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Tech Has A Diversity Problem–So This Designer Went To Kentucky

John Maeda, the head of Automattic’s design and inclusion program, sets up students in coal country with prestigious designers.

Tayler Bussey, 17, lives in Paintsville, Kentucky–the heart of coal country. She loves to do art, but design wasn’t something she’d ever envisioned as a career.

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That is, until she became member of the Appalachian Graphic Design Fellowship Program through her high school. The program, spearheaded by design luminary and head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic, John Maeda, aims to expose high school students in Kentucky to design as a career path while showing them the possibilities of remote work. The students were able to interview high-profile designers like Michael Bierut, Marian Bantjes, and Minchaya Chayosumrit, as well as Automattic designers, to learn about their jobs in graphic design.

[Photo: courtesy Automattic]
Technology and design have a diversity problem–mostly, a lack of women and racial minorities. But there are other kinds of diversity that these industries lack: geographic and cultural. Design firms and technology firms are heavily concentrated in cities on the west and east coasts, particularly in San Francisco, L.A., and New York, limiting job opportunities to those who have the resources to move to, and live in, such expensive metropolises. And with so many designers living in urban centers, few have the perspective that comes from living in rural areas.

As the head of design and inclusion for Automattic, which runs WordPress.com, one of Maeda’s charges is to ensure that the company does have a diverse workforce. And because WordPress’s growth depends upon people creating websites, the company has to reach people who may not have thought about making a site for their small business or expressing themselves online.

[Image: Ale Paul]
Maeda’s idea for the project, called A3, originated when the designer went to West Virginia as part of former U.S. CTO Meg Smith’s Tech Jobs Tour, which aims to bring technical jobs to the country outside of the coasts. One motivation: “How could we really as a tech company engage more populations that fall outside the normal Silicon Valley culture?” Maeda says.

At the event, Maeda met David Gibson, the superintendent of the Paintsville school district. “He had this idea that the company I’m at, Automattic, which is all remote, that people could be in Paintsville and get a full-time job without leaving the area,” Maeda says. “A lightbulb went off, that my kids could do that, and live where their families have lived for generations, and still have an income and benefits.”

But there aren’t just implications for a region that has suffered from economic woes. The initiative also could open students’ minds to the possibilities of the internet–whether they choose to stay in Paintsville or not. “I think one of the things that John’s doing through this initiative and others like this one is trying to dismantle the economic and cultural barriers that have come up–particularly the cultural ones,” says Michael Bierut. “Culturally, [it’s] the idea that you have access to the internet and access to the tools that put the means of communication in your own hands. I think the goal of the project is to let students in Kentucky understand that they can have a voice as prominent as anyone else on the internet.”

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One element of design’s lack of diversity is the so-called “pipeline problem”–that potential designers are either pushed out of the field early or never find out about it in the first place. But there’s a significant demand for designers, particularly in Silicon Valley–and sparking young geographically diverse students’ interest in the field is an easy way to increase the field’s talent pool. (It’s also a matter of self-interest for Maeda, whose job is to encourage the diversity of Automattic’s teams and the inclusiveness of its products. “I imagine in six years, [these students] will either come knocking on our door or the door of a Github or any other company that has remote work because they knew about it when they were in high school,” he says.)

While the program exposes the students to a new field and a new way of working, the students were also able to share their experience of the world with the often urban-based Automattic designers.

[Image: Michael Bierut]
Along with talking to the Paintsville students about what it means to be a designer, each of the prominent designers also created digital posters for a new series of WordPress domains, with urls like, “home.blog,” “music.blog,” and “poetry.blog.” For instance, Michael Bierut of the New York-based graphic design firm Pentagram created a simple but powerful illustration of the word “home,” with the “o” replaced by an Earth for home.blog, which will feature his interview with the Paintsville high school student Sonia Williams. The famous pattern designer Marian Bantjes created a striking geometric motif for science.blog, while the Thai graphic designer Minchaya Chayosumrit and an abstracted image of an aperture for photo.blog. In essence, they’re posters for the digital age.

Along with the designers’ posters, the students’ interviews with each designer will live on these sites, which will act like mini advertisements to encourage people all over the world to create their own websites.

Along with his goal of bringing Automattic’s technology to more people and publicizing the company’s newest domains, Maeda hopes that the Automattic designers who worked with the students will have takeaways of their own.

“It’s working with people who are not geographically close to you, number one. It’s working with people who might not have the same skill sets as you, number two. When you do that as someone who makes experiences, designing or engineering or product managing them, you realize that you yourself are not very smart,” Maeda says.

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Curiously, none of the students I spoke with expressed an interest in going into design. The 17-year-old Bussey wants to be a physical therapist when she grows up. But the project did expand her view of how she might combine her passion for health with art, and raised possibilities about how remote work might be a way to gain access to other types of jobs that aren’t available in Paintsville.

“I knew about it but I didn’t know you could do it with graphic design,” she says. “And I feel like that opened up new possibilities for me in the future.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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