Diversity and Design: How we can shape a more inclusive industry?

May 27, 2021
Featured on UX Planet

The world today is undergoing its biggest transformation, over the last few years it has become accustomed to the need for acceptance and empathy and most importantly equality. However we are also living in a world where there has been resistance to openness and inclusion. We have seen those in a position of power share views that encourage the unequal treatment of human beings dependent on their race, status and beliefs.

As designers, we do more than just live this in world, we create experiences that directly impact the lives of others and ourselves. As designers we spend vast amounts of our time, imagining and building experiences that when combined take up a big portion of peoples day, and also affects the relationships they have with the people around them. But many like me chose this profession because we thought that this may be our opportunity to positively impact on some of these lives around us.

Unfortunately when we are seeing ads like the most recent one from pepsi or Labor’s ‘Australian First’ campaign, it’s an undesirable realisation that not only does society have a long way to go in understanding diversity but so does the design industry.

Pepsi Pulls Controversial Kendall Jenner Ad After Outcry

In the following post we are going to explore how we as individual designers can have a direct impact on the way diversity is implemented in design. We are going to delve into some of things we can do as individuals to contribute to a more diverse industry and how we can directly impact the world’s view of diversity through the work we do.

Diversity in design

A survey of the design industry demographics has found that almost three quarters of designers are white. The 2016 Design Census revealed that 73 percent of those surveyed identified as white, nine percent were Hispanic, eight percent were Asian, and three percent were black. This pattern is reflected in some of the most technological driven agencies, Google is 60 percent white, 31 percent asian, that’s 9 percent for all other ethnicities. Ebay US is 61 percent white, 24 percent asian and 15 percent other.

Diversity goes beyond ethnicity, and the design industry is dominated by men. Only 45 percent of designers are female and even fewer in are in a position of leadership. What’s even more disappointing is that female designers earn a minimum of 6 percent less than their male counterparts.

Design Census 2016

Design and technology has led the way through innovation and not only advanced our own industry but transformed everyday life for billions of people. Design and technology has the power to permeate every product, moment and solution in our lives and has immense opportunity for change. However there are two areas in which the design and technology industry are lagging, and each rely on the other; diversity and inclusivity. For this industry to remain successful it is crucial for both businesses and individuals to stop talking around these subjects and really start to make some definite inclusive actions.

There is of course many different ways companies can effectively start to impact diversity however we need to ask and answer the question of ‘what can I do today, as designer, to contribute at a more diverse industry and a more inclusive work environment?’

As an individual

Stop referring or hiring your friends.

Your friends are your friends because often you have something in common with them; it maybe your history, an interest you share or most likely you have similar views and opinions to them. By putting your friends forward for a job you are encouraging leadership to hire someone who is likely to have a similar vision, a similar way of thinking and who may even have a similar design process. By hiring our friends we prevent the opportunity being shared with a wider demographic and exclude those that potentially have alternative views and processes to step into the role. By hiring outside our social circles we are increasing the likelihood of finding candidates with different opinions.

“If you want diversity of thought, you have to bring in people around you who have diverse experiences.”
Victoria L. Brescoll, Yale School of Management

Be open to alternative ideas.

Diverse cultural perspectives can inspire creativity and drive innovation. It’s easy to feel safe when surrounded by like minded individuals; often confidence in sharing ideas is heightened when surrounded by those who you consider similar to you. But the feeling of security is a big price for innovation. For teams, diversity helps to avoid group thinking, discussions instead become contested and as a result the team needs to work harder to create more innovative results that satisfy the entire team.

Creativity is concentrated by diversity. Diversity challenges process in a positive, more interesting and highly engaging way. As a designer when you hear an new idea that sounds strange and different from the ‘norm’, give it and yourself some time before judging whether the idea is a good one or not. Ask yourself, is this good? Does this answer the brief? Rather than, is this what I would do?

Become a mentor

Being a mentor requires a commitment, a dedication towards another individual and time. The outcome is an invaluable opportunity to professionally develop yourself and that of another. If you do choose to become a mentor, try to choose someone with a different background — this can be ethnicity, gender, nationality, age, race or culture. Being present around that person will teach you a lot beyond just design, it will open doors to alternative views and opinions. Mentoring can also be great networking opportunity, giving you access to a diverse range of potential candidates.

Knowing where to start on becoming a mentor can be quite complex, Anne Higgins, founder of Career foundry has written some great tips on how to be a great mentor but also runs career foundry with aim of connecting fresh designers with experienced individuals. Alternatively try a find a program in your local area, or your Your local UX/IxD/design association. Local colleges and universities are often in need of local mentors for either their current students or alumni.

Career Foundry Homepage

Stand up to discrimination

It can be daunting to see discrimination and speak up about it, and sometimes it’s not even obvious (e.g. when someone makes a comment on a pronunciation due to an accent or a suggestion that a woman may not be technically capable), but speak up and don’t the let the incident pass by. Raise your hand, offer up an alternative point of view and ask for others to share their viewpoint. People may get defensive if you are combative, instead promote a healthy conversation around the subject, increased understanding of the subject helps peers confront the topic and be open to new opinions. If you witness discrimination you may feel the need to report it. Seek advice on who best to talk about the subject and explain the situation rationally and without bias.

Implement flexible working life policies

Many companies have introduced flexible work policies either through necessity or choice, but often employees are stigmatised if they choose to utilise these policies. Often it is a diverse range of people using these schemes, single parents, carers or even those going through further education. Companies will have processes and goals for promotions, unfortunately often they are not ‘policy’ friendly and require a large amount time and dedication from the employee to the company. Therefore it is common to find those who have to work within these flexible policies will stagnate or quickly move on, however often it those people that challenge the processes, bring refreshed ideas to the table. Ultimately then we need to make sure these flexible policies are not penalising employees who rely on them to achieve better work-life balance.

Diversity by design

When we design we are designing not only for a global audience but a diverse one. In UXDesign’s 2017 State of UX Report, it said that companies are starting to realise they were not only responsible for their impact on society, but also that the transformations in society can impact their designs. In the same way we cannot just hire from within our bubble, we can’t just design for our bubble. To succeed in design requires having diversity in and at the forefront of our conscience, thinking about it every day until it becomes so ingrained within us it becomes the norm.

As designers our designs cannot be effective without empathy for our users, a sprinkle of our biases and a large amount of curiosity. We design with the knowledge that our design can be indefinitely improved and perfected and by asking questions about our world and the type of people that live within it, we will gain a better understanding of diversity and how we can design for them.

Career Foundry Homepage

Within our work

Challenge ‘normal’

Society has been conditioned to believe that homogeneity and non-diversity is ‘normal’. Exacerbated by TV, magazines and advertising, homogeneity is everywhere. But homogeneity is not normal, our world contains an indefinite amount of unique and beautiful human beings. As designers we find ourselves in position of influence and now, more than ever, we need to use that influence to challenge what people consider as ‘normal’.

We can start by making our designs inclusive. When designing services that require the input of personal data; online forums, services for citizens, social interactions, dating apps or learning platforms we have to think logically and sensitively about the audiences we are talking to. There are complex questions like gender and ethnicity where someone could identify themselves anywhere on a large spectrum of descriptions. Firstly decide if the input is really required, if so the input provided needs to be mindful about it. Facebook, for example, lets the user customise the gender and nicely asks which pronoun they prefer.

Redefine masculine and feminine

“We do not need to design ‘for him’ or ‘for her’ but rather create designs that crash together all aspects of gendered life — multipurpose odd tools that fit neither category but willingly or accidentally destroy both”
Nina Power, Gendered objects, Disegno #15

Nina Power may be discussing physical objects here but her point carries into the digital space. As designers we can help to redefine the roles between masculine and feminine. Reconsider your choice when you think about applying pink to the latest online magazine, or using over masculine language on your sports app. Redefine the gender stereotype through your designs.

Remove biases from your design

Perhaps the most important way to help design a better diverse world is to force yourself to think outside of the box. By questioning your bias in every step of the process, you can start to challenge what you think about your users and your designs. Airbnb and media startup News deeply, have developed a toolkit, another lens project, to help designers navigate these waters. The toolkit contains a series of questions, that provoke thoughts about the inclusivity and accessibility when creating products and service.

#9 Not your fault, but your responsibility — UX Design, 2017 State of UX Report

Beyond that and more tangibly, when creating your personas, move away from stereotypical assumptions — does your persona need an age and gender? Or when you are conducting user research — are you bringing a diverse group of people to test your product? Finally when asking for feedback on your design work, go beyond the normal approaches, ask someone different. For a designer, different point-of-views can assist to reduce your own bias from your work and, consequently, inspire better, richer solutions. Divergent point-of-views are necessary in the preliminary stages of a design process.


Accessibility for all our users is vital, unfortunately a lot of the time designs are only created to work for the perceived majority of our users. In many cases we design experiences for those who encounter little or no difficulty when using web or mobile applications. However in many cases there is little consideration taken for those that may not be fully able, whether that is a temporary disability like a broken arm or a permanent disability like blindness. Accessibility is a large topic cover, so I suggest reading up on some simple guidelines. Adhithya, Product Designer at OpenDNS has written about some simple methods on implementing accessibility into your design process and Material.io also has large amounts of guidelines around the topic. It’s important to design to accessibility standards, it immediately creates more inclusive experiences.

To conclude

Diversity is far bigger than race, age, gender, size, physical ability or faith and for that reason alone it is our responsibility as designers to understand the audiences for whom we are designing for. A cultural diverse workforce can give an organisation an important edge when breaking into new markets in different countries; products or services often need to be adapted to succeed internationally. Understanding local laws, regulations, and customs, can help a business to thrive. Furthermore, having local connections, native language skills, and a cultural understanding can boost international business development exponentially.

Being more competitive ultimately means being more profitable. DiversityInc annually recognises the top 50 most diverse companies and compares their success with the broader market. Recent research from McKinsey also reiterates that diversity is good for a business’s bottom line. In fact, culturally diverse companies were shown to be 35 percent more likely to have better financial returns above the national industry median.

By accepting and working with diversity, the industry can rise above assumptions and stereotypes, and instead bring fresh perspectives, alternative views, and a different set of filters. This unrestricted way of thinking will help us not only influence a new era of acceptance but generate more innovative solutions within our products and services. Most importantly diversity and inclusivity removes complacency, risk-adversity, and ignorance. Together we can truly design a better, more inclusive world.

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