Designing to Break Stereotypes

Group of activists with holding hands protesting in the city. Rebellions doing demonstration on the street holding hands.

There is a rising movement to “design for impact” and “design for good”, both of which are important conversations for the broad design community to be having.  But to truly participate in those conversations, we first must pause to consider how many stereotypes our collective marketing campaigns or graphic designs have perpetuated, and what it takes to disrupt the patterns for how we communicate as a society.

Last year, Anne Kerns and I held a community conversation on just this topic, where we looked at recent examples of how design has subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) perpetuated stereotypes, prejudices, and racism. We talked about how design is all around us and we all participate in the system as either creators or consumers and by learning how to think more critically about design, we can challenge societal norms in our own work. In that conversation, we also looked at how you can avoid perpetuating those stereotypes, using methods that are applicable to all fields. There are several ways that we can ensure we are working towards a more equitable society, by design. Some of them include:

Diversify your team

One way you can avoid perpetuating these stereotypes is to diversify your design team— including adding people who aren’t designers by trade. Having people with a variety of different viewpoints can help prevent a lot of these prejudicial decisions because people have a harder time seeing what doesn’t affect them personally, so by having people from different backgrounds, there are differing points of view. Companies with diverse leadership also have a greater profitability. According to a Forbes article “Companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits.” In McKinsey’s previous study—conducted with 2014 numbers—that increase had been 35%. The study also showed that “at the board of directors level…diverse companies were 43% more likely to see above-average profits.” In addition to creating diverse teams, it is important to make sure the environment is safe for people to speak up and share ideas. By diversifying all aspects of an organization, and creating an environment where people feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions, more issues and the nuances will come to light. 

Find your biases

Studies show that biases can be reduced over time, especially if you are aware of them. Psychologists at Harvard created implicit association tests for sexuality, race, skin tone, age, disability and body weight. Over a 10-year period they collected four million results from adults across the US. They found that both explicit and implicit bias decreased over time. While several factors that could have contributed to this, the study did point out that the implicit biases that decreased the most are also the biases that have received more societal and media attention. These tests are still open for you to take if you’re interested in learning what possible biases you may hold. It’s also important to listen and learn when you receive feedback. After a comment from a client about wanting older people in a photo, I realized in many pieces where I was using stock photography for “business” scenes, while the racial diversity was great, age diversity wasn’t; everyone in the photos appeared to be in their 20s and 30s. This was my bias and illustrated one of my blind spots that I am now aware of. By figuring out what your own biases are, you can stop and question yourself to be sure you’re not letting them play a role in your decision making. 

Checks + Balances

In the midst of a project it can be easy to lose sight of equity goals. It’s important to examine ourselves and our choices at every step. Every decision has the potential to include or exclude people, and we need to take systems of oppression into account in our decisions and work. Some organizations do this by using frameworks that create a structure where we are less likely to make mistakes—think of it like the checklists pilots and surgeons go through. One example is the Design for Diversity™(D4D) Framework by Inkblot, which presents critical thinking exercises and questions to help us examine intent versus impact, how to engage the intended audience appropriately, who might be excluded, and more. At Mission Partners, we have a variety of systems in place to help our team check for bias including an equity accountability team that ensures equity is embedded throughout each aspect of our projects. You can also look at Mission Partners’ Race Equity Action Plan which articulates our commitment to realize racial equity within our business, within our work, and within our communities.

In the end, learning about equity and changing our patterns of thinking, in order to change how we design everything from systems to creative campaigns, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not something we accomplish in a few hours or days. It’s often a lifelong journey—a journey where we will all inevitably stumble and make mistakes. We will always have room to improve and grow to realize a more equitable future.