"How can we design a more perfect design union?" event; photo c/o Plural

Last week 100 pioneering designers, illustrators, and other visually minded members of the creative community gathered to put some of the ideas in our article “Can We Design a More Perfect Design Union?” and talk about what is right and what is wrong with the way we work today, and ultimately, what we can do about it. Scratch that—what we will do about it. Because at the end of the night, we came up with a number of ideas we think are worth pursuing.

Among us were students and recent grads; small business owners and studios-of-one; freelancers and independent contractors; CEOs and entrepreneurs; educators and mentors. We came from a wide range of personal and professional backgrounds, and ultimately discovered that we had way more in common than I think anyone anticipated. Which alleviated a major concern of mine: could we really get a disparate network of independent-minded people to band together, to volunteer their time and energy, and to risk sacrificing a few individual freedoms for the greater good of their community? Was I being naively altruistic when I sent these event invites out? But the excitement to begin this conversation was palpable, and the enthusiasm to carry it forward convinced me otherwise.

Walking around the room during the workshop portion of the evening, I caught snatches of conversation like, “It took me forever to figure out how to set my hourly rate. I was underpaid for years,” and, “The only way I can get this one client to pay my invoice is to email them every single day. They probably think I’m a total asshole, but they’re the ones not paying me.” Everyone seemed to be grappling with the same issues, all while thinking they were in it alone. As if reading my mind, an attendee walked by me, saying, “I’m just so glad that we’re all finally talking about this—together.”

It was the first productive conversation the design community has had in a looooong while about labor and workplace rights, and we didn’t have nearly enough time to cover all the issues people brought up. Our six special guest presenters kicked it off by asking:

“Can we create a community of transparency around wages and rates? Can we create a knowledge base of helpful resources for those just starting out in their careers?” —Ping Zhu, illustrator

“What could an organized body like a union do to close the wage gap? How can people learn how to negotiate pay and set their rates?” —Mike Tully, graphic designer, art director of The Brooklyn Rail

“How can education play a role in bringing people together towards collective action? How can UX design play a role in bridging the gap between our online lives and the human element that’s necessary to build a community?” —Steven Heller, graphic design author and educator

“How can collective action be used to address the lack of diversity in design leadership? How can we work together collectively to make things better for our employers, too?” —Jessica Brown, co-founder of Work By

“How can we bake diversity + inclusion into policy and real action? How can the work environment be regulated to make it a fair and equitable place?” —Tori Hinn, graphic designer, founder of Women of Graphic Design

“What’s the role of a bill of rights, and how do you decide what to put in it? What might improve our lives as designers, and what demands could we make that might  improve the conditions for other workers in a similarly precarious situation?” —Will Luckman, co-founder and organizer of the New York City-Democratic Socialists of America Tech Action Working Group

After listening to all the presenters and reading over the notes from all the workshops, my two big takeaways were, 1) Where has all the good information gone? and 2) Now that we’ve had a good (productive!) group venting session, how do we move forward towards action?

1. Knowledge Base
Problem: The resources and information currently available are scattered around online, and the quality is all over the place, too. The answer to your problem might exist, but it’s difficult to access.

Potential solution: Create a centralized knowledge base for people at a variety of career stages  and with a variety of needs. Bonus points for creating a community board where this knowledge can be exchanged conversationally, and in real-time.

Next steps: Eye on Design wants to spearhead this, but we need some help. If you’re interested in design research, community access, or sponsoring this as a platform, please get in touch.

2. Bill of Rights
Problem: How can we create a bill of rights that addresses the needs of both independent workers and businesses? Because if this collective group is bad for business (as many businesses contend unions are) then it won’t work in the long-run.

Potential solution: Create a small, short-term task force comprised of individuals, business owners, and corporate employees. It should be small to start so that scheduling meetings isn’t an issue; and it should have an expiration date so the conversation doesn’t languish in task force hell.

Next steps: This is the immediate action required to organize a community towards a common purpose. We are but humble editors and writers, so we’re looking for a leader with some civic knowhow to take the helm.

3. Bonus takeaway: Unfortunate terminology
The word “union” carries too much unnecessary baggage. And it’s not even an accurate term for what we want to create here. Scrap that. New term needed. I’m currently toying with “collective.” Add your thoughts to the shared Google Doc at the end.

Yes, there’s much to be done, but we’re going to set realistic goals and take it step by step. I know the people who believe in creating a fair and equitable workplace aren’t deterred by a little hustle. In the past few months that I’ve been researching and reporting on this topic, I’ve found that younger people are more energized about banding together to form an action-oriented collective group than I ever thought possible; and I’ve found that older people aren’t just highly skeptical of unions and organized worker groups, but many of the successful ones have become so comfortable and complacent in their seats at the design altar that they have no personal incentive to change the status quo, even if the young designers they work with might.

At the end of the evening, Steve Heller sat back in his chair and told his workshop group, “This has been very illuminating, but at the same time very daunting.” He emailed me very early the next morning with a page full of ideas.

“The issue here isn’t that these things can’t be done, or that the system can’t be overhauled,” said Will Luckman. “We are in a position of power to make these demands if we properly organize and are strategic about our methods. But whatever we decide, it starts here in rooms like this with us communicating and setting out our demands. Once we have clearly articulated what we want to change, we can begin planning our course of attack.”

The best way to stay informed is to sign up for the Eye on Design newsletter, where we’ll be sharing news and events with our readers. If you want to get more involved, become a contributor to our open-source Google Doc where we’re collecting information and ideas for the Design Collective.

by Tala Safie