Today in Detroit, more than 200 local high school students will attend what you might call a career fair like none other. It’s a world-class design event called “Designed By,” featuring 30 roundtables led by Black designers on the topics of architecture, fashion design, industrial design, and others. The goal? To give young Black students a peek into the world of design, and maybe interest them in pursuing the field as a career choice.
Because, despite the countless diversity initiatives happening inside corporations, only 5% of designers are Black. And the only way to move those numbers significantly is to consider them generationally.
At least, that’s the perspective of Diversity in Design (DID) Collaborative, the organization behind “Designed By.” First launched and still funded by MillerKnoll (formerly Herman Miller) in 2021—you can read the full details here—a consortium of companies ranging from Gap to Adobe committed funds, personnel, and professional development programming to incubate the next generation of Black design talent. Since our first story ran, DID has been busy. It’s now amassed nearly 50 partner companies, including 3M, Airbnb, and Johnson & Johnson. And it’s also landed its first official director, Todd Palmer.
“Putting Black and BIPOC creativity at the center of culture has been the [core] of a lot of what I do,” says Palmer. “DID was an opportunity to move from creating awareness of perspectives of Black communities . . . to take a look at design itself: How can we open this up to create more positions like I’ve had the privilege to occupy?”
Palmer is an architect by training, but he’s spent his career working, directly and indirectly, in design education focused on equity. Early in his career, Palmer was one of only two Black people on staff while producing some of the inaugural exhibits for Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
“I have a firsthand knowledge of what it means to work in a profession that’s very white,” says Palmer, who was the former associate director and curator of the National Public Housing Museum and consulting curatorial director of the National Civil Rights Museum. He continues as a strategic consultant to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
By 2016, Palmer took over the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the world’s largest architecture event. Palmer was no stranger to controversy during his tenure. He navigated the blowback over BP’s regular sponsorship of the event and the fact that the Biennial (like many events) covered travel for some journalists to attend. But the trend line was clear: Palmer moved the Biennial away from what could have been a showy celebration of architecture and toward an event focused on the racial disparities woven throughout our built, urban environment. Even though he left in 2020, his momentum continued, as the Biennial stretched from its original home downtown into installations across Chicago’s South and West Side.
Yet, as Palmer admits, a Biennial is just a sharing of ideas, and the fundamental drive of his work was always betting that someone would come around and fund these ideas. “You hope someone will pick them up, but you have no control over it,” he says.
Burned out, Palmer took a sabbatical in 2020 and reflected on his last decade of work in museums and architecture. “There’s nothing not to like about a Biennial or museum,” says Palmer. “But how do you move from ‘teaching about’ to doing the work?”
His sabbatical coincided with the pandemic, and the pandemic “turned into the racial reckoning,” he says. When the Diversity in Design position opened up, it felt like the right fit.
“Learning how to make our educational system more equitable [alongside] workforce and industry hasn’t been solved!” Palmer continues. “We can maybe fix it, or solve for it, somehow. That’s hugely appealing.”
“Solving” is a loaded word to swing around the topic of racial equity, of course. But in this context, the word is a demonstration that DID’s intentions from the beginning were not to throw more luncheons but to target the specific barriers in the way of Black creatives—ranging from knowing about the topic of design as a high schooler, and floating living expenses during that unpaid internship as a college student, to building a network as a young professional.
This means that, by nature, DID’s purview will be extraordinarily wide. It will be working with colleges to sharpen design curriculum and collaborating with companies to codify meaningful professional development. This first event in Detroit is the pilot program, aimed at but a small slice of these issues. Following the event, DID will solicit feedback to see what worked, like any design-thinking exercise (Palmer himself is a big proponent of design thinking). Later this year, it’ll throw a second Designed By event in Detroit, hopefully with even more students. Assuming things go well, DID wants to expand this program nationally.
“We’re approaching this enormous problem, knowing we can’t boil the ocean,” says Palmer, noting that urgency is important but that he’s also attempting to ensure that DID is built to be resilient for the long haul. “We’re thinking about how a senior at this design fair, in a few years, is going to be entering the workforce. Maybe they go to an HBCU, maybe they go to Pensole Academy. But how do we [help with] that next step to higher education? Then we’re also looking at recruitment and retention.”