, when asked, have had trouble relating to ads — whether on TV, social media or elsewhere — because it told stories of people with lives that were vastly different from their own. And it felt like many designers were still semi-stuck in a stock photo, stock video world made up mostly of “white” raced individuals. Which is just completely unacceptable and antiquated, quite frankly.
We live in a world undergoing intense transformation. A world that has awakened to the importance of empathy and respecting the ones around us. And for those of us who were born into creativity and took this passion to the land of business, our designs need to reflect that.
I have always had a love/hate relationship with stock photos. On one hand, a good stock photo can bring copy and content to life, adding value and quality to visual identity. On the other hand, a bad stock photo can obscure copy and content, stripping all perceived value while diluting all notion of visual identity. In other words, a badly chosen image can make your brand look back and feel, well, crappy.
The images we use to define our brands say more about us than our style preference. And here’s where good and bad get just plain ugly …
How can today’s businesses reach their target audiences through images, if the images we have to choose from are not reflective of diverse lifestyles, experiences, and communities? How can stock photography be a useful tool, and not a hindrance, when by and large, most of the stock photography available represents a single world view, mainly that of young, white, upper middle class, heterosexual “pretty people”?
Stock photography seems to have a diversity problem. One that has yet to be resolved as so much of the imagery we see on and offline culminates in sending the message: if you don’t look like this or live like this, you don’t belong.
In every audience many people have something unique about them that makes them different, whether it be related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or physical abilities. Design helps us to deliver messages about WHO we are, HOW we create and WHO we are creating things for.
And design that does not embrace diversity can easily offend an entire gender, alienate an entire race, or even create undue harm to an entire demographic. Sometimes it’s immediate, but more often, the repercussions of these mistakes can build over time in challenging ways and leave damage that cannot be undone.
And let me just clarify … when I say design, I am not only referring to some social posts or ads … I’m referring to everything! Commercials, promotional videos, postcards, magazine ads, lead magnets, music videos … EVERYTHING!
So, let’s get to the bottom of it all, and talk about what diversity really is …
Diversity (by definition) is the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, variety, especially the inclusion of different types of people, as people of different races or cultures, in a group or organization.
And to start things off, a quote I truly admire by Bill Crawford who says …
Diversity, or the state of being different, isn't the same as inclusion. One is a description of what is, while the other describes a style of interaction essential to effective teams and organizations.
So, how can we as designers embrace diversity to make sure that a true and authentic picture is painted of how society really is?
Most days, we don’t consciously think about diversity because we are living it. It is a normal, constant living experience that we just know to be true. But unfortunately, this is not always the case, and diversity is missing from what we are shown in marketing and it is very, very noticeable. Especially now, in 2021, we are called upon more than ever to make sure authentic pictures of our lives are represented. And that includes people of colour, those who identify as LGBTQ+, those who affiliate with various religions, those who are disabled, and people of certain ages and genders.
In an age where design challenges can be both very locally focused but also global, the role of diversity, has never been more important. And the first-place diversity starts is in a designer’s mind.
When it comes to widespread design, we must rely on our instinct and intuition. If our default is a certain mindset, we cannot help but project what we think onto consumers. So, the first job we have, is not to design for ourselves. It’s about your mindset, not just YOUR demographic.
Today, most of the largest corporations seek out diversity as a natural part of their business needs. So, us “smaller” businesses need to start doing the same by looking at design through different lenses. (And not the rose-colored kind!) And of course, this once again, starts with the designers themselves as what we create ever so greatly affects audiences as imagery makes a huge impact and is the very first impression.
So, it must be a good one.
If a picture says a thousand words, what do the pictures you use say about you and your business’ values? And what are you going to do about it?
I believe the best way to create diverse perspectives in design is to integrate more training and learning opportunities in younger grade schools that teach students to question the idea of design right from the get-go. This seed is then planted at an exceedingly early age to help future designers learn how to naturally default to diversity in their design work, and quite honestly that is definitely what we are seeing now. Diversity is encouraged to be “the norm” and hopefully one day soon with enough loud talk and bigger actions, it becomes just that!
Exclusivity is no longer being tolerated by large entertainment firms, on the street, in our marketing materials, or even in some aspects of politics.
So, now let’s talk a little about inclusive marketing …
Inclusive marketing describes campaigns that embrace diversity by including people from different backgrounds as well as stories that unique audiences can relate to. While some campaigns try to break stereotypes, others simply aim to reflect or embrace people in what I like to refer as “the real world”.
More and more marketers are aiming to break the cycle of these sadly utilized advertising norms by highlighting people or groups that might be under, or completely misrepresented. Diverse marketing isn’t just a box you can tick. There are so many layers to diversity beyond gender or skin color. It’s also about age, geography, socio-economic diversity, relatable jobs, abilities, sexuality, gender, and so on.
And I feel Tim Allen, designer, says it best …
We should all understand how each of us is an individual and is unique, but also focus on what is universally important to all of us. That way, we can increase access, reduce friction, create a more emotional connection -- in literally whatever you design.
There is a tremendous example of just that from one of the world’s most well-known and notable companies in the world, Microsoft. It came to their attention that children with certain physical disabilities or missing limbs were having difficulty playing video games with traditional controllers. The company began working on an alternative controller which included touchpads instead of buttons and bright colors for the visually impaired. They also opened a channel of communication where disabled people who still couldn’t use the controller could write to them requesting customizations. This was then reflected in their print ads and online designs. The positivity and joy that was created with this campaign is a model for all creators and all designers, everywhere. Inclusivity can help brands connect on a deeper, more meaningful level with their audiences. It’s what we should all be striving for.
Now stepping sideways from the design aspect of things for a moment, here is how diversity in the workplace is two-fold …
We should be surrounding ourselves by a diverse group of colleagues that will constantly, and organically challenge our assumptions on the little we know outside of our individual worlds. And in the entrepreneurial world, we have the ability to seek out virtual team members that bring diverse input and talents to our work and into our preciously tight virtual circles. Then once we have that team in place, we need to explore how we use design to enable more inclusive experiences for the users and our clients.
And to bring this all home with another quote — this one courtesy of Paola Colombo …
It’s more than obvious that diversity is not just an HR topic, it’s a reflection of culture which influences how we live, how we communicate, what we need, which in turn influences the work we do as agents between our clients and the people they want to reach. As an agency expected to deliver innovation, we cannot create innovative work if our teams are homogeneous.
So, with that in mind, let’s dive deeply into 10 ideas we as designers can explore and implement into our design way of life moving into a forward-thinking age in order to create a better world for us all to live and feel safe in …
BUILD ACCESSIBLE EXPERIENCES.
The projects we work on are designed with most of our audience, users, and clients in mind. In some cases, there is truly little thought that is put into designing components in our marketing materials for most services and products that work for almost any individual. So, always focus on presenting more inclusive experiences.
The work we do as designers can help redefine the roles of masculine and feminine in our society. So, stop designing bright pink profile pages for women. Stop making your cooking app look delicate and super sweet. Stop using bro-language on game and sports websites. Use every opportunity you must redefine and redesign gender stereotypes as we no longer live in a he/she society.
Sadly, we have been conditioned toward homogeneity and non-diversity over the decades by media, pop culture, and its lack of diversity in TV, movies, music, books, magazines, and advertising — as a whole. As designers, we are putting our creativity out into the world so that we can help better represent a new type of normal. One that does not ill perceive based upon people’s differences, which makes us each unique.
CREATE CLEAR DIVERSITY GOALS.
We must understand how these goals we create connect to our overall business objectives and hold our team accountable for meeting those goals. So, it’s time to commit to the process fully and completely, by taking the time to understand how diversity impacts our designs and creativity, and how our offerings impact the
success of our business’ diversity initiatives.
WELCOME IDEAS THAT ARE DIFFERENT THAN OUR OWN.
The creativity that plays alongside with diversity can help us generate new and innovative ideas or perhaps even improve upon ones already in place. It can also make our beloved work more interesting, engaging, and fun. So, when we hear an idea that sounds strange and different than what we are used, we must give it some time before judging whether it is a good idea or not. It’s all about embracing the differences that our team and clients bring to the table.
CONSIDER BECOMING A MENTOR.
Mentorship requires a commitment of time but represents a valuable opportunity for personal and professional development. If you choose to do so, pick someone with a different background than yours. Someone from a different city, nationality, cultural background, gender, age range or race. There’s a favorable chance you will learn a lot from that person. And that you both will gain such invaluable insight and comradery in friendship and maybe even professionally.
LET THE STRENGTHS IN OTHERS SPARKLE.
Even though you own your own business, not everything can be about you. Especially if you have a team or are on one. We must help our team appreciate how every person has different strengths and how those strengths represent opportunities to grow and be more productive. Most people don’t even know what they’re naturally good at. Or they don’t believe they’re better at some things than others. So, awakening your group of favourite people to their inherent strengths can be an eye-opener. For everyone. It takes little effort and time and helps everyone grow together … The more opinions, the more variety, and the more diversity we bring to the table, the more creativity we can unleash.
CHANGE OUR MINDSET.
It’s easy to pay lip service to the idea of inclusive design. But what happens when designers actually sit down and create, how can we work better, smarter and more empathetically when it comes to diversity? Especially in a world where one digital product can quickly be seen by millions?
The actions we can take, today, to influence the direction the business world is headed and to allow for more diversity and inclusivity is more important that you may realize. The things we create have great impact on those who see them. And thanks to technology, at a quicker rate than ever before. So, it’s our responsibility to demonstrate best practices in this realm so we can begin to remove barriers by ensuring a safe environment alongside a “design for all” mindset and not just the majority. And in a way, we can use diversity to supercharge our creativity as we have the ability to change someone’s mind at the perfect moment. So, why not use that to our advantage for the power of the greater good?!
EDUCATE OUR CREATIVE SELVES.
If we want creative quality, we need creative diversity. The challenge is that some make this choice that diversity is a seasonal topic. There are endless possibilities when it comes to brushing up our design skills, where we get our resources from, and that includes mindset. Design that embraces diversity is not only preferred and desired, but it has become necessary and expected. So, include your audience. It’s easy to do because the nature of digital design is interactive, users can provide immediate feedback. Rather than the static design of the past century where things simply existed and set the trend, diversity in design is more of a conversation — it’s a symbiotic relationship between creatives and consumers where both sides are constantly striving to be inspired and informed.
And finally …
SPEAK YOUR MIND AGAINST DISCRIMINATION.
Don’t stay silent. Don’t let It slide. Whether it be from a client, a colleague, or something you see on social media. Remember that discrimination can happen in the most subtle comments, like when someone suggests women might have more difficulty understanding a complex technology than a man would or when someone judges a person’s understanding of a topic based on their accent and pronunciation of words. Stand tall. Speak loudly and clearly. Offer a different point of view inviting people to think from a different angle. And most of all, use your voice to elevate what you know to be true in your heart.
As we go about our lives, we stand alone together.
That is the world we need to design for, one of societal changes. And of course, these diversity and inclusion problems run much deeper than this. There is no quick fix. But we can all do better by being exceptionally mindful of what we put out into the world and always be true to what we believe in. As our love and inclusivity will shine through in every piece we put out into the world.
So, for now, the best we can all do is to act and build upon a shared language in a place where we can keep each other company and positively engage with everything and everyone that surrounds us. Through our digitally creative pieces, we can make an impact on the lives of others, the perception of our businesses and those of our clients, and maybe … just maybe, change the perception of someone tinkering on the edge of judgement or racism — of all means. It’s time to passionately believe that creativity is born of diversity. We can’t make a difference in just one minute, one hour, one day or even one year. But we can make a difference one design at a time …
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