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How did you get started in UX design and learn the necessary skills? I’ve always been fascinated by finding out what makes people tick or imagining what it’s like to be someone else. This led me to train as an actor in London, England. But over the years, I realized that what fascinated me even more is thinking about people’s motivations and how they can get from where they are to where they want to be. Design is one of the purest ways to do that because designers solve problems.

Why did you decide to start your own design consultancy, Belong? I started Belong when I was putting together my portfolio and realized that my work wasn’t representative of the people I saw walking down the street—and in the mirror. I thought, “If I’m a designer, and design is about solving problems, then I should be solving problems for everyone—not just for a narrow part of the population.” The more I thought about the lack of diversity in the tech and creative communities, the more I began to wonder if design could be used to create meaningful inclusion.

Bias is something we see in the products we use every day and something we feel whenever we interact with others. It’s something that affects us all, on every level, in our day-to-day lives. Belong is a consultancy, but it’s also an experiment. It’s an experiment to see if we can use the principles of design thinking to create the kind of change we want to see in the world.

How did you first become concerned with issues of diversity in the design industry? I hate to be blunt, but I’m a black man. I’m a designer. I’ve never not been concerned about it.

What has been most challenging and rewarding about running a consultancy focused on promoting diversity in the design industry? The most challenging thing is that there is no singular solution. There’s no magic bullet for racism and bias. Each company’s problems are unique, so a unique solution is needed in each and every case. 

The most rewarding is when people realize that they don’t lose anything by being more diverse. It’s that little mental shift you see happening in people’s eyes when they realize that being more inclusive and working with a more diverse group doesn’t take anything away from them—that they’re not stealing jobs from someone or taking opportunities away from those who worked hard for them. It’s that wonderful moment when people realize that diversity of thought actually helps them become the kinds of designers they want to be.
It all comes back to one thing: empathy.

You’ve cited Snapchat’s yellowface filter as one example of noninclusive design. What are some other examples of branded design that make you say, “Really?! In 2017?” Another big one was Google’s machine-learning photo-tagging program that misidentified black people as gorillas. That was pretty horrific and speaks to a much larger problem: the voices that are training the algorithms that will shape our future are not a diverse group of voices. I also chuckled when an Apple public relations spokesperson e-mailed, “ ... we had ... a Canadian ... ” as a rebuttal to an article challenging its iPhone events’ lack of diversity.

However, it’s the unconscious bias permeating the design world that is more troubling to me. One of the biggest examples of this is the extensive use of stock photos that portray one narrative and don’t acknowledge all of the people, experiences and perspectives outside of that narrative. Representation matters, and we are not representing a huge portion of the world in our work.

But it’s not all bad. It’s important to note that many designers are stepping up and taking it upon themselves to bring inclusivity into their work. This needs to be celebrated. A few examples of this include Facebook’s design team producing great assets to encourage more diversity within the creative world. Product designer and engineer Diógenes Brito’s work on Slack’s Add to Slack button is a beacon showing that inclusive design can be subtle and profound. And Airbnb is one of the few tech companies that has taken an overt stance against prejudice, and its design team has set amazing strides in tackling implicit bias on its platform.

What role does technology and digital play in how brands approach issues of diversity? Technology accelerates everything. It places everything brands do under a microscope. This can be a good thing, like when it increases awareness of issues. It can also be a bad thing, like when brands make a mistake, and suddenly the entire world knows. It’s a double-edged sword. Ultimately, I believe it is an accelerator of change. The combination of awareness and transparency forces brands to take action.

What tools do you find indispensable for your work? A few years ago, I fell in love with the idea of being a professional photographer. I spent hours researching the setups that my favorite photographers use, and taking it one step further, actually bought the most expensive DSLR setup I could afford. In fact, I couldn’t afford it. I actually maxed out my credit cards on lenses, a carbon fiber tripod and a full lighting rig. Heck, I even took out a small lease on a studio so I’d always have the perfect place to shoot. When I finally unpacked and assembled all of this gorgeous camera gear, I remember spending months feeling so overwhelmed by the complexity of it all that I never got round to taking the kinds of shots I wanted to take. The tools got in the way of my passion.

Ever since, I’ve been a minimalist when it comes to tools. I believe that technology often gets in the way of design because design begins with empathy. You can’t empathize with the problem you’re solving if you’re looking at a screen instead of the person you’re designing for. I use pen and paper for as much of the design process as possible, which makes prototyping and iterating both fast and effective.

What advice would you give to brands that want to start taking meaningful steps toward inclusive design? This is a massive question I’ve written thousands of words about—but we only have so much space here. I’ll say that the problem is two-fold: it’s a staffing issue, and it’s also an issue of creating products that work for people of many different backgrounds.

At a core level, it’s about making a commitment to understand the different experiences of the individuals who make up your company, as well as the experiences and perspectives of those you wish to serve. You need to make a point of seeking out as many different experiences as possible in order to get to that level of understanding. Once you get there, you can create plans, policies or actions that connect you to this wider demographic. By doing so, you are able to design more inclusive products and services. It all comes back to one thing: empathy.

What resources and groups should designers who want to help make their industry more diverse check out? Shameless plug: I wrote a feature for this month’s issue of net magazine, which gives designers a step-by-step playbook on how to be more inclusive. Belong also has a showcase of great articles, videos and guides on its website.

AIGA has a wonderful Diversity & Inclusion task force chaired by designer Jacinda Walker that has regional chapters dedicated towards helping underrepresented groups engage with the creative community. I’d also recommend the excellent work of Emi Kolawole, a lecturer at Stanford d.school who created a “designing for worldview” framework, an empathy-based approach to tackling unconscious bias. Project Include is a community for building meaningful, enduring diversity and inclusion into tech companies. And research professor Dr. Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame is a great primer, as well as IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s work on design thinking and Stanford d.school’s wonderful needfinding/empathy series—devour as much material as you can on the topic of empathy.

But the best resource of all? Get out into the world, and speak to as many different people as you can. Ask open-ended questions. Listen to the replies. Continually ask “why?” I’ve yet to find a better way to create more inclusive work then grounding everything you do in a sincere desire to understand perspectives different than your own.

What advice do you have for young designers who feel underrepresented in the design industry? The thing that makes you feel like you’re alone may be different from someone else’s, but we all have that feeling of being alone. Whether you’re a woman in tech or a black guy in design, you can still feel united in not feeling like your industry was built for you. But that loneliness can be something that brings you together to create a community, industry and world where you do feel like you belong and you do feel like you’re represented.

I think it’s all too easy to feel like your difference is the thing that’s stopping you from succeeding in your industry, but it’s only as much of a hindrance as you allow it to be. The setbacks that you’ve had to overcome have given you the skills you need to succeed. So own your difference. Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Benjamin Earl Evans is an award-winning designer from London, England. He uses design thinking to help startups create more inclusive products and services. His clients include Nickelodeon, Nike and Impact Hub. Formerly, he founded two successful startups and led in-person workshops around the globe to teach hundreds of creative professionals how to “level up” their creative work.

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