Fusing Design + DEI: Gimmick or Opportunity?

image credit: stone soup creative

A question that has been coming up for me more and more: can aspects of design be merged with “DEI, JEDI, DEIBA, DEIBAJ, etc”? Should it be?

NOTE — a quick reference guide: d = diversity, e = equity, i = inclusion, b = belonging, a = accessibility, j = justice

A large part of this question comes from my own search for “my people”. Through career happenstance I’ve built up skill and experience in operations, design, equity, and people. But I’m not sure I’d call myself an Equity Strategist, nor a DEI Professional, nor a Designer, nor an BizOps or People Strategist. At least, not independently from each other.

Being in this Venn diagram of strategy & operations , transdisciplinary design, and equity/justice advocacy can often be confusing to others and frankly for me as well at times.

That said, are there opportunities for people who can see a through-line between operations/organizations, equity, design…to make significant impact…for the betterment of society? Is the niche space of Design & DEI work a gimmick…or an opportunity?

“We Only Do Bias Trainings”- A Call for a Better Type of DEI

image credit: marvel

If you were to ask me who I follow in DEI, I’d give you names like Tara Jaye Frank, Michelle MiJung Kim, Aiko Bethea, Lily Zheng, and Xavier Ramey.

There are a lot of practitioners, thought leaders, and influencers out there working in the DEI space. TONS, and some frankly with no business of professionally engaging with this work while trying to profit opportunistically off of Black and Brown pain. However, what distinguishes these above folks from “traditional DEI’ers” for me is that, long before 2020, they all seemed to acknowledge that “DEI” or whatever it’s called at the moment is a worthless endeavor unless organizations and its people are willing to name the systemic oppressive constructs and policies that are embedded in every aspect of how we live our lives. They are unapologetic about engaging in that dialogue with clients as a way to ground their solutions in a systems-adhering way — ultimately effectively cracking at root causes (i.e. implicit bias training was never the end goal). They are willing to be self reflective about the critiques of the DEI industry (is it helpful or harmful? is it a sham?).

This work is toll-taking on its laborers and it is not for the faint of heart. These folks are in it for the long haul though.

Let’s Hack Racism? It’s Not as Simple as Designing to Eliminate Oppression

image credit: the conversation

Now, concurrently, on the Design side, if you were to ask me who I follow in Equity Design you would get answers like: Creative Reaction Lab, ChiByDesign, Hmnty Centered, Lesley Ann Noel, and Equity Meets Design.

What distinguishes these organizations and folks from “traditional social design”? Again, a pre-2020 acknowledgement that design thinking and as an extension, social design, are founded on values that hold whiteness as the center, as the supreme. You cannot just be a “social design firm” or a “social innovation firm” and assume you are anti-racist. In fact, without committed self reflection and self work, it’s very likely that your design practices are firmly rooted in racist foundations due to the inordinate level of Western white influences (over everything else) in what is taught, named, and branded as “good design”. Audre Lorde once said that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and it is indeed true here, unless dedicated deconstruction and reconstruction is brought to bear on what we know as design.

Indeed, design, even in the social sector, can be incredibly damaging, exploitative, and exclusionary to the people it’s purported to care about or “help”.

All of this said, with the acknowledgement of the challenges in the fields of “DEI” and “Equity Design”, is there truly a place for a merging of Equity Design with DEI to address issues of inequity, injustice, and oppression within institutions?

Before looking at examples of firms trying to walk that tightrope (ayyyye), let’s examine what some see as core competencies of DEI professionals and Equity Designers.

“I can’t complain about it, I gotta keep my balance”

DEI Core Competencies

Tara Robertson, a DEI Consultant, lists the core DEI competencies as the following:

  1. be strategic
  2. translate academic research into action and measure the impact of initiatives
  3. meet people where they are at and help them move to be more inclusive
  4. influence others
  5. get cross functional projects done.

Equity Design Core Competencies

Tania Anaisse, a Liberatory Designer, lists the core aspects of liberatory design as the following:

  1. Notice
  2. Reflect
  3. See the System
  4. Empathize
  5. Define
  6. Inquire
  7. Imagine
  8. Prototype
  9. Try

So… Is There an Opportunity here? There? Where?

To me, the immediate opportunity of merging a workplace equity lens with an equity design lens include (but are not limited to) the following: being able to assess flaws in organizational systems and processes, being able to co-identify said flaws, being able to co-design solutions with members of oppressed populations in an institution, and having the strategic and project-management know how to land the project plane with metrics/OKRs to boot.

A gimmicky caution — before both of ya’ll long time practicing DEI professionals and Equity Designers come for me in the comments, let me acknowledge something. DEI professionals can’t just take a single design class and master equity design for use in DEI. Equity Design professionals can’t just take a single DEI class and master DEI methods for use in design. Both methodologies deserve and demand a consistent level of engagement, failure, observation, learning, especially in an organizational / operational context. We need mentors, collaborative learning spaces, and trusted contemporaries in our fields to call us out and in and constructively critique our practices.

Having said that, who is out there right now walking on the fence between Equity Design and DEIBAJ? Let’s look at a few examples.

Fearless Project

Mahrukh ‘Maya’ Hasan (she/they) founded the Fearless Project in 2020, after more than a decade of working in the social impact sector and being frustrated with the hypocrisy of the sector of “good”.

Fearless Project is a global learning community for workplace diversity, equity and inclusion. We have a bold vision of a world where every human being lives a full and purposeful life while being their true, authentic selves. We work towards this by offering diversity & inclusion training, coaching, and a built-in community that is intersectional, accessible, fun, and just as passionate and committed as you!

You can find out more about Fearless Project here. You can follow Mahrukh here.

Decolonize Design

Decolonize Design is leading a movement to envision a more just and joyful world. Their leader, Aida Mariam Davis, has put out a number of well circulated articles that assert “DEI has been woefully insufficient in addressing the individual and institutional challenges in workplaces — particularly assaults to personal dignity” and that, in its place, organizations should look to Belonging, Dignity and Justice as the alternative.

You can find out more about Decolonize Design here. You can follow its founder, Aida Mariam Davis, here.

Onward

Onward designs and delivers innovative learning experiences that build personal and organizational capacity for change. Their vision is to embolden individuals and communities to dismantle systems of oppression, to be the change, and to build an equitable world.

Onward’s professional consulting services include organizational strategy, executive coaching programs, learning opportunities, assessments, and tools to support partners in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. They also operate an R&D lab, using human-centered design approaches to apply learnings from different sectors, design experiences, build exhibits, and innovate tools, all aimed at dismantling systems of oppression.

You can learn more about the folks at Onward and their work here. You can follow its founder, Thaly Germain, here.

Pause & Effect

Pause and Effect is an anti-urgency inclusive design consultancy. They audit design practices and help orgs build inclusive and responsible products and services.

Sabrina Meherally (she/her) founded Pause and Effect to challenge urgency culture in innovation — encouraging organizations to deeply contemplate impact in order to innovate thoughtfully, inclusively and responsibly, with people and planet in mind.

Sabrina and her team partner with organizations to help build/iterate upon products and services, so that they are usable by, respectful to and delightful for a diverse customer base. You can learn more about Pause & Effect here. You can follow Sabrina here.

True Fiktion

TrueFiktion is an ed-tech company that delivers comics, curriculum, and community around the untold stories of marginalized groups. They believe that the battle for equity and equality starts with the history we learn as adolescents. They exist to tell the untold stories of marginalized groups in a way that humanizes them and helps students, teachers, and adults understand how to improve our society. TrueFiktion provides comics, curriculums, and community to empower people to talk about history.

From the perspective of Steph Manuel, the founder of TrueFiktion, engaging content that brings history to life and empowers teachers to create life-changing learning environments is no longer a nice to have. It’s critical to keeping students interested in achieving academic outcomes. Culturally Responsive and Antiracist content needs to be engaging and thoughtfully crafted for the classroom and students.

You can learn more about TrueFiktion here. You can follow Steph Manuel here.

Colored

Colored was a company run by the amazing Theresa Slate. It’s goal was to help companies and organizations create more inclusive environments for creatives of color. It was born out of the frustration at the lack of authentic conversation and inaction around diversity and inclusion, and its goal was to help attract, retain, and promote creatives of color within organizations.

Using human centered design methods such as user research and ideation, Colored worked to shed light on the issues organizations faced by using real people who were going through it. They also endeavored to work together with key stakeholders and employees alike to co-create realistic solutions that organizations could implement and sustain.

Even Theresa retired the company, we are giving all of the damn flowers to her and Colored. Colored was out there before any of the above firms finding that sweet spot between design and DEI. And before venture capital found it profitable post 2020 to invest in DEI solutions.

Unpacking

Unpacking is on a mission to educate, entrust and equip people today in the collective responsibility for a more equitable tomorrow. Unpacking is named after anti-racist educator Peggy McIntosh’s famed article, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Unpacking is named after anti-racist educator Peggy McIntosh’s famed article, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Published in 1989, the year Unpacking’s founder, Kristina Ashley Williams, was born, McIntosh’s work outlined a reflective list of unearned assets white people inherently own because of the color of their skin. The double entendre also describes the term often used in therapeutic practice to further investigate a topic in effort to understand new meaning. Unpacking by design acknowledges the mental, physical, financial, spiritual, and emotional labor exhausted by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color on a daily basis just to navigate society. This informs the design of Unpacking’s experiential facilitation that guides collaborative exchange between peers in the most transparent and authentic ways.

You can learn more about Unpacking here. You can follow Kristina Ashley Williams.

Your Turn to Share

Folks, what other folks or firms out there are intentionally trying to merge DEI / DEIJBA / JEDI, etc with Equity Design? Are you? Or maybe someone you know of? Please fill out this google survey to share who (maybe you?) is out there trying to make this work happen.

Additionally, the google spreadsheet of this survey can be found here for your reference on this nacent but growing space.

As I get more responses, I’ll feature your firm or practice on here, as well.

At the intersection of design, equity, operations, & people: Designer (service & equity) • Strategist (bizops & people) • Equity (org change models/tools)