Survey: Design Is 73% White

A major census of the design industry by the AIGA aims to help make it more diverse.

In 2014, when Antionette Carroll was tapped to lead a task force on inclusivity for the AIGA–the professional organization for designers–she found that the organization’s primary reference materials for diversity in design was a 1991 article entitled “Why Is Graphic Design 93% White?


“I thought, it’s good that we’re looking at these things, but these numbers are entirely inaccurate,” says Carroll, who is the founder of Creative Reaction Lab and president of AIGA’s St. Louis chapter. Not only were the numbers on race not up-to-date, but there was no resource for gender, sexual orientation, and disability for the industry. Then there was the fact that in 1991, the design industry looked completely different than it does today—jobs like data designer and interactive designer, which now make up a growing portion of AIGA’s membership, were not even on the map.

Carroll decided that if the AIGA was going to lead an effort to make the design industry more inclusive, it needed to have an accurate picture of who makes up the profession today. Now, nearly three years later, the AIGA has published the results of that effort in its 2016 Design Census Survey.

Google was brought on by Material Design lead Jonathan Lee, who is also the AIGANY president, and the company provided the funding and built the site. The partnership, along with the support of AIGA chapters nationwide, helped the census reach beyond just AIGA members. It ultimately polled 9,602 designers internationally about topics more diverse than just their salaries, offering the most nuanced and extensive snapshot of the industry from an AIGA-led survey.


The data is open-source and available to anyone, which the AIGA hopes will encourage designers and agencies to help communicate about issues of inclusivity and welcome people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives into the field. The AIGA is also encouraging designers to analyze and visualize the census data from their own perspectives, the results of which it’s publishing on the site’s gallery.

It’s the first of what the organization hopes will be an ongoing effort—either annually or biannually—to show the shifting forces of an industry that is “morphing every day,” as Julie Anixter, AIGA’s executive director, puts it. The final results paint a picture of that shifting industry, touching on educational background, diversity, job satisfaction, and the future of design.

How Diverse Is Design Today?

The results listed on the site offer a broad overview of the key takeaways from the survey, but the gallery is the place with the most interesting perspective of the results.


For instance, an infographic designed by Timothy Hykes, vice president of the AIGA St. Louis, shows that 55% of those surveyed were male and 44% were female. In terms of ethnicity, 73% of those surveyed were white, 7% were Hispanic, 8% were Asian, and 3% were African-American. These are better numbers than the 93% of the industry that was white in 1991, according to the AIGA article mentioned earlier, but it’s still nowhere near reflective of diversity nationwide, which is 17% Hispanic, 13% African-American, and a little more than 5% Asian. Anixter says that being on par with the U.S. census should be the goal for the design industry—one that will only be reached if design leaders commit to hiring for diversity, looking for and exposing the work of those outside of their own design circles and studios, and checking their unconscious biases.

To drive the point home, artist and designer Ekene Ijeoma took the census statistics on ethnicity and created a lovely web tool called “The Ethnic Filter” that captures your face via webcam and overlays a filter based on ethnicity. The image visualizes the field’s lack of diversity with the user at the center; the less your ethnicity is represented in design, the more opaque your image becomes.

[Image: Ekene Ijeoma]

How Happy Are Designers?

Other designers chose to look at another category in the census questionnaire: how happy designers are in their jobs. The global brand strategy firm Siegel + Gale made a video and print poster depicting the 80% of designers who said they were happy in their jobs. Interior designers, it turns out, were the happiest at 89%, while only 71% of architects reported being content in their jobs. Designers who are part-owners of their business, or are working in smaller organizations (one to five people), were most likely to report being happy at work. Unsurprisingly, the people on top are the happiest: 93% of designers in leadership roles said they were satisfied with their jobs.


The Washington, D.C.-based firm Maga Design dug into the causes for contentment in the industry and came away with a graph that show the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that drive designers in their careers—things like having a sense of purpose, a level of autonomy, and making an impact.

Video: Siegel + Gale

How Do Designers Talk About The Future Of Their Industry?

The survey also looked at the language designers used to talk about the future of their industry. The word “digital” topped the charts across almost every demographic, with “interactive,” and buzzwords like “innovative” and “human” coming in close behind. As Anixter pointed out, the word “data” is conspicuously missing, even though data visualization is a growing field—and poised to become even more important for fact-checking in the new post-truth world.

[Image: Maga Design]

The survey results and designer-led visualizations paint a broad, if somewhat scattered, picture of the industry, and it reveals more about the thinking, motivations, and makeup of those working in design today than any salary analysis would. Anixter says there are still areas, like design education and skill development, that they’d like to dig deeper into in the coming years. For now, the data is meant to offer a bird’s-eye view of diversity in design so that design leaders can be better equipped to address it.


Carroll says she also hopes that the census will allow designers to better understand their own field, and in turn be able to define the mission and how they want to be seen as an industry. Designers are often tasked with shaping and communicating the values of clients in other industries, but don’t often take the time to be introspective about their own. With the recurring Design Census, there will finally be a consistent method for measuring progress.


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.


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