10 new rules of design

The design industry has been caught up in Eurocentric ideas for too long. We talked to leading experts from MIT, Twitter, and more, who want to help break the spell.

10 new rules of design
[Photos: Westend61/Getty Images, Balázs Kétyi/Unsplash, peshkov/iStock]
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The Black Lives Matter movement has caused a rightful reckoning in nearly every industry in 2020, and design is no exception. For the better part of a century, the conventional definition of “good design” has been largely Eurocentric, and companies have been staffed accordingly: 73% of designers are white, just 3% are Black.

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It should go without saying that this needs to change. But how, exactly? And to what end? If you are a business, design studio, or a designer today, what should you be doing to embrace BIPOC designers as a baseline rather than an exception—and in the face of hundreds of years of systemic oppression?

We talked to a dozen brilliant designers to build new rules for design. Think of it as a new manifesto for the design world, and a critical response to the oft-cited 10 Principles of Good Design by Dieter Rams. Rams, who led design at the consumer products company Braun for more than 30 years, can trace philosophical roots to the fabled Bauhaus School in Germany, which ushered in the modern era of graphic and product design with a sensibility that Apple still champions today. Many powerful companies, not just Apple, consider these rules to be holy writ. They think of simplicity and restraint as prerequisites of good design, when the approach excludes other points of view. Not only is it a construct of the European gaze; it serves as a veneer atop a deeper injustice, as companies exploit labor and resources across the non-white world for Western consumers.

2021 will be a year of rebuilding from one of the most horrific times in modern history, and that task falls, in part, to designers, who must rethink everything from education to healthcare. It’s the perfect opportunity to overhaul the framework the industry is using to create a more equitable future for everyone.

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PROMOTE BIPOC DESIGNERS TO CLOSE THE WAGE GAP

Maurice Woods and Jen Cotton, Inneract Project

"Yes, there could be more designers of color. But I think there are enough designers of color to be able to promote and provide leadership positions," says Maurice Woods, founder of the Inneract Project.

At Inneract Project, Woods and Jen Cotton, a member of the board, help kids learn about the field of design and then mentor them when they join the workforce. One of the biggest issues they see is that companies aren't willing to elevate the talent they already have.

"I know personally people who have been trying to get manager positions for a long time who can't get that promotion," Woods says. "One of the things I'd love to see is just more opportunity for designers of color to get paid and promoted. This is just making sure that's equal. To me, that's not a hard thing! If my white counterpart is making that, shouldn't I be able to make that?"

These disparities are especially pronounced in tech, Cotton says: "If we just leveled it off, especially in tech, that sets up BIPOC kids up for success. That generational wealth happening in tech is massive. The amount to change your life is really a lot. And I find a lot of my friends who are people of color in the industry end up supporting a lot of their family. For my white male counterpart, that check goes entirely into his bank account. I'm dealing with systemic and racial wealth inequalities. My money goes to my mom, my cousin, whatever."

END THE IDEA OF “CULTURAL FIT” – IT’S RACIST

Forest Young, Wolff Olins

"There's a problem of 'cultural fit' signaled as the least offensive way to say 'white supremacy,'" says Forest Young, chief creative officer at the global strategy and design firm Wolff Olins. "A hiring manager might say, 'Well, you know, it wasn't a cultural fit' or 'I couldn't imagine you going out with a beer with this person.' It's like, one, maybe this person isn't a beer drinker. Two, maybe they don't like the same bar!

"In art school, the student designer believes it's all about the work. You have these '60s and '70s maxims from Dieter Rams about form, balance, tension. People think, 'If I do these things, and my work is emblematic of these design criteria, then . . . my work will be successful in the world of commerce as [dictated] by these famous white men.'

"So, cool, it's all about the work! But then BIPOC designers learned the hard way that there are all these compounding network effects, the transfer of actual capital and social capital, that are exacerbated by tier-one institutions, parental networks, and frats. [Asking] if someone went to art school [assumes] the fact they even know there is a thing called art school, and art school is a defensible pursuit of higher learning as opposed to becoming a doctor or lawyer. Because for a lot of BIPOC parents, art school is the least exciting proposition, since you don't have an ROI on what you'll be seeing professionally from a salary perspective. You're also assuming your industry is not racist; it probably is.

"You have BIPOC designers . . . but given the network effect, the stress of paying off student loans, the cost of moving to a coastal metropolis, how do I get that unpaid or lightly paid fellowship if I can't afford to live in the city? You start to see all these positions are going to students whose parents have purchased apartments for them.

"'Hidden Figures' is a white savior type of movie, but it does speak to the idea that you just need people with different lived experience. It proves out time and time again because we use [terms like] 'cultural fit,' and 'the team is firing on the same cylinders!' The team is laughing at the same jokes, but there should be a moment of destabilization, people should be uncomfortable saying that joke aloud. That's part of being a citizen of the world."

DESIGN FOR COMMUNITIES, NOT INDIVIDUALS

Ceasar McDowell, MIT

"We're living in a system that really is unequal," says Ceasar McDowell, professor of Civic Design at MIT, founding member of the Algebra Project, and an expert in systematically marginalized groups. "As long as we continue to design things so that they fit what's prominently on the market today, we're going to continue to support that inequality.

"One of the things we have to figure out how to correct for, and it started in the '60s and moved forward, is hyper individualization: That it's really about the individual, and developing work for that person. Designing for connection supports more interconnection among people, as opposed to isolation and someone's ability to do it all by themselves.

"I think it should be more, how do you design to do it together? So that thing you create actually forces you to do something with others. The functionality builds a relationship instead of picking you out of a relationship.

"Often, people who live in the margins of communities, there's a way in which their connection to others supports them being able to survive. Not necessarily thrive, but survive. If you do that [with a product or service], you end up with something that's much more [aligned with] relationships.

"Recognizing the interplay of things, and designing them because you want to undo inequities: It's a much more systematic, structural approach to something.

"You kind of wonder: If Apple had had that kind of sensibility when they first started to think about the iPod, and music, but their notion was, 'So many people who produce great music actually get marginalized . . . if we do this, how can we help benefit them . . . what would that technology look like in the end?' It would involve redesigning licensing and a whole set of other things. But in some sense, Apple did just the opposite. It said, 'How can we give the individual as much music as they can have in as small a space as they can have to be portable? Let's let the market figure out the rest."

GIVE LESS EXPERIENCED BIPOC DESIGNERS A CHANCE (IT’S NOT TOKENISM)

Kimberly Dowdell, HOK

"Design can get very specialized," says Kimberly Dowdell, principal at the architecture firm HOK and president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. "Someone might have a specialty in, let's say, aviation design. There aren't a ton of people who work on airports exclusively. And if you're looking to design or remodel an airport in a more urban type area that's pretty diverse, and it's a team of people who are only white architects, I'd argue that it would be worth the effort to find an architect of color to have that experience.

"Maybe there aren't many who have that experience. In that case, find people who have an interest, and give them some exposure, some experience, because no matter what their prior expertise was, they still have a perspective that can shed light on issues. It's a little more work, but all of the sudden you have a growing number of people who have a wider expertise.

"In a way, tokenism is used as an excuse to not include people. It's a very weird dynamic: 'Oh, we don't want to fall prey to tokenism!' But tokenism can be used against inclusion and diversity. If you can't find a certain perspective, it's up to the design team, or the owner, to go out and find perspectives. And maybe, if it's a group of men who are designing something that could and should be used by everyone, it's up to that group to ask a woman or two to weigh in. Is that tokenism? No, it's trying to get it right."

CREATE PRODUCTS THAT LEAVE PEOPLE STRONGER, RATHER THAN DEPENDENT ON YOU

Durell Coleman, DC Design

“It’s one thing to design a water bottle for elite cyclists. It’s another thing to design interventions to make sure people leaving incarceration can get back on their feet,” says Durell Coleman, founder and CEO of DC Design. “I work on addressing systemic inequality in America: criminal justice reform, housing, education. How do we make these systems better for people they haven’t worked well for? The outcomes we get long-term come back to the process we use to create them.

“We need to shift away from, 'I sit over here in a room, create things, and then sell them to you to extract economic value from you. . . . ' We need to shift from Designing FOR people of color to designing WITH people of color. But while we make that shift, we also need to make sure that what we’re designing fortifies those people of color at the same time, rather than making them dependent on a system, product, service, or anything else for their well-being.

"Look at the design of our welfare system. We need a system that helps people get back on their feet and makes sure rock bottom isn't death, but we don't have a system that helps you regain whatever is lost. We have a system that. . . . if you make more money, you immediately lose your benefits."

KNOW THERE IS NO SINGULAR BLACK PERSPECTIVE. THERE ARE MULTIPLE BLACK PERSPECTIVES

Kelly Walters, Parsons School of Design

"Conversations around Black design, what does that mean? What does that look like? There's no one answer," says Kelly Walters, assistant professor at Parsons School of Design. "There are so many different people with experiences on what it means to be Black and a Black designer. While there are similarities in the way we might be discriminated against, there are so many approaches and methodologies.

"[Between white and Black designers], labeling is different. I've seen students come up against situations that feel, even if they're talking about their experience, and it happens to be Black, that is considered activist. And it might be! There might be instances where an individual will classify it as such. But the work I'm doing about Blackness or Black identity, the experience I've had is, as soon as you put "Black" on it, it's about social justice, politics, activism. It's all these things, where when you look at my white counterpart doing the same thing, we're not adding all of that. We might be talking about the experience of a person.

"For me, raised in Connecticut, I went to a Catholic church that was primary white and Irish, not the Black church. The assumptions there, of everything in media, [is that my life is] a Tyler Perry film—when that's not necessarily the experience for a lot of people.

"I'm interested in how do you unpack those types of narratives and the diversity of those narratives—and not necessarily call it "inclusive design." We need it! [But] saying "inclusive design," or another challenge one for me is "decolonized design," is that these labels still other us. It's helpful for some who need to wake up, but it's problematic for others who have woken up and still feel like they're being othered.

"This idea of Black design being this monolithic thing doesn't actually exist. There are individual experiences, inside the field of design."

CELEBRATE AESTHETICS BEYOND 20TH-CENTURY EUROPEAN DESIGN

Senongo Akpem, Nava

"In the book that I wrote...one of the sections was speaking about aesthetics, and how they can mean different things to different people," says Senongo Akpem, design director at Nava and author of 'Cross-Cultural Design' (A Book Apart, 2020). "I wanted to focus on the way Western designers fetishize some of these ideas of what the minimalist or Bauhaus aesthetic is. This super stripped back form-follows-function way of looking at design that Bauhaus really champions, people forget that came out of World War II, their whole civilization was destroyed. Dead people, famine, and starvation were everywhere. Is that still relevant today?

"Designers use cultural touch points to create digital experiences. It helps that the majority of designers—in the Western world, anyway—are carrying the exact same device with the same UI. Subconsciously, [the Bauhaus-inspired iPhone] infuses everything we do with that look and feel. It's this little voice in the back of your mind all the time telling you, 'This is how it's done.'

"I was born in Nigeria. People in Nigeria dress bold, not like they do here at all. This idea that we can strip things down to the last detail and have this very gray and white look isn't appropriate for every market. What would Dieter Rams [do today]? His L46 flat loudspeaker [for Braun] is a gray box. What if you cover that with an African wax print, a pattern that indicates wealth or good sound from North Africa? Would that product then become more honest or appropriate?

"Going forward, it's those types of questions designers need to ask themselves: Is this appropriate, or do we need to do what's louder?"

RECOGNIZE THE BUSINESS OF DESIGN CANNOT BE THE BUSINESS OF COLONIZATION

Dori Tunstall, OCAD

"The ethos of the work I've been doing at OCAD [Ontario College of Art & Design University] is really decolonizing design to make it a space for our Black, indigenous, and people of color students and faculty to feel like they can bring their cultures of making into the institution so they can be seen—validated in some ways," says Dori Tunstall, dean of design at OCAD. "And by doing so, they can be confident about being a designer.

"A lot of the challenges my students face is there's a very narrow notion of what it means to be a successful designer, which is not, in many cases, aligned with their ethnicity, gender, class positioning, or any cognitive or physical differences.

"There is a norm that our contemporary design world has been built around, from a white, European, middle class, affluent, Christian, heterosexual, CIS-gendered male. And any way in which you deviate from that norm, you feel less confident about your ability to be a designer. Even if you're confident in your skills, you're not confident that your skills will be recognized and valued by an industry you have some love for, or even your peers.

"That's the thing where, when I talk to my students or even faculty, [I emphasize that] the Bauhaus was so revolutionary in Europe that they kicked most of the practitioners out. Why? Because what they were saying in some ways was quite utopian! The good life that that aristocracy has in Europe should be available to the masses. Their way of doing that was making things cheaper and faster because the most expensive aspect is the labor part. That's where it hits up against this class critique.

"The Bauhaus's industrial design [and mass production] were super revolutionary ideas in the context of Europe. But when that travels to North America, to India, to Africa, even China and Japan, it becomes the tool of colonization. That story, the way in which we make things cheaper or faster, is we destroy the land of indigenous people, take it from people, and exploit the labor of Black people, Indian people—people all over the world—to pay them less. European middle class or working class people can have everything, but if you're Asian or Black, you get nothing or the bare minimum you need to survive. You have to literally devalue the labor of the individuals making it. And by devaluing their labor, you set up a system of exploitation.

"Part of good design, or being a good human being, is to not operate under the assumption that you're entitled to everything in the world."

HIRE NOT JUST FOR DIVERSITY OF DEMOGRAPHICS, BUT DIVERSITY OF EXPERIENCE

Dantley Davis, Twitter

"Our second design principle at Twitter is to live in culture," says Dantley Davis, chief design officer at Twitter. "We're asking the team to go out in the world and spend time with people different from themselves, to be uncomfortable, have hard conversations, to be able to debate both sides of an argument. When they're thinking about people in the context of human interaction, then they're able to more succinctly tie that into human computer interaction.

"Most companies I've worked at don't think about it in that context. Unfortunately, too many people in the room don't have the broader societal understanding or curiosity to see that their product is only satisfying a narrow set of users.

"I've lived that as a practicing designer [since] early in my career. I was able to bring my life experience to work, I wasn't just designing for the other because it was an abstract persona in a brief. I was brought up on military bases, my mom Korean and dad Black. My mom was a small business owner. My dad was working for the man, the federal government, the military, as he had these left views on society. I've seen poverty, and what the middle class looks like for people of color.

"When I hire teams, I look for people with these windy roads, people with lived experiences that can be messy, distinctive, not of the norm that you might see a typical designer in tech go for. I look for people who have stories, who overcame obstacles in their lives, they were underdogs, they were told they couldn't do something and wanted to prove others wrong. Maybe they stumbled on design by accident, maybe it's their second or third career. There is an intersection there with people of color and women, and someone's sexual orientation because there's adversity in all those aspects of being a human. But I've also hired white men who are conservatives, or are liberal who grew up in a conservative town, or aren't religious but grew up in religious towns.

"My hope is my hiring those people is like building the Avengers, where everyone has their own unique superpower. When you bring those people together, they can talk about those experiences from the perspectives of living them. It's not just you're a tourist in [a city] to understand it from the street level, but it's as if you lived there, because someone on your team has actually lived there. So when you go to iteration cycles on a product, they can call you on your bullshit."

DON'T CONFLATE PITY WITH EMPATHY, AND PUT IN THE PERSONAL WORK

Vivianne Castillo, HmntyCntrd

"I come from a counseling and human services background, and I made a career switch into tech a few years ago," says Vivianne Castillo, a UX researcher and founder of the professional growth network HmntyCntrd. "I remember being excited about tech, and how UX spoke to people being empathetic and human-centered. But after entering the industry, I learned most conversations around empathy are bullshit.

"There's a fine line between empathy and pity. When you design experiences out of pity, you design things that not only aren't sustainable, but often cause more harm. They're not taking into consideration cultural context and how our unconscious bias can seep into design decisions.

"For me, I've always been amazed by, for how much our industry talks about being human-centered and inclusive, we talk little about the personal work that's required and necessary to do our best professional work.

"Let's have a conversation about the role of shame within [design] research, and how that changes your process and the way you interpret [information], and how that leads to design decisions. Let's talk about how there's a lack of curriculum on cultural competency. And how privilege plays a role in that.

"Working in UX and tech, in theory, we should be the most comfortable talking about things like white supremacy and systemic and institutionalized bias, and racism, because we talk about being human-centered. A lot of leaders who lead bias and thought work tend to be in the majority white, middle upper class, and a lot are men. You have a lot of thought leadership for the last several years or so driven by people in the majority with a lot of privilege who don't necessarily have the awareness skills to drive inclusive [practices].

"Before COVID-19, for so long, we were able to get away with things like [people saying] "I'm human-centered!" instead of anything about putting in the work to understand that. After COVID-19, people are much more aware you can't separate your personal life from professional life; they're interdependent of one another."