Over the past few months, companies have rushed to beef up their diversity bona fides, posting messages in support of Black Lives Matter and implementing programs to increase equity. But many critics say these efforts are just window dressing—they do nothing to address issues of systemic racism and inequality in the country.
For Mo Woods, that work requires more than a slogan, a photo, or just filling current roles with candidates of color. Changing the system from the ground up takes time—and a long-term commitment to investing in Black communities.
Woods is a principal design lead at Microsoft and executive director and founder of Inneract Project, a creative education nonprofit for kids of color in the Bay Area. It offers free design courses and workshops, multiday internships, and mentor matching. The nonprofit first gets design onto the radar of middle and high school kids, then provides a support system that shows design can be a viable career.
This is important because graphic design has a major diversity problem: Just 3% of designers self-identify as Black, according to the most recent AIGA Design Census. That lack of representation means things we use every day—from apps to shoes to transportation—are being designed largely from a white experience. It also means that kids don’t see designers who look like them, making it more unlikely they’ll go into the field.
Woods founded Inneract Project to counter that. He first discovered graphic design at the University of Washington; after a seven-year detour playing pro basketball in Europe, he eventually settled in the Bay Area to earn his graduate degree and worked for top agencies like Pentagram and Studio Hinrichs before coming to Microsoft. In the 16 years since he founded Inneract, the program has taught design skills to more than 1,500 kids; even more importantly, it has fostered a creative community of students, alumni, and parents. And while diversity is a buzzword at the moment, Woods says there’s not a quick fix. Companies have to recognize that diversity is a long-term goal and that can only be addressed by creating opportunities for early exposure to design.
Inneract Project does this by offering kids who have a general creative interest a variety of design classes, including app design, branding, logo design, and coding. The program also introduces kids who might not know where to take their artistic talent to viable career paths in the creative industry through Inneract’s mentorship program, which pairs a student with a design professional who offers professional development guidance, support, and connections. Woods himself often serves as a mentor and works with kids enrolled at Inneract Project to figure out what the heck they can do with the design skills they learn to sustain a long-term design career. The relationship starts while kids are at Inneract Project, but the relationship is a long-term commitment to ensure Inneract Project grads grow into young creative professionals: Two mentees I spoke with still check in with Woods on a regular basis, even though they no longer attend Inneract Project.
Former Inneract Project student Leigh Miles and Woods still have a mentoring partnership. Miles has always been interested in art, but she says the program helped her learn what’s out there and focus her career path, and Woods offered advice when she switched from graphic design. She took five or six workshops through Inneract Project, including one at the San Francisco office of the design agency Collins. Miles is currently studying digital imaging at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area, and hopes to become a sports photographer for the NFL. She and Woods still check in every few months.
Saaleha Bey took courses at Inneract Project for three years. Inneract Project introduced her to design, and the professional network she gained through the experience, along with her relationship with Woods helped build her professional career, she says. She shifted her focus to cognitive science while at UC Berkeley, but design still plays a role in her view of the world and her job at Roberts Enterprise development fund in the Bay Area. “I really like design because it encourages cross-disciplinary thinking,” Bey says. She also started an art collective and sticker company on the side.
Woods is looking to expand Inneract Project nationally with more education courses and design centers by partnering with companies that are interested in a generational view of change. A lot of companies are justifiably concerned with making their current workforce more diverse but creating a more equitable design industry is more than filling roles. “When I say ‘go to communities,’ companies have to understand the level of commitment it takes to address communities of color,” he says. “Most companies focus on the end funnel, and companies need to focus on the entire funnel. That’s where you drive change.” One example of that level of commitment: an agency could start a basketball program that has a design component, like designing sneakers or a team logo, to create an entry point into the industry for kids who might not be aware of it otherwise, says Woods.
Balancing it all has been no small feat—Inneract has never been his day job. “I’ve been dedicated to it because I know it’s the right thing to do. It’s been many times I wanted to stop, trust me,” Woods says with a laugh. “The main thing that has always kept me grounded throughout the years is the people and the passion for seeing people in our program be impacted.” Woods says that a mentality of hard work cultivated during his basketball career transferred to graphic design. “There’s a level of discipline and work ethic that goes into playing basketball because it’s so competitive, and your goal is always to win. Everyone has an equal footing and you have to be willing to work harder than other people.” Through his work at Inneract Project, Woods is working to ensure design isn’t just for those with privilege, means, or access. That there’s a level playing field, no matter your starting point.