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.

Photograph: Me during some more fun times as Marketing & Press Designer at Hawes & Curtis

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.”

Jonathan Mildenhall, CMO, Airbnb.

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.

Diversity in practice in the Financial Sector Source: Grant Thornton.

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.


Also published on Medium.

7 Comments

  1. Josie Thomas 9 April 2018 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you for this interesting and well researched article. As a member of an older generation I’m very aware of how much harder it has become to get into any professional job over the past 20 years. The unfairness of the system as it exists is obviously exacerbating the difficulties for BAME people. I do see some hopeful trends now. The gender pay gap legislation is revealing one whole area of gross discrimination and is causing shock horror around the media. Your information about the finance industry is heartening. More minority groups are gaining confidence and speaking up. Within the OCA we have a “neuro-diverse community” and a high proportion of people who have disabilities. It’s also cheaper than a standard uni course. The fact that UCA had the foresight to take on the OCA as their “distance learning arm” perhaps also reflects this ground swell of change. I hope so! Josie 505798

    Reply
    1. Ash Ahmed 10 April 2018 at 8:17 pm

      Hi Josie – Thanks you for taking the time to read and respond to my article. My article covers my perception of the industry based on what I see and have experienced as a designer from a BAME background – one thing I would like to cover in perhaps a future follow up post is the access issues those with disabilities have in getting into the industry. Its not my lived experience but this is something that is never talked about and I am aware that we are a “neuro-diverse community” and there are probably many students thinking where they fit into the equation without any visible people from that community in those careers. I think the OCA has and is playing an important role here but I would like to see it being more pro-active in carrying out its remit, in terms in being more active in how it encourages various communities in pursuing creative careers but also perhaps laying down a vision of a viable pathway beyond the institution into a career – I think for a lot of students with various access issues its the ‘how’ beyond the course as much as the ‘how’ while on the course.

      Reply
  2. Josie Thomas 12 April 2018 at 8:04 am

    Yes I understand that there is perhaps more the OCA could do to help students begin a career in the art and design industry after they have an OCA degree. I think my particular response to your article was triggered by your account of your colleague’s denial. It was a classic “avoidance of the elephant in the room” response. I experience the same knee-jerk reaction when I tell people I am autistic. It often takes the form of “Oh yes! We’re all on the spectrum somewhere aren’t we!” It amazes me that several people have actually said these words to me without the slightest interest or intention to listen or understand anything about it or acknowledge that I’m talking about my own lived experience. I know that your own situation is far more serious than this as you are at the beginning of a career, and experiencing repeated barriers to your own efforts to advance and find more satisfying work opportunities. It’s also part of a long cultural history of institutionalised discrimination over centuries. It is distressing to me to hear your experience. I know that many people have at least become embarrassed about the UK’s colonial past, but still are not willing to really look at how it plays out in their own workplace and industry, right now. They don’t find the courage to listen and ask the uncomfortable questions of senior management that will eventually bring about real change.

    Reply
    1. Ash Ahmed 12 April 2018 at 4:15 pm

      I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a cathartic process writing this post, many of the things mentioned in this post have been things I have thought and felt over the years, but this is the first time I have written it all down in one place and I have to say it was difficult reading it all back to yourself. I was also conscious that I wanted to be factually correct and evidence based, hence why I tried to include references and statistics where I could – it is sad but as we have seen on other issues of discrimination, the power dynamics are such that we don’t simply believe minority voices. I also wanted to be able to point to statistics to refute the idea this isn’t an issue, and the idea that I might have just been unlucky and had rough ride that was unusual.

      I think many minority voices don’t have the courage to speak out because of how they are then treated as result. People are fearful of their jobs and career prospects – it’s small sweaty club and its easy to be blacklisted based on hearsay rather than fact that come from due-process. To often the refrain is that you’re being “negative” or outright denial and this is often a tactic that is known by people who do work on race as “gaslighting”. I briefly mentioned it in my article, but I perhaps should have unpacked it as talking to friends I realised not everyone understands what this psychological term means. Its dictionary definition means “to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity or lived experience”. It is often used in politics and propaganda. In practical terms in the context of how minority voices are treated when they raise their issues are as follows:

      1. The Lie – This is the idea that the design industry is a progressive and liberal place and that these things can’t possibly happen here. This is an idea and gloss, that is re-affirmed when minority voices start to doubt it based on their experiences.

      2. The Denial – As a minority you know what is happening, and you have evidence even if it isn’t absolutely explicit. But they out and out deny it. It makes you start questioning your reality – maybe you’re imagining it? Maybe its because you’re just not good enough? And the more they do this, the more you question your reality in an effort keep you subdued not disrupt the status quo.

      3. The Threat – They use your career prospects against you. The general feel and implication is that if you do make an issue of it will harm your career. People talk, its a small bedded club. They will tell you’d be a more worthy person and achieve more in your career if only you weren’t so negative.

      4. The Wearing Down – This is one of the insidious things about gaslighting and is something that minority ethnic people experience so much when raising their grievances. It is done gradually, over time. No one is outright going to call you something explicitly offensive – they can’t due to our equality laws unless they want to go to a tribunal. It is more subtle a lie here, a lie there, veiled comments every so often… and then there is the practical biases that are hard to prove. Even the brightest, most self-aware person can be sucked into – it is that effective. It’s the “frog in the frying pan” analogy: The heat is turned up slowly, so the frog never realises what’s happening to it.

      5. The Actions Not Words – People in the industry will often say the right things but it means nothing – its just talk. The reality of what is going is in their actions or inactions.

      6. The Positive Affirmations – Often their will be a change of tack suddenly which is designed to disorientate someone who is starting to notice something amiss. This adds an additional sense of uneasiness. You think, “Well maybe designers aren’t so bad.” Yes, they are. This is a calculated attempt to keep you off-kilter and again, to question your reality of what is going on.

      7. The Confusion – Most people like having a sense of stability and normalcy. Often their is a slightly underhand psychological game being played when a minority designer has raised their concerns.The goal is to uproot this and make you constantly question everything and doubt yourself.

      8. The Discrediting – Often designers will try to discredit your place in the industry by critiquing your work. It will be said, you didn’t progress in the industry because you’re not a good designer and it is nothing to do with any barriers. This is designed to not only discredit but also demoralise you and make you fear the spotlight if the issue gets any prominence.

      9.The Aligning People Against You – This happened to me recently after this blog went up and I promoted it on twitter. It is a manipulation tactic designed to finding the people they know will stand by them no matter what and to use these people against you. It is designed to discredit you – the idea being that “look so many people are against this person, they must be wrong!” It is designed to isolate and discredit you and your concerns.

      10. The Anomaly – Often when a minority designer raises concerns about the industry or a diversity issue in a specific organisation they will wheel out an example of someone from a similar background that is ok and willing to testify and backup the prevailing narrative that their is nothing wrong. The aim is two-fold, first to show that yes they are progressive and nothing needs to be changed, and secondly to dismiss and bury the person who has raised their concerns using an “working, living, example”. Make no mistake though the minority person used for this purpose is being used as a pawn – they have likely been coerced and/or involved personally with person that wheeled them out in the first place.

      This is not exhaustive and there are variations on this theme, but as you can see its quite horrible and manipulative thing that is often so common in the design industry. There are people who don’t want the industry to change because theres a fear that it will be at their expense – and those that have done well out of the current system are thus reluctant to change the system that gave them their careers.

      Reply
  3. Kuljit 12 April 2018 at 6:51 pm

    Hi Ash
    Great article – lots for me to think about.
    Thanks for taking the time to write it!

    Kuljit

    Reply
  4. helen 14 April 2018 at 11:43 am

    Very interesting piece – thanks Ash. Accenture have made diversity a priority too (and are moving into the creative sector rapidly): https://www.accenture.com/gb-en/company-diversity Looking forward to see how this all plays out over the next few years.

    Reply
    1. Ash 20 April 2018 at 7:21 am

      Thanks Helen! I will look up Accenture’s work on this.

      Reply

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