How the Design Industry Can Be a Better Ally to the Black Community

Hire, promote, and include BIPOC

Underrepresentation within design-center walls is not new. Artist and designer Malene Barnett called out the programming of a major design center and founded the Black Artists + Designers Guild, a directory of Black makers that has since grown into a creative movement of its own, in part as a response to the exclusion of Black designers. (BADG will host the Obsidian Virtual Concept House, a virtual showhouse that imagines a Black family’s future home, later this year.)

“We will focus on a common practice: the lack of BIPOC representation at the top levels throughout the overall design industry,” says cofounder Cristina Casañas-Judd of Me and General Design, whose firm is participating in the Obsidian concept house. She says that lack of representation is the most urgent of needs when it comes to allyship. “This has created the lack of inclusivity for all BIPOC. We see the same 5 to 10 designers—mainly white with maybe the one BIPOC represented—rotating within the same circle: the circle of interior designers who are predominately seen on the cover of publications and winning awards, et cetera. If more BIPOC are in leading roles and making decisions within the various outlets that govern the interior design industry, there would be more equal representation for the work being generated as a whole.”

Ways to combat underrepresentation include hiring BIPOC and cultivating relationships at every level of an organization. Such actions should include asking BIPOC designers to speak on panels, inviting them to industry events, and representing them in editorial coverage—particularly those that are not focused on diversity. Business leaders should get educated on the often-invisible and insidious impact of systemic racism. Organizations like Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) have resources applicable for hiring managers and business owners alike, including Together Forward @ Work, a new racial-equity initiative.

“The ‘ask’ for all allies is to step up and dig deep within themselves to acknowledge the injustice, then use their current power to empower the same opportunities for members of organizations such as BADG,” explains Casañas-Judd. “Ideally not because of the current movement or a fad, but for the talent they bring to the table. It will take white culture to recognize their fears. Fears that have allowed the unfairness of systemic racism to be driven deep for so long.”

Create and participate in long-term opportunities

A number of campaigns have emerged within the design world to amplify Black voices using a range of social platforms. But activists say that long-term change needs to center around inclusivity across all areas of design—not just so-called ‘diverse’ programming.

“In an industry as wide and vast as this, allyship is going to look differently depending on your role,” says Albie Buabeng, who created the Share the Mic: Home Edition campaign, pairing Black designers and influencers with non-Black counterparts. “It has to be both horizontal and vertical. [The] silence of non-Black professionals indicates [their] complacency with the system. Interior designers and architects within the industry have to be willing to unlearn normalized behaviors and be acutely aware of spaces that are discriminatory.”

That means becoming proactive. “If you’re speaking on a panel, question its diversity—and challenge the organizers if it isn’t [diverse]. Showrooms, markets, and other industry events are supposed to cater to the entire industry yet perpetuate many of society’s biases by way of hiring practices and public-facing opportunities,” says Buabeng.

“Include Black designers in features, panels, and events that aren’t exclusively about race; hire diverse brand ambassadors that reflect the industry at large; re-examine buy-in minimums and create more equity for designers at all levels that serve clientele of all types,” she says, in a directive that echoes the BIDN’s call to stop discriminatory account minimums. “Often allies have their value system but don’t hold the spaces they occupy to those same standards. So how will the gatekeepers and decision-makers know that their behavior is no longer acceptable if every day is business as usual?”

Commit to the process

This kind of work is ongoing and requires a continued commitment. “Yes, we have seen positivity in the outpouring, and interest in the Black design community has noticeably increased,” says General and Me Design cofounder General Judd, noting Grace Bonney of Design Sponge’s initiative to “share the mic” beyond the length of the formal campaign as an example. “The key to it all will be to keep this frequency high and to not let go until huge change has actually taken place. [The goal is to reach a point] where BIPOC are fairly employed in positions of power,” he says, “to maintain an equal distribution of talent from all walks of life, in the same room, pitching for the same project because they are just that good.” 

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