Read any article or report about minorities within the design industry and you’ll come across the words “excluded,” “oppressed,” and “unequal.” It’s not that these terms are inaccurate, or even that they shouldn’t be used (I’ve used them repeatedly myself). But they tend to paint a rather despondent picture for those who wish to pursue a career: Who wants to jump into their first job with the weighty anticipation of feeling “oppressed?”
Having someone to inspire you can alleviate some of the dread. As a female graphic designer of color, role models have proven an integral part of my creative journey. The knowledge that you’re not alone—that someone has walked this path before and made a success of it—is a time-old solution to feeling out of place. Role models, as well as providing relatable representation, can act as mentors or colleagues with which to form a community. They don’t necessarily need to be years ahead of you in your career: some of the people who have inspired me most are my peers.
When you exist as a minority within a structure that favors the majority, your mere existence becomes activism. This often involves having to adapt behaviours (see: code-switching) simply to be accepted. The result is an ongoing sense of fatigue; surrounded by people who don’t look like you or come from a similar background can lead to micro-aggressions building up, a niggling feeling of imposter syndrome, and an overwhelming sense that you don’t belong.
To celebrate the feeling of belonging to a community, I got in touch with a few of my role models and asked them to share the same advice that I once found so valuable. First, I spoke with educator Kelly Walters who taught me while I was studying at Central Saint Martins. At a time when I struggled to see myself represented in the industry I was hoping to enter into, Walters proved an invaluable guide in my design education. Indiana Lawrence is one of my peers from CSM—she inspires me daily with the authenticity and empathy. And Kaajal Modi contacted me after learning that we both shared a passion for creating change for women of color within the industry. The Women of Color Facebook group we formed together has since grown to 200 members, and we have become fast friends. I hope that the stories and experiences of these admirable practitioners will be as valuable to you as they have been to me.
Kelly Walters, on Representation in Design Education…
“To me design education is about teaching how to listen and see. I’m often hyperconscious of sensing discomfort or uncertainty with my students. This is probably a direct result of being in situations in the past where people failed to hear what I was saying or understand the perspectives that I offered when I was a student. This gets further complicated when race, privilege, and power dominate whose voice is elevated.
“I’m interested in how design students of color can be misguided or redirected when it comes to creating design projects that deal specifically about race or identity. When I was a grad student at RISD, I met a lot of undergraduate students of color that echoed stories about how they, and their ideas, were stereotyped. To me, there has always been friction around the aspects of graphic design that force people or ideas to conform. The use of a grid can in some ways be a noose.
“I see people as typefaces, with various contours that yield different thick and thin strokes.”
“I see design education as more than just learning about grid systems or making the perfect website. Rather, it’s about adapting the tools of design like typography, layout and composition to community building. I see people as typefaces, with various contours that yield different thick and thin strokes. Creating space for different perspectives is extremely important in my practice and I see this a form of layout composition. Curating opportunities to bring people together allows for celebration and recognition. I’m interested in the small things, like listening, celebrating, and paying attention to emotional responses.
“I’m interested in sharing my experiences to help emerging design students—especially marginalized students of color—feel like their goals, their designs, and their ideas are possible and worthy of discussion.”
Kelly Walters is an Assistant Professor of Communication Design in Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York. Her practice is concerned with explorations of race and identity, in the form of exhibitions, websites, and the printed form.
Indiana Lawrence, on the Importance of Community…
“Design is something that relies on community in the sense that it is a form of communication and so is inherently something shared. With this in mind, feedback and support are incredible working tools for designers and alternative perspectives can often enrich an idea. Design is never one-sided.
“Community is particularly key for marginalized groups as isolation can be such a real prospect. With the design industry being so dominated by white males, it leaves a whole group of people questioning their validity and their place within the design community. I think one of the key things to remember about communities is that they exist to support and nurture, and inclusivity is vital.
“With the design industry being so dominated by white males, it leaves a whole group of people questioning their validity and their place within the design community.”
“Strong communities exist within disciplines like risography, such as the newly formed Riso Working Group. RWG is a really positive, supportive group of riso practitioners/technicians/enthusiasts based in London, who work together to help grow the community. It can be the case that businesses doing similar things feel threatened by competition, but the presses in RWG are all willing to help grow each others businesses with a shared passion for the medium at their core.
“Another brilliant community that specifically supports minorities within design is The Other Box, a Facebook group founded by Leyya Sattar and Roshni Goyate. As well as gaining support and advice, I had the chance to take part in a campaign for Nike in collaboration with TOB, running design workshops at NikeTown which were delivered to young girls featuring our own designs. Without the TOB, I can’t imagine I would have had an opportunity like that so early in my design career. At the time, I definitely underestimated the power of the collective.
“People get a hand up from others and then are able to pay it forward to the next generation. I feel like I’m now in a position to give back to the communities in which I exist, particularly young women of color.”
Indiana Lawrence is a designer and printmaker based in London who finds inspiration in overlooked narratives. To her, DIY thinking and making is a reclamation of power.
Kaajal Modi, on Freelance, Studio, and In-House Life…
“The precarity of self employment is difficult, but the freedom is amazing. I’ve personally found studio environments stressful, and not particularly nurturing. However, I’ve loved working in-house for organizations: the culture is so completely different (particularly if they’re doing something that you believe in). There tends to be less ego, but equally less exposure.
“I think it’s no coincidence that, despite the fact that young women make up more than a half of design education [students], you’ll find more women in in-house design roles than in studios. There are so many studios doing great work in changing this, but there’s a culture of pale, male, and stale that persists, and I feel like that’s to the detriment of design. Diversity has such a capacity to enrich the creative fields.
“There’s a culture of pale, male, and stale that persists, and I feel like that’s to the detriment of design.”
“I remember during my Masters program, one particularly telling example of this was when one of our studio leaders, a (white, male) designer, stood up in front of a group of (predominantly women, international/diverse) students right at the beginning of the course, and told us that very few of us would make it as designers. It was sort of funny to me as by that point I’d been practicing for years, but there were loads of people in that room who’d come straight from their undergraduate degrees, and so it also made me feel really sad and tired. It’s exactly this sort of exclusionary, competitive, and narrow attitude that reproduces the same toxic masculinity within design spaces.
“It’s not easy making creative work. It’s intimate, you’re putting something of yourself out there each time, it’s brave but it’s also terrifying, and there will always be someone who doesn’t like it. You’ll learn more from failure than you ever will from unbridled success, and that will make you better at what you do.
“Ultimately, remember to prioritize your health over your work. Burnout is very real, and self care is extremely important. Capitalism teaches us to tie our self-worth to our productivity, and those of us who were raised by migrant parents will always feel this pressure more. We’ve been taught that we have to earn our right to be here, and I’m here to tell you that that’s total bullshit.”
Kaajal Modi is currently undertaking her PhD at the Digital Cultures Research Centre at University of the West of England in Bristol, having freelanced as a designer for five years. This included working at the Labour Party during the Remain campaign and the 2017 General Election.