One of these is a lot like the other (illustration by Anna Kovecses)

In an age where design challenges can be both hyper local and global, the role of diversity—whether that means race, gender, sexuality, age, or simply, point of view—has never been more important. Recognizing that the goals of creating a diverse design community is paramount in 2015, Pratt organized a panel discussion for some of the industry’s top thinkers to parse out the difficulties and advancements in making the world of design a more inclusive place.

Erica Eden, the director of global design innovation for PepsiCo; Bibhu Mohapatra, founder and creative director of his eponymous fashion label; Pentagram partner Eddie Opara; Switzer Group CEO Lou Switzer; and moderator J.J. McCorvey of Fast Company, recently sat down to talk about education, opportunity, and why the first place diversity starts is in a designer’s mind.

The panel agreed that the current issues concerning diversity in the world of design had come a long way from affirmative action, which was the biggest push for diversity in the 1970s, when Lou Switzer started his firm The Switzer Group, the first all-minority owned design firm in the world. Switzer noted that today, most large corporations seek out diversity as a natural part of their business needs.

Pentagram’s Eddie Opara argued that the changes we need to see now are systematic. “If you have a homogenous structure that works, what’s the point in changing it?” he asked, adding that firms need to look at design through enough different lenses. Of course, this starts with the designers themselves. The best way to create diverse perspectives in design? Integrate more training and learning opportunities in primary and secondary schools that teach students to question the idea of design from the get go.

For PepsiCo’s Erica Eden, many of the issues designers face come from having a limited perspective. “We always talk about a designer default. When it comes to design for the masses, we have to rely on our instinct and intuition. If our default is a certain mindset, we cannot help but project what we think onto that consumer. The first job we have to do is not design for ourselves. It’s about your mindset, not your demographic.”

Switzer also believes that these global perspectives drive innovation.

“Diversity and innovation are related. When you have diversity you have variety, and to create something new, you need that diversity.”

But the problem with accurately reflecting the multiplicity of consumers, according to the panel, is that the workplace culture simply hasn’t caught up with the way we actually live and interact with one another.

“Everybody wants to do better,” said Eden. “The problem is that we work in the same way we used to 10, 20, 50 years ago. It’s antiquated, designed by the men who used to go to work in the best way that makes sense to them, but it’s not the most relevant structure for the way we live today. I believe the absence of women in design is because the workplace was not designed for them.”

Eden is one of the founding members of FEMDEN, an organization that provides tools and training for women designers, inspired by the issues she faced after joining the Nike design team. “The assumptions about women are that we, as designers, have an understanding of who our consumer is based on our understanding of the world. We can’t assume we know everything, but at the same time, we’re empowered to be intuitive thinkers.”

Opara found similar roadblocks with the “lad culture” in the UK before he moved to the United States. He observed a significant difficulty in injecting new ideas into a workplace culture that has been established by working class white men decades ago, now resistant to change. He and Mohapatra both experienced the growing pains of a sort of diaspora in the global design community, facing resistance from firms and employers who balked at issuing Visas, even for qualified candidates. Both men noted that it was one of their goals to help strengthen that global design perspective by helping younger designers in similar situations, especially students.

“It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to learn design in that formative time when my mind was more plastic and it would stick,” noted Eden, who didn’t learn about design until she was applying to grad school at age 25.

So where do we go from here? The universal answer from everyone on the panel was education–increasing the “breadth and depth” (in Opara’s words) of the access young students have to design philosophy and opportunities. Programs like design labs, early education, and minority outreach (like the ACE mentor program) are all ways to offer a wider community of people the tools to become great designers.

Moving forward truly depends on whether a new generation of designers has access to the tools they need to expand their minds and orient their goals toward being a designer. Improving design education may sound like an obvious next step, but what this means in an ever-changing world both in and outside of design firms, organizations, and schools is extremely tricky. You can get involved with AIGA’s Design Educators Community, as well as our Diversity & Inclusion and Women’s Leadership initiatives.