Valuing Diversity in Design & Technology

transcribed by Christine Liao, panel hosted by Inneract Project.

“In 2015, only 6% of U.S. graduates in design fields were African American and only 10% were Hispanic. For these same professional groups, the disparity extends with African American and Hispanic employment representing only 3% of our workforce. We believe those numbers can be improved with a strategic deliverable being stronger inclusivity. Inneract Project empowers underserved students through design education that links them to opportunities to explore design in college, career, and life.”

-Inneract Project, 2015

Inneract Project hosted a panel called “Valuing Diversity in Design & Technology”, drawing answers from panelists Kimberly Bryant, John Maeda, Joelle Emerson, Jason Mayden, and Julio Martinez. This dialogue touched on several issues and ideas for addressing diversity in tech, some of which many of us can implement in our daily lives. These points are highlighted below.

1. Understand What Diversity Means.

Julio: I think personally for me, it starts with intention. Diversity has lost its urgency, because we’re exposed to it as a topic more frequently– just like how we see violent crime on TV every day, we become desensitized to the shock of a violent crime. Corporations and individuals have become desensitized to the gross misrepresentation of people in media, but also disparities in hiring. For me, diversity shows up not in how we describe it but how we behave. When I ask people, I always say “would you feel comfortable with my son marrying your daughter?” “Would you feel comfortable with my son coming to your home to play?” If you’re not comfortable with that, you’re not comfortable with diversity. So, you have to move beyond the boardroom or the workroom and say, will you invite me into your home? Cause it has to be about a community. If we’re not doing that, then you’re not really about what you’re saying.

Kimberly: I don’t feel that the essence of the word diversity has lost its meaning. It means something different in the industry today… because it has become the thing. Diversity means to be black. Especially in tech. That wasn’t the case literally a couple years ago. It’s been interesting to see how companies have really latched on to the diversity train. Everyone’s hiring VP of diversity, lead of diversity. It’s quite interesting. Because the numbers are not changing. I’m really wondering… what are these people doing on a day to day basis, and can I get one of those jobs? [laughter]

As a woman of color, it’s still very real to me, when I look around me. The environment that girls are encountering & day to day. There’s still work to be done but it’s still relevant.

2. Recognize Unconscious Bias in Hiring.

This careers page is an example of unconscious bias. Certain positions are translated to Spanish.

Joelle: We’re primarily looking at the processes that companies engage in to make decisions. There are a lot of structural biases in the way decision making goes on in companies. “What are you looking for, in a candidate?” “Are you, by the virtue of the way you’ve articulated your job description, counting certain people out?” “What schools are you going to recruit at?” “How are you deciding who to promote?” We know that when decisions are made in an ad hoc way, they are far more subject to bias, and it turns out that not only are you making worse decisions, but disproportionately people from underrepresented backgrounds are being harmed by those processes. We think a lot about how do we mitigate bias at a structural level, how do we help individuals understand their own biases? That starts with how you define diversity, and how you do it. You’ll hear a lot of companies are going like, ‘oh but look, we’ve hired so many more women’ like ‘we’re doing so great in terms of diversity’ – why does that seem… what’s with this emphasis on getting more women into the workplace, and what about everything else?

I think it’s easier and more comfortable for people to talk about gender. And an easier thing to go about solving. Everyone has and knows women who are close to them in their lives- we’ve all grown up with women. Our networks are far far more homogenous along racial and ethnic lines, so it’s just a harder thing for people to start to think about, and they’re going to do harder work, I think, and go outside their networks.
Tech companies often cite “the pipeline” as reasons for not having enough people of color working at their companies. But we often hear about it in regards to technical roles, like engineering and computer science roles and we don’t really hear them talk about design.

A lot of unconscious bias trainings aren’t as effective, it’s about awareness, not practice. A lot of people also expect these trainings to solve a problem. Training can’t solve a problem. Training can give you IDEAS about how to solve that problem. If you don’t go do those things, the training is not going to do anything for you.

John: Unconscious bias is fast thinking – if you think about all the words, agile, intuitive, that’s fast thinking – we are trained to bias towards fast things.

A still from HBO's Silicon Valley via Business Insider.

Joelle: And we think we’re good at pattern matching, but we’re not. If I asked everyone to think of a typical CEO, we think of someone young with not a lot of experience, but actually, the typical CEO is around 36 with around 12 years of experience, yet everyone is thinking of young white guys in hoodies. That’s not the case.

3.Recognize Unconscious Bias in the day-to-day workplace

Tech companies will talk about pipeline issue, so how can we ensure that once these people get to these jobs, that they’re having a good experience?

Kimberly: When I think of the pipeline I don’t think of it as the middle, where we’re feeding girls into the pipeline. It extends beyond getting kids through college and getting them a job after college, it’s what happens to them after they land at these tech companies. That’s where we’re losing people. That’s really why the numbers aren’t changing, because people are leaving rapidly. I think that’s because even though companies are focusing on the recruitment end, they’re not understanding that these cultures, they’re inviting people who are really not inclusive. That’s the other part – inclusiveness. Are these companies inclusive? Hell no they’re not inclusive. And no one wants to be there. No one that’s different wants to be there. These issues keep me up at night and worry me. I don’t feel any less worried than 4 years ago. I actually feel more worried now. The cultures of these companies are not welcoming to people who fit into this narrow norm.

Joelle: What I do know, is that in companies that have leadership saying things like, “I care about diversity but we can’t lower the bar” there’s a really big cultural problem there. I want people to step back when they say something like that and realize that that is a fundamentally racist, and or sexist, thing to say.

I’m trying to get companies to understand is that your bar is low now. Your bar is this ad hoc process, no one has justification for the decisions they make, people are hiring and promoting folks that look like them. That is not a way to make objective data-driven decisions. Your bar is low now and I’m asking you to raise it. When you do that, you’re going to hire better people, you’re going to make more accurate promotion decisions, your products will be better, and it turns out you’ll also have more women and more folks of color in your orgs. The lower the bar thing… when I hear that, that’s really a bigger conversation that needs to happen. Until people stop feeling that way, I don’t think those efforts are going to work.

Jason also talked about the importance of the community and culture of where these companies are, and how they shape a person’s experience. “The community has to be welcoming- the school systems, the grocery stores, the infrastructure of the city reflects in the company. When you bring over women or a person of color, you’re asking them to abandon their grandmother’s home cooking, their father’s sage advice, their best friends and safety net that makes them feel safe and loved and valued.” It’s not just give me a job, it’s giving these people a community. When these companies are recruiting us, think about our wives and our families’ wellbeing. It’s give me a community, give me resources, let me emote and be myself.

Joelle relies on social science – when people don’t think they belong, a whole lot of bad things happen. People underperform when they don’t feel like they belong. It is impossible for folks of underrepresented backgrounds to possibly be doing their best when they are constantly struggling to make their identity fit into this workplace.

4. Showcase and celebrate minority designers.

Kimberly: I would like to see designers / designers of color, especially women, to be more profiled and highlighted. Young people don’t know that there’s someone like Jason out there- or any of the other fantastic designers from different cultures and backgrounds. My daughter- her thing was art and video games. And as the engineer I was like, no you cannot make a living out of art. But since then I’m like, okay you could probably make a living off the video games, game design. Absolutely I have changed. But it was because I met all of these folks that were doing great things with design, and how they were all interrelated. To me, the holy grail would be she could do both. Because I think they go hand in hand, but we often segment them. But they’re not, they’re interrelated. It’s made me rethink how we do classes at black girls code. The girls don’t have to do one or the other, they can utilize those creative skills and also enter in technology. We need to see those role models so that they know its possible, and that they exist.

Jason: Creativity is what you do when you’re disenfranchising the poor. ‘That’s very creative, kid’ – but to be a designer – you have to be an elitist or go to a certain school or have a certain accent. To me, we’ve taken away the ability to point out natural behaviors that are design behaviors. In communities where they don’t have access to computers, they are still living design lifestyles. If you look at the city – I’m from South side of Chicago – there is a tremendous amount of creativity in how people navigate their world, and hack their community for efficiency. That is design. It’s problem finding, and from that problem, they’ve found creative solutions. When we get into the community and tell these kids, what you do is design-esque, they believe they can become us. So it’s less about having them transition to “become” this person, but more about saying, “Who you are is enough. Let’s give you a vocabulary to use so you can explain what you wanna do.”

John: I think it’s important to know that design too that IS in the foreground. It was on the cover of Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg business week, etc. We are in a different era. I saw Neil Degrasse Tyson speaking at a commencement. He was talking about, maybe we don’t need role models, but maybe we need the ability to see the qualities in all of them and integrate them into who we are, to define who we become.

Kimberly: I love that bc it goes against the saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And I HATE that saying. That being said, I think role models don’t need to be a crutch. If I brought Jason to West or East Oakland, the kids would be like, yeah Jason is cool, he’s dope, because he looks like them. Because he looks like them, he’s relatable, that’s a very real thing, there’s a switch that goes off that tells them, oh he looks like me, he did that, I can do that too.

5. Show kids what design is all about.

John: When a young person sees something they haven’t seen before, their whole world opens. I grew up in Chinatown in Seattle. I just remember that all we knew were people that worked in restaurants. So that becomes our, “Well I’m gonna work in a restaurant.” Or we would know gardeners, and that was our reference. And sort of coming into the world seeing that there’s other jobs out there, that’s eye opening. I’m the product of the desegregation movement in Seattle. I was bussed an hour away to the white part of Seattle. Because of that I saw a computer for the first time. That changed my life. Later I learned about design when I was about, what, 20? When we find these things in our lives earlier, we have a better chance to steer our boat there.

Julio: For me it’s important to reach out to families, so you can validate the choice. In the work that I do, how do I reach out to the 15 year old Mexican kid who’s like, I dunno I just wanna watch soccer. Julio: For me it’s important to reach out to families, so you can validate the choice. In the work that I do, how do I reach out to the 15 yr old Mexican kid who’s like, I dunno I just wanna watch soccer. It’s sort of like embracing the culture and the specific nature of that culture, instead of giving some pamphlet. Without getting to the family you won’t get to the individual.

It’s sort of like embracing the culture and the specific nature of that culture, instead of giving some pamphlet. Without getting to the family you won’t get to the individual.


Inneract Project empowers underserved students through design education that links them to opportunities to explore design in college, career, and life.

Inneract Project (IP) is a professionally-supported program that provides free design classes and initiatives to inner-city youth, in order to introduce them to the field of design and channel their creativity into viable career paths. Our program includes 1) a Youth Design Academy, which is one 8-week class session per year that provides middle school students with hands-on design exercises 2) Learning Labs, which are workshops, lectures and studio tours throughout the year for middle and high schoolers, and 3) Designed., an ongoing video series documenting designers, celebrities and everyday people’s stories about design.

We believe that by surfacing pathways to the field of design and providing professional mentorship, we can boost student success, ultimately leading to an increase in diversity in design and technology. To achieve this, we engage practicing designers and other professionals to teach students about their respective disciplines. Learn more here.