There’s a diversity crisis in the design industry: Less than 5% of designers are Black, and fewer than 10% of Black students enroll in undergraduate design programs.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, designers started working to dismantle some of the racial inequities in their industry. In the summer of 2021, one solution emerged in the form of Diversity in Design, an organization launched and funded by MillerKnoll. It’s a consortium of 53 design-oriented companies and counting—including 3M, Airbnb, and Gap—whose goal is to create pathways for young Black creatives to enter the field. The organization focuses on critical points in the life of a creative: high school, higher ed, and getting a job. “What we’re learning is that when we miss Black designers at the beginning, there aren’t networks for mentoring and support in the workplace,” says Todd Palmer, DID’s inaugural director, who previously led the Chicago Architecture Biennial and curated the National Civil Rights Museum. “The question is how you break this cycle.” Diversity in Design is the General Excellence winner in Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards.
In March 2022, DID brought together 30 Black cross-disciplinary designers in Detroit at an event called “Designed By” to share their experiences with 200 local high school students. The goal was to help these teenagers imagine themselves in creative professions, and to create opportunities for them to enter design programs and internships. “Black students and their parents don’t have a good picture of how design infuses itself into society,” says Palmer. “It touches healthcare and public memory, in the form of museums.” He remembers one 15-year-old attendee, Neala Muniz, who planned to become a veterinarian, but wanted to be a designer by the end. “She said she’d been coached to see design as a hobby, and didn’t make the connection between creativity and a profession,” Palmer recalls. “It’s just one way we’re missing our future Black creatives.”
“Designed By” will reconvene in Detroit this fall, and the plan is to bring the program to different cities every year. Insights will inform new programming tailored to Black creatives in college and the workplace, including an internship program that will pair a Black apprentice at one company with a mentor at another.
Ultimately, Palmer believes that bringing Black perspectives into the industry isn’t just about changing design, but about changing society. “Design doesn’t just show up in products, but in services, in housing, in communities, in how cities are built,” he says. “There’s a lot of intelligence that goes missing when you leave Black designers out of design.”
This story is part of Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards. Explore the full list of companies creating products, reimagining spaces, and working to design a better world.