How Diversity in Design Collaborative is Working to Bring Equity to Design Industry

Black designers are coming together to address the lack of Black representation in the design industry, and the events industry is part of that effort.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

3 smiling attendees at Beats+Bites+Backgrounds events

The DID Beats + Bites + Backgrounds networking experience was designed to connect Black professionals across the design industry.

Like many event professionals, when the world shut down in March 2020, Candace Charpentier went on an involuntary, COVID-induced break from her job as a designer at event services company Freeman, where she had worked for more than a decade. For Charpentier, who is based in Rhode Island, the following months were far from empty.

Candace Charpentier headshot

Candace Charpentier

“There were just so many things happening in our world,” the designer said. Alongside the COVID pandemic, the murder of George Floyd reawakened questions about how we can be better as a country, she said. And as a Black person, she asked herself, “What do I need to do? I’m a designer, but how can I use that to also be an activist for people like me and for my children?”

Some of the ways that Charpentier answered that question included reaching out to small Black-owned businesses that had been selling products at in-person venues like flea markets and helping them shift their sales to an online platform. She also joined her town council’s DEI school committee, which was tackling issues such as how to hire more Black teachers. As events began to come back, Charpentier started thinking about what came next — she knew that she wanted to continue working toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, she said. Fortuitously, when Freeman called Charpentier to ask her to come back to work, she learned that, like her, the company hadn’t been standing still on DEI issues during the pandemic.

Freeman was among the 19 global companies that signed on as cofounders in June 2020 when the design company MillerKnoll launched the Diversity in Design (DID) Collaborative to address racial representation in the design industry, where fewer than 5 percent of designers are Black. When Charpentier returned to Freeman as an associate creative director, she took on another role as well: as part of a DID working group looking for ways to increase that percentage.

One of the things that sets the DID Collaborative apart — Fast Company recently named it a General Excellence winner in its 2022 Innovation by Design Awards — is that “first and foremost, we’re not approaching the solution to diversity in individual companies in a competitive environment,” said DID’s executive director, Todd Palmer. DID, which counts big companies like PepsiCo and 3M as well as smaller design studios in its roster — currently at 53 members — asks participants to invest intellectual capital toward solving the problem along with a commitment to working together, Palmer said. That includes sharing the strategies that have worked for their organizations, as well as the specialized expertise of individuals like Charpentier, he said. “It really has involved deep collaboration.”

students at job fair

DID Collaborative companies work together to expose high school students to career options in the design industry, where less than 5 percent of designers are Black.

The group’s first co-designed event was “Designed By,” a youth design fest held at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies on March 18. The day-long event introduced more than 200 high school students to 32 design professionals, including DID Collaborative representatives like Charpentier and local Black designers. “We’re coming from all areas,” Charpentier said, including “furniture, fashion, shoe- wear designers, digital designers, UX and UI, and print.”

DID repeated the job fair event on Sept. 29 in Detroit, incorporating what the team had learned from the first event, including the feedback that students wanted to play a more hands- on role. A local student served as the event’s emcee, and part of the day was dedicated to a design challenge based on a local problem — flooding — linked to disrupted weather patterns and aging public infrastructure. “We presented the problem of climate change and how it affects Detroit,” Charpentier said, “and these kids were brilliant.” Student proposals ranged from innovative drainage systems to creating jobs for formerly incarcerated community members as ecological community healers. “Having designers that are diverse gives you such a wonderful pool of creativity,” she said, “but that diversity of thought is often left out of conversations because we’re sometimes not included.”

At the September event, speakers included Akil Alvin, CEO and global chief creative officer Digital Detroit Media, a multimedia content creation company. Alvin, who grew up in the same neighborhood as some of the student participants, “is 28 and he talked to [the students] in a way that was so accessible,” Charpentier said. “Sometimes creatives and designers can speak in ways that block you out and isolate people, just by not using accessible language. He really repped the neighborhood. He told the students: ‘I know what it’s like to grow up here. I know how difficult it was for you to get here today.’

“I think that’s one of the important things about DID,” she said. “The people who show up really care. And I think because we’re also Black, we realize the importance of programs like this. When you see someone like yourself standing here, you really know you can do it.”

students at job fair

Job fair designers took feedback from an earlier event and redesigned a second gathering, including using a local student as emcee and incorporating hands-on design thinking challenges based on real-world community problems.

In addition to the job fair, DID also designed and sponsored an evening event in Detroit to build community among the DID network and local Black designers. “What we do can be really lonely depending on where you’re working,” Charpentier said. “You can go days, weeks, or months without seeing someone who looks like you on a call.” And networking as a minority can feel off-putting, she said. “You think, ‘Oh, I’m going to be the only [Black person] there. No one’s probably going to want to talk to me. And if they do, they’re going to use language that automatically tries to isolate me or make me realize I shouldn’t be in the space,’” she said. “There are weird little microaggressions that happen. So, you get a little tense.”

In contrast, the Beats + Bites + Backgrounds networking experience organized by Charpentier with Shanttel Liberato, from DID, Sheri Crosby Wheeler from Fossil Group, and Patricia Chua from the Civilization design studio — featuring a DJ, food, and Black speakers — could not have come out of a different group, Charpentier said. “We all said it felt like going to a family reunion. The instant I walked in, I was comfortable because I knew I was in a space where I wasn’t going to have to prove that I belong there.”

2 women speaking at event

Candace Charpentier (left) and Sheri Crosby Wheeler welcome Black designers to the Beats + Bites + Backgrounds networking event.

Todd Palmer headshot

Todd Palmer

Designed Thinking

When a group of designers comes together to solve problems, it should be no surprise that design thinking is involved. “Sometimes that requires not moving slowly,” said DID Collaborative executive director Todd Palmer, “but moving deliberately.”

The initiative has focused its initial events in Detroit, where 97 percent of the students in the public system are Black. “We’re asking: How do you do a design fair differently?” Palmer said.

“What are those things that are barriers to introducing Black teens to job experiences? And then doing [the event] once, learning and getting feedback, and then doing it again. In this collaborative mode, we’re not trying to be the biggest — we’re really trying to get it right.”

The organization will produce the “Designed By” event in Detroit again in the spring 2023 and will have a presence, including repeating the Beats + Bites + Backgrounds networking experience, at SXSW 2023 in March in Austin, Texas. Palmer said they plan to expand the “Designed By” event footprint in the U.S. next fall, when “we believe we’ll have a toolkit that can be relevant to other communities.”

A Safer Space

Freeman’s participation in and support for DID has changed how Candace Charpentier feels about speaking up in internal meetings, she said. It’s scary “raising your hand to say to leaders: ‘From a Black point of view, I would not do this.’” Recently, when it was suggested that AI be used to create images for a project, Charpentier pointed out to her white colleagues the problems with AI software for people of color. “Facial recognition software, for us, is not helpful. It’s dangerous,” she said. “It categorizes us in ways that it doesn’t categorize other groups.” Prior to her — and her Freeman colleagues’ — participation in DID, “I would’ve probably been very fearful” while speaking up, she said. She still would have done it, she said, but it would have been with a feeling of doom.

As an industry, Charpentier said, “if we want to grow, we need to start thinking about real ways of being inclusive.” Charpentier recalled directing a recent event in New York City, where the majority of the crew setting up the event was Black. “By the [second] day, crew members were coming up to me and fist bumping me, and saying, ‘Wow, Sis, I’m so glad to see you here. We’ve never met a Black creative director. How is it possible?’” Charpentier said. “Everyone, from the crew to the janitors, were just so supportive, because they’ve never seen someone like me before. That hurt. I was happy to be that for them, But I was sad that they’ve never seen it before.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor Convene. Ascent is supported by the PCMA Foundation.

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