Why does design lack diversity? by Debika Ray

“A lot of the big decision-makers still tend to be white, straight men,” says filmmaker Aaron Christian. “And that's the level at which you're going to affect change.” Previously senior video director for Mr Porter, Christian has recently released a short film based loosely on his own experiences of breaking into the UK media as the son of Malaysian-Indian parents, an accountant and a nurse. In The Internship, a young British-Asian man from a modest background faces difficulties securing a position at a design magazine – among them, the risk of giving up a job for an unpaid temporary role, parents concerned about his unstable career choice, casual racism and the challenge of nepotism giving others an advantage.

“When I graduated, not knowing one person in the industry was quite daunting,” Christian says of his own experience, highlighting the crucial role of personal connections to success in the creative industries – something many people of colour, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, lack, given the unequal access to elite academic institutions and the monocultural nature of the sector. Christian’s own story had a happier ending than that of his protagonist – he ended up interning at Esquire – but he knows others weren’t as lucky. “I saw a lot of talented friends not getting opportunities, while people’s sons and daughters did.”

Manchester-born Samantha Edwards, who co-founded New York-based agency The Charles with her brother in 2011, paints a similar picture of the US, where students from minority groups and disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to go to top universities than their more privileged or white counterparts. “You only have to look at the alumni from Parsons to realise how important that network is.” The result is that, when it comes to recruitment, she finds the pool isn’t diverse enough. “We don't see as many black candidates as we would want and sometimes the ones we do see are not qualified enough.”

For those who do make it that far, there are more hurdles, especially for those who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds – such as the persistent need to prove yourself through unpaid work. “I was fortunate enough to know my parents could help me if needed, so I could work for free as an intern,” Edwards says. “But not everyone can do that and those that can tend to be Caucasian.” Her firm, she says, pays all interns a stipend to cover food, travel and basic living expenses, but as a small business there are limits to the time and resources it can devote to supporting new entrants.

But at some of the bigger agencies, she says, these efforts can often feel disingenuous. “Some are just too big to care, as long as they are hitting their diversity quotas.” Larger, more established agencies, she adds, can also be more conservative. “There's an old guard who love the idea of change but tend to be less open to it.”

Eddie Opara works at arguably the largest of the large: he’s a partner in Pentagram’s New York office, and also moved there from the UK. When he arrived in the city in the 90s, he says, inclusivity in the design sector was “absolutely terrible”. “I didn’t work with anybody black until I hired one – and that was in 2007.” Even now, he says, black designers at Pentagram are few and far between, and it’s easy to see how such an environment might feel unwelcoming to those who don’t fit the mould – as Opara points out, in graphic design “every single hero is white”.

Like Edwards, he believes inequality begins long before people reach work. “It's not easy coming from a working class family that’s paying for a college education,” says Opara about the particular barriers faced by people who are less well off. “When parents look at the amount a graphic designer makes, they probably wince and say, ‘no, don’t do that’.” For people of all backgrounds to see a career in design as viable, he says, they need to be exposed to it earlier. “We need to set up mentorships at schools to tell them you can have a profession in this area and these are the people that have done it.”

Of course, being from an ethnic minority background and being economically disadvantaged are certainly not one and the same, but there is some overlap – and both groups are under-represented in the creative industries. In the UK, educational institutions are increasingly conscious of the need to tackle the problem of access for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Over the past four years, for example, the University of the Arts, London has ramped up its Insights scheme to become a university-wide programme with a senior dean in charge – this is a programme under which the university visits schools in neighbourhoods where people are less likely to apply to art school to make links to students, bringing them in for courses to learn about the options for a future in the arts and the work they would cover during a course. Of the 300-odd students who participate in the CSM Insights programme, about 45 of these students are eventually given a place at the university, with many more starting courses at other UAL institutions. At the same time, those assessing applications are trained to look at potential instead of expecting ready-made portfolios. “It’s been a long process, but over the past couple of years, those conversations have really expanded,” says Janey Hagger, college outreach manager at Central St Martins, where the programme began. She adds, however, that tackling these issues rely on both employers and universities. “We can hopefully bring these students in and support them, but the industry also has to pick up and take the students.”

Contemplating the solutions to these problems, Edwards falls into what she describes as a “black hole of thought”. “I'm deeply conflicted. Do you start from when kids are in school? Does it start at home? If you don't have the support at home, then where? Is it about mentorship programmes? What about people that fall through the cracks? And those who don't even know about the industry?”

The reality is, design as a whole will only become more diverse when there is diversity among the gatekeepers and people in power – from managers in agencies to the superstar creatives to the critics and curators. For now, it falls to the people of colour who have already made it to lead the conversation and to create networks, opportunities and role models for all under-represented groups. Christian has launched an initiative called “Asian creatives”, which highlights Asian men working in the creative sector to inspire others. “It sounds stupid but growing up I genuinely thought Asians weren’t creative, so seeing others who look and sound like us is the way to build our confidence,” he says. “I've been lucky enough to get through the door and it’s crucial that we help bring up the next generation. It's not our responsibility, but if we're not going to do it, there’s no point in complaining.”


1. Scrap unpaid internships: opportunities can’t be equal if people are expected to work for free to get a foot on the ladder – especially if these opportunities are secured through personal connections

2. Embrace diversity of thought and ideas: a more diverse workforce will and should mean a shift in the industry’s creative output and the demographics will not change until decision makers are comfortable with this change

3.Strive to create leaders, not just employees: change will only happen when people of colour are in positions of responsibility and visibility

Debika Ray is a London-based journalist, writer and editor. She is the founder and editor of Clove magazine about South Asian culture, contributing editor at Crafts, and until 2017 was senior editor at the design and architecture magazine Icon. Her particular interests are global development, urbanism and the Indian subcontinent.