For Vanessa Newman, building communities is like second nature. Their most recent one, Design to Divest, is on a mission to dismantle structural racism in the design industry. “Our goal is to shift real power collectively,” says Newman, a self-taught designer, creative strategist, and head of brand experience at Ethel’s Club.
In most creative industries today, power is held by white people. While 13% of Americans are Black, only three percent of designers are Black according to the AIGA’s 2019 Design Census—a percentage that hasn’t significantly changed over the past 50 years. Increasing equity and representation for people who identify as Black, Indigenous, or of color (BIPOC) in an industry that is built around whiteness demands seismic shifts in education, professional practice, institutions, and the mindsets of individual designers. It can also mean creating an entirely new system that centers Blackness. Design to Divest is one collective that is showing what that kind of system looks like.
“Divest means to free oneself from an authority,” says Annika Hansteen-Izora, a founding member of Design to Divest and creative director for Somewhere Good, a family of brands for BIPOC creatives, which includes Ethel’s Club. “So this was about freeing ourselves from a design industry that doesn’t take into account Black voices. That translates to divesting from the Eurocentric historical design cannon. That means divesting from platforms, brands, and agencies that do not center Black voices. It’s centering and making space for the Black designers that have always been here.”
“Divest means to free oneself from an authority.”
When New York City began its shelter-in-place orders for the Coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, Newman’s community-building instincts kicked in. They created Rise to Design, a virtual meetup for designers. The group—anywhere between three and ten people, mostly queer people of color, and ranging in experience from art directors to folks with one year of work behind them—gathered weekly for a couple of months to share their work and collectively design something based on a word or concept.
Then the killing of George Floyd happened, the protests for Breonna Taylor heated up, and the Black Lives Matter movement surged with more popular interest than before. “It felt frivolous to come together to be designing about just anything, and it felt like there was so much to design for,” Newman says. “It was just like, OK, if we’re already holding this space, let’s make it meaningful.”
A confluence of circumstances arose. There was an urgent need to share information—what to do in case you’re arrested at protests, where to donate funds, history and background information for the movement. At the same time more white designers were volunteering their services for BIPOC causes and creating the materials. “I had questions about non-Black designers who had never previously shown any public work or support for Black people suddenly starting to create these [Black Lives Matter] graphics,” Hansteen-Izora says. “I had questions about the position of non-Black designers taking up space, and speaking about a movement that is not theirs.”
Design to Divest became not only about mutual aid among Black creatives and causes, but pushing up against the structural racism in the entire industry.
The group changed its name to Design to Divest and on June 2, Newman posted an Instagram flyer inviting people to join the group and letting organizers know that if they needed services, Design to Divest could provide them pro-bono. It was intended to be a mutual aid network in which Black designers were creating for Black organizers and causes, amplifying each other’s voices. The group received more interest than Newman expected. More than 500 people signed up and the majority were mostly white people and non-Black people of color. “The design industry almost replicated itself before my very eyes,” Newman says.
Newman estimated that only 6% of the people in Design to Divest were Black (part of the sign-up process included self-identifying race). There were more people offering their services than there were clients requesting design work, which changed the nature of the group. The community was now mostly composed of allies and aspiring allies, and this was the first time Newman was leading a group that wasn’t majority Black. Design to Divest became not only about providing mutual aid among Black creatives and causes, but pushing up against the structural racism in the entire industry. The needed work from allies couldn’t be only about offering services—it had to be something deeper.
“It was this feeling of like: Was anyone at their companies fighting for Black designers to be hired? Was anyone fighting for Black designers to be promoted? Was anyone starting their own decolonize design lunch-and-learn at their agency?” Newman says. “If you’re really honest with yourself, you realize the answer is probably no.”
Design to Divest is still in very early stages—it’s just shy of one month old—and the group is working to establish its structure, building systems to take in design services requests, and creating a list of demands of the design industry for education and workforce conditions. Right now there are more designers than clients, so the group has been making self-initiated templates around causes like making Juneteenth a national holiday and the case for reparations.
Figuring out a sustainable way to fund the work of Design to Divest is another priority. While not wanting to contribute to pay inequality, Design to Divest also recognizes that Black organizers might not have the funds for services. To that end, the collective is exploring a subscription membership model paid by non-Black members of the group to ensure that Black designers in the group get paid. (Newman says there are about 30 Black designers in the group, 15 of whom are in the core leadership team.) There’s continuing education happening about what true allyship looks like, which involves not just hiring more Black designers but making sure that workplaces are spaces where Black designers want to be and will thrive.
“If this many people are genuinely committed to actually changing the design industry and really believe in Black lives—not just designing around Blackness or designing around Black people in need—you’re really here because you genuinely care about divestment from white structures, divestment from a system that centers whiteness, and decolonizing your design practice,” Newman says. “Hopefully the people in our group not only want to design flyers, but want to design new systems that support not just Black lives that are being murdered, but Black lives that are in their vendors’ offices and are applying for the same jobs as them.”
The work of Newman, Izora, and the leadership of Design to Divest is about creating new systems and structures in which Black designers can thrive. In an essay about what it means to decolonize design, designer and writer Anoushka Khandwala says: “[I]t’s important not just to bring people to the table, but also to ask yourself, what sort of seat are you offering?”
Design to Divest is both the seat and the table. “The table that I’m trying to build is a table in which Blackness is centered, Black designers are centered, and those who are trying to pull up and take a seat sit back and listen,” Newman says. “We’re creating a table where everyone who pulls up is down to genuinely, and ambitiously, shift what currently exists.”