What will it take to fix the diversity problem?

Programmes raising awareness of the creative industries’ lack of diversity are a dime a dozen, but are they just shouting into the void, or is there potential for them to effect real change?

As diversity has become a buzzword in creative industry companies, a wealth of resources have popped up in response. From manifestos that demand change, to initiatives that raise awareness of under-represented groups, there’s an ongoing effort to draw attention to the creative world’s failings – as well as the potential that can be unlocked by working with a broader range of people.

One of the more recent programmes is Design Can, which describes itself as “a campaign and tool to fight for the future of the design industry”. It’s been set up in response to figures that show the UK’s design industry is 78% male, with only 13% of its employees from BAME (black and minority ethnic) backgrounds. Design Can includes a manifesto that calls on the industry to confront its prejudices and eliminate discrimination, as well as links to relevant reading and events, and a list of practical tips.

“The design world can be significantly improved by celebrating – and representing – the rich diversity that exists in the real world,” writes Priya Khanchandani, Editor of ICON magazine and a member of Design Can’s steering committee. “We need to see people of all backgrounds authoring design books, curating design weeks and standing at the helm of design institutions. While those who influence design remain relatively homogenous, we will have a skewed understanding of design. No chair in history has changed lives in the manner of the lightweight, foldable wheelchair, yet it is nowhere to be found in most furniture books.”

Another recent initiative, Designing Women, brings together essays, profiles and other online resources to explore the impact of women in design, and raise awareness of the industry’s gender imbalance. And there’s countless similar efforts, all with the aim of reminding us that the creative industry still has a lot of work to do if it wants to reflect society as a whole.

Top image, still from a Design Can animation, above, part of Design Can’s manifesto

But while programmes focused on raising awareness, and making connections, are undoubtedly doing good work, there’s still a question mark over it all. How much change are these initiatives actually forcing through, and are the right people taking notice of them?

For Roshni Goyate – founder of The Other Box, an organisation that runs workshops and training and works with global companies on diversity and inclusion – these kinds of grassroots initiatives are an important part of the fight. “They are definitely very helpful, because when you get to the bigger and more formalised thing, it’s hard to reach people on the ground,” she told CR. “You’ve got a combination of efforts in any situation, and it needs to be a combination and collaboration. There needs to be space for grassroots work as well. It can stay agile, on the ground, and connected and community-based and there’s a lot of flexibility.”

“I think there’s a long way to go,” says Ella Ritchie, who’s Director and co-founder of Intoart – an art and design studio that works with people with learning disabilities – as well as a member of Design Can’s steering committee. “In terms of the Design Can manifesto, the main message is a positive response to what the potential is, and what diversity can contribute. Rather than saying how bad it is, it’s flipping it and saying it’s such a missed opportunity to make the design industry a more interesting place to be occupied. I think that’s what Design Can is all about.

“It’s very easy to be an ally,” she adds. “It’s a no-brainer to align yourself to the manifesto of Design Can, but it’s whether anybody with any influence, that can bring about change, will. It needs to not just be a website. It needs to actually enable things. It’s the people that hold the purse strings – the festival directors, gallery directors, commissioners, editors. It’s all those people that have the pages, spaces and airtime. They’re the people that can make the changes ultimately. I think the next stage of Design Can is definitely about the actions in terms of industry standards and things like that, because there needs to be that pragmatic side of it, as well as everybody going ‘yeah, of course’.”

Ritchie makes a good point. How many ad agencies and design studios are nodding along to manifestos, and turning up to events and discussion panels about diversity, but without actually doing anything about it? And are many of these initiatives simply preaching to the converted?

Screengrab from the Designing Women site

Many programmes face another issue, which is that diversity has its own hierarchy – one that often excludes or marginalises those with disabilities. Ritchie says she’s frequently invited to speak about the subject, but rarely sees the work of her studio and its designers accepted unless it’s first placed within the ‘disability’ bracket. “I’d like to see some proper action,” she told CR. “For there not to be panels on diversity at next year’s London Design Festival, but some really interesting programming. When you look on the Design Can resources, you’ll see a lot of specialist design studios that are addressing lots of different areas of diversity, but ultimately you want it to be inclusive and embedded in everyday practice. We don’t do things like disability arts festivals, we just want to do an arts festival, and I think that’s what inclusion is.”

For Goyate, real improvement requires radical change. “By that I mean the process,” she told CR. “The diversity process takes a lot of radical transparency and a need for self awareness. By the time you get to leadership, you’re expected to already have it and you don’t work on it as much. So there needs to be a radical level of self awareness going on. The Other Box is intergenerational – we have someone in their 20s, their 30s, our CEO is in her 40s, and we learn so much from each other. A lot of these initiatives don’t really create the opportunity for cross-generational communication.”

It’s easy to be cynical, and there are undoubtedly a lot of initiatives taking practical steps towards improving the situation – such as Free The Work, which functions as a database of women and underrepresented creators, or the IPA’s annual Diversity Survey, which is tracking how much actual change there is – but we also need to acknowledge that the creative industry is a huge ship to turn around. As well as the many tiny rudders provided by programmes like Design Can, we need real world action and commitment from big brands and companies – and that’s going take more than another hopeful manifesto.

design-can.com; intoart.org.uk; theotherbox.org