Discussing Diversity in Graphic Design
To kick off 2023’s BA Graphic Design Hatch sessions at Kingston School of Art I chaired an industry panel to discuss diversity in graphic design.
I chatted with creatives, Ravista Mehra, Pali Palavathanan and Katherina Tudball about their experiences in both graphic design education and practice in regards to a variety of issues surrounding diversity. We touched on discrimination, initiatives to diversify the industry, projects that challenge the status quo, tokenism, and advice for a more diverse future.
The session began with me framing what I meant by diversity in graphic design – we weren’t just talking about diversity of race, culture and gender (although these themes of course were large topics of discussion), but also other diversities such as class, sexuality, disability, neurodiversity and age. There has been a longstanding stereotype of the graphic design world that it is predominantly populated with white middle-class cis straight able-bodied neurotypical men. But I was interested to find out if, in 2023, the industry is finally evolving.
I’d like to mention that the final year graphic design degree students played an important part in shaping the questions I posed during the discussion. They started this academic year by answering the ‘Graphic Design Next’ brief, set by Zoë Bather. The students were asked to ‘critically explore the graphic design community’s impact, purpose and potential through the work it does and the way it does it’. Many students tackled issues connected with diversity, ethics and equality. To name just a few: Dharvi Jayaprasat examined which countries value graphic design as a career (from Europe having many courses to study, to the Middle East having none at all); Charlotte Solly highlighted the class problem with the shocking statistic that only 16% of the design industry is working class (when it’s 45% in the wider population); Matt Berglas reimagined design work spaces for a multitude of minds; and Elise Mower focused on the female career ladder by revealing the percentage of women who climb to design director level (a mere 11%).
These examples introduced our discussion (and also intersperse this written version).
Ravista is a multilingual storyteller and visual communicator from New Delhi. She has studied design in both the US and the UK. Ravista’s ongoing literary initiative, Broken Englizh, which hopes to demystify decolonization through the power of first-person narrative, has been featured in the press globally. As a designer she uses the alias Active & Concerned Citizen, through which she creates work, individually and collaboratively, to question, dismantle and rebuild the post-colonised standards and structures of racial prejudices as they stand now. Her Indian identity is central to her conceptually and socially driven practice.
Pali is co-founder and Creative Director at branding and digital agency TEMPLO, which focuses on creativity for change. Pali has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands including Virgin Atlantic, Amnesty International, Disaster Emergency Committee and the Guggenheim Museum. His work has won numerous awards and he’s also helped to award others as a judge for the D&AD Professional, New Blood and Design Week Awards. Pali speaks regularly on branding and design for events including Pick Me Up, the D&AD Graphic Gathering, and the V&A Creative Quarter.
Born in Kuala Lumpur and raised in London, Katherina is a multi-award winning designer and Creative Director at Superunion. With a passion for great ideas that deliver a positive impact, Katherina has worked on numerous projects in the arts, culture, education and non-profit sectors. She has a keen interest in design education, as a regular visitor at arts universities such as Central Saint Martins and past external examiner at the London Metropolitan University. Katherina often appears as a speaker on design and branding, is a regular creative awards judge and a former D&AD Design Trustee.
This following chat is adapted from the panel discussion that took place between Ravista, Pali, Katherina and myself on 24 January 2023 at Kingston School of Art.
Although I was technically the chair, as a woman and a mum and a gay person, I have a particular interest in equality in graphic design, so I inevitably contributed to the conversation as well.
Q1: In your experiences from education to practice, do you think diversity of creative talent gets better or worse?
Ravista: During my time at university in the US, students were relatively diverse (and I’m talking race, class, and neurodiversity) however students were much less so in the UK.
This may be a difference between undergraduate and postgraduate education, and a cost factor. But in my experience the higher up you go in education the less diverse the people become, and then in industry it becomes even less – it’s like a funnel where diversity gets worse and worse.
In my experience the higher up you go in education the less diverse the people become.
In regards to my teachers, they were predominantly white male. This was true in both the US and the UK. I have been able to work more with white women in the industry post-graduation. But I have had to seek out special companies, run by people of colour, to work with other people of colour.
The design world is super small, and from my experience in London, there are a few different circles, specific to race, that tend to mingle mostly with each other. I’m guessing people of colour have had to make their own networking circles to create more opportunities for themselves, and also because they may not have been as welcome to the old existing creative circles.
Katherina: I’d agree – diversity has decreased from education to practice. Studying at Central Saint Martins, being a woman in design didn't feel like any kind of hindrance, as there were more female students on my course than male.
I was exposed to more racial and international diversity due to a high number of international students (although from certain parts of the world and mostly from higher income backgrounds). In terms of British students, it wasn’t very racially diverse – but arguably the students were from lower income backgrounds than they are nowadays due to lower fees back when I was studying.
Certainly when you look at the leadership levels, there's a real drop-off in terms of female creative directors, and not much racial diversity.
When I entered the industry in the early 2000s, my first job was in a small but relatively diverse studio (majority female, racially diverse, and LGBTQ representation – although led by a white man). However I gradually started to notice the dominance of men and the lack of diversity in studios in general. And then certainly when you look at the leadership levels, there's a real drop-off in terms of female creative directors, and not much racial diversity.
There’s some LGBTQ representation, and there’s recently been more talk of inclusive workplaces in terms of disability/neurodiversity, but not enough.
I think this is due to a number of factors, including senior creatives hiring ‘mini-me’s’, women dropping out of industry at mid-level, and internships being difficult for people from lower income backgrounds.
Pali: Compared to when I graduated in the mid noughties, there's more people of colour at junior level. But then there’s no representation at the top.
If you're a person of colour in a design agency, it’s best to think that you’re probably not going to be let up the ladder from within, and if you want to change things, you have to deprive them at some point of your talent and create your own studio to create a new space to make a change.
Higher education is now effectively a private school.
In terms of education, I think the biggest problem I've noticed from when I graduated to now, is the class problem. I don't think you're going to get many council estate kids like me on a graphic design degree course like this one at Kingston now. If there were more lower income kids represented then naturally the melanin would increase too – but obviously this is a systemic problem.
We are lacking a diversity of thinking – a diversity you get when you bring people of different backgrounds together. I still think like a council estate kid. That's why I do the projects I do – there are certain subjects that interest me, that may not interest people of other economic backgrounds. Higher education is now effectively a private school.
Katherina: I definitely agree – when I was at university there was certainly more diversity in terms of economic backgrounds.
Julia: I got a grant to go to university in the late 90s.
Katherina: Exactly. And then any fees were more affordable too.
Julia: From a female perspective, the diversity issue from education to practice is ‘the elephant in the room’ that is children – a lot of women drop out of the industry mid level because they're the ones who are physically having the children and are then the primary caregivers. Like the fees issue this is obviously a wider problem, but it is a barrier to women climbing the ladder.
From a female perspective, the diversity issue from education to practice is ‘the elephant in the room’ that is children.
Katherina: And even if you're a woman who’s not going to have children, the lack of role models in the higher levels means that there's a sort of mental block – women aren’t necessarily aspiring to the creative director or executive creative director roles, because women aren’t seeing themselves there, and that can be limiting for any woman, whether they're going to have a family or not.
Julia: Before I became a mum, I had an informal job chat with a very senior female creative, and she asked me outright, whether I was planning to have a family, and then made it explicit that the job wasn’t suited to women who have kids, because of the long hours. Ironically she was a mother herself, which I found quite frankly outrageous.
Katherina: In some agencies I think there's sometimes an expectation that people who don’t have children can take on more, because they can work evenings and weekends whereas parents wouldn't necessarily be able to do that.
Q2: Have you ever faced discrimination either in your education or career due to the lack of diversity in design?
Ravista: I think discrimination is a bit of a violent word, and I don't think that I was violently treated, maybe more dismissed.
But, yes! Any project I did about non-western subject matters – which is basically all of my work– required extensive explanation and justification to my professors, and they couldn’t fully engage with or understand it, because they had little to no knowledge about my part of the world. I got fed up with explaining – I had to listen to references on the Bible in my classes – it wouldn’t have been that hard for my professors to Google certain terms from my work.
I think that’s partly why I got into education - to be able to give students a familiar face in the room, someone who would try and understand their experiences, and normalise them. And I don't have every answer. No one does. Even if you're a woman of colour, you don't have all the answers because we all come from diverse backgrounds – I've been in situations where I've been the one person in the room having to answer for an entire country of nearly 2 billion people!
Even if you’re a woman of colour, you don’t have all the answers because we all come from diverse backgrounds.
Pali: Me facing discrimination? Outside of the design world, all the time. In terms of the industry, I don't want to be that brown guy who says I didn't get something because of the colour of my skin.
However when I left my first job around seven years into my career I felt ready to lead a team. I was comfortable leading the creative aspects of a piece of work and I could definitely see myself as a young creative director. But it was really interesting how recruiters and other agencies couldn’t see me as a creative lead. Instead I got offered all sorts of lower level jobs. This was 10 years ago and there were many companies taking on younger blood to reinvigorate their agencies at that time.
The industry generally doesn't see me as a safe pair of hands. So for example, with the design media, whenever they are looking for a typical ‘design’ comment like an analysis of a rebrand, they'll never come to me, they'll go to ‘the normal voice’.
When is the industry going to be diverse enough to remove labels, and everyone is just seen for their talent?
Julia: Do you think it’s a case of labels – they only want a comment from you if it’s connected with culture or diversity – you’re seen as a brown designer rather than a designer? I'm a designer, but am labelled as a female designer. When is the industry going to be diverse enough to remove labels, and everyone is just seen for their talent?
Pali: The ‘establishment’ loves getting me to speak in lectures, but then when it comes to commissioning my agency that’s another matter. My role appears to have been cast in the cultural/human rights space, for example, working with refugees. But then when it comes to working with arts clients, it's been really difficult to penetrate that sector.
Ravista: I completely resonate with that. The design media are seeking ‘majority’ thinking. But I think the word ‘majority’ has been frozen 50 years ago, because the population is a lot more diverse nowadays. The word minority no longer fits people of colour. And even that term will soon expire because in the future it's going to be a mixed race.
I think the word ‘majority’ has been frozen 50 years ago, because the population is a lot more diverse nowadays.
Katherina: It's probably something I should mention at this point. I am mainly talking from the point of view of being a female creative, but I am also of dual heritage and mixed race. I’m half Malaysian and half white English, but many people just assume that I'm white. This is an interesting and problematic place to be sometimes because I know I'm seen as ‘one of them’, so I've been privy to seeing racism when people think no one's observing it. I might be perceived as a white female creative director, which in itself is a minority in our industry, but I am mixed race and I don't identify as being one or the other.
Julia: And have you found discrimination in the industry in terms of being female?
Katherina: As a student, I was very optimistic and saw no barriers, and I didn't think I needed ‘feminism’ to support me. But after leaving my first job in the female-majority studio, I noticed that it was different elsewhere. When I was younger low key sexism and even sexual harassment were always present in the industry (and society in general) and definitely accepted far too much.
As I became more senior I think the challenge was gaining respect from certain colleagues and clients. For example, sometimes I've had a sense that a male freelancer brought into my team might not naturally respect my leadership. I have felt like I’ve had to prove that I am ‘good enough’ in some situations where a man might not need to. And that’s a bit of an obstacle.
I think younger females don’t put up with as much sexism anymore. If something inappropriate happens to a member of my team I flag it, and get something done, which thankfully is a much easier process nowadays.
Also although I don’t feel it personally I know some female colleagues have anxiety about speaking up in a male-dominated creative department. I think I have adapted my behaviour and manner over the years to always ensure I am heard and visible within male dominated groups.
I, like lots of women before me, set up my own consultancy for flexibility when I became a mum.
Julia: In regards to female equality, I think the workplace changes during Covid has done diversity in this area a favour – I saw that being a working mum in an agency environment, pre-Covid, was hard, because of the irregular hours in the office clashing with the regular routine of a small child. So I, like lots of women before me, set up my own consultancy for flexibility when I became a mum. I was then, unbeknownst to me, completely ready for business during Covid because I already worked remotely a great deal – I had clients and associates internationally that I met via Zoom, and not necessarily in 9-5 hours. When Covid hit the design workforce, agencies were then forced to let their people work remotely with more flexible hours. Before 2020 this was pretty rare with most agencies not liking their people having any flexibility – you needed to be visible at your desk from 9am until at least 6pm. Whereas now I think that has evolved.
Katherina: Yes, I've definitely seen as a result of Covid working mums thrive, because they can work the hours that they need to and suddenly they're much more visible. They're just as visible as anybody in the office. And that's been amazing. And I feel awful that those people might not have been seen as so valuable before, because they were not present enough to be seen as great performers. It has fundamentally changed my views on how we need to help any parent work well.
I've definitely seen as a result of Covid working mums thrive, because they can work the hours that they need to and suddenly they're much more visible.
Julia: Just to mention, from the perspective of being a gay designer, I’ve generally found the creative industry to be pretty inclusive. The only awkward experiences I’ve had are around certain clients – when you’re working for an agency you don’t necessarily have the luxury of choosing the clients you work with. So over the years, I’ve ended up working on a project with a Qatari organisation (obviously based in a country where it is illegal to have a same-sex relationship), as well as having a certain religious charity as a long-term client. No instance ever arose where either organisation knew I was gay, but it felt like it was something I would have to keep to myself, if any social chat took place with the clients.
Pali: Another story - last year, I was working on a certain project where I was told to tone down the diversity angle. Ironically, the project was about diversity, but it was too diverse! ‘Ok, I’ll remove that black and brown person from visual then!’ It’s interesting though, as a result of the comment, I can use this story to highlight discrimination.
I was asked by a senior industry peer, if I was a diversity hire.
Katherina: When I was at the pub once I was asked by a senior industry peer, if I was a diversity hire. He was a bit drunk and said it in a jokey way, but even to have been asked that question, insinuates that I might not have achieved my creative director status for the right reasons. I was so furious. And that flippant supposedly throwaway comment was said to my face. What do people say when you can't hear them?
Q3: Have you been involved with any initiatives that are helping with diversity in design?
Julia: I think it would be good to hear about Shift here.
Katherina: So, I've been involved with D&AD for a long time, and a few years back they launched Shift, which is a funded night-school programme for creative people who have not been through a university education. Shift gives participants exposure to the creative industries, as well as equipping them with the relevant skills and tools.
I've been involved with Shift through Superunion for the past couple of years. We have taken on participants with a specific interest in design and branding, to give them a deep dive into industry including day-to-day design agency skills. The path into a design agency is a little bit harder than an advertising agency for Shift graduates, as a lot of different kinds of creativity can transfer into advertising roles such as copywriters and art directors, whereas with design, there's an awful lot that goes into three years of a BA, especially with hands-on skills.
Then other initiatives that I've been involved with, by being part of various sessions, are Ladies, Wine & Design which was founded by Jessica Walsh to empower women and non-binary creatives globally, Hidden Women of Design which raises the visibility of female graphic designers, and talking from a female creative perspective at Glug and YCN events.
Q4: Can you tell us about any projects you have worked on that challenge the status quo in the graphic design industry?
Ravista: One of my self-initiated projects is called Broken Englizh. It's a literary initiative, where I work with amateur writers – people who want to tell their story about growing up in different parts of the world and their cultural identity and how it affected and informed them. I started the project at the RCA during my Masters, when I was trying to really understand what decolonisation meant. I was studying it academically but I was not understanding it, no matter how much academic text I read on it, I couldn't see myself. I know I come from the land of Gandhi, but I don't know if I 100% agree with him on everything he says, and I don't think I have to, because I don't have to read every book on racism to know that I've been through racist acts. So I decided to look at decolonisation in a very personal way. I started with my own story – after being born and raised in India but educated in a British school there, I didn’t realise I was brown until I went to study in the US. And it's a weird thing to say, but it was never pointed out to me ‘you're a person of colour, you’re a minority. These are your statistics’. And it was just very strange – it took me many years to come to how other people saw me, being okay with being who I am.
It’s a weird thing to say, but it was never pointed out to me ‘you’re a person of colour, you’re a minority. These are your statistics’.
My story was also reflecting on my grandparents' experience of moving to India during the Partition – they saw horrifying acts. And I don't share their views – I have a lot of Muslim and Pakistani friends. But I could never convince my grandparents to think differently because of their experience. I had to come to terms with that. But it's for me to not follow and propagate their views, so it can stop at my generation. There's a lot of unlearning on my part as I have my own discrimination in the way that I was raised.
So Broken Englizh started with my story and we now have 54 stories in 30 languages on a blog, and published as a book. And I insist on people writing in their first languages, and then I work with them to edit their stories and publish them, because I think it's important that we infiltrate not just the literary world, but also the graphic design world with other languages.
Julia: Where did Broken Plates come into the project?
Ravista: The plates highlight some of the qualities of the stories – for the start of each story I always ask the writers for a list of misconceptions that people have thrown at them over the years. The broken plates represent a literal metaphor of those misconceptions being shattered.
The other project I work on is Icons of people of colour. This is more of a visual take on diversity. I work with illustrators of colour from around the world, to help facilitate and give them a platform to generate icons that represent where they come from. There's no hard and fast rule of what the icons need to look like – just what is around them – because I think that's what we are talking about here, diversity means having different default systems. There is no way for us to think from everybody's perspective, it's not possible. Hence we work with other people, right? We make large groups, we collaborate, we have to make the effort to naturally include people. Rather than ‘this team is looking really white – let's add some women of colour’. Last summer I worked with Greenpeace and the Runnymede Trust on the design of their report on how racism is leading to the environmental emergency. My icons became part of the infographics for the report.
Pali: By the time I left my last job, before starting TEMPLO, I was screaming inside to talk about important but overlooked issues. I still think our Stop Torture project is the epicentre of everything we stand for, even now, 10 years on.
When the tsunami happened in Japan in 2011, it made me really angry that loads of graphic designers created posters about it. How did that help the people of Japan – unless the posters turned into inflatable lifeboats?!
And that's how the Stop Torture project began – who was looking at Sri Lanka? The human rights atrocities, the government corruption, the genocide? Nobody. No one cared – probably because of the lack of diversity of thinking in our industry. So we took it on.
Then the seed of another project was planted when I was at a border crossing in South America. I handed over my passport and they didn’t believe I was British. So the idea formed about trying to express cultural identity in a softer, more nuanced way. So it started with me wondering how to create a flag that represented me? The current formation of the Union Jack is over two hundred years old, and thus was designed to express a country that was very different to now. Now we're multicultural.
We defined some rules – staying within the lines of the original flag, not completely messing with it, as the message was about everyone fitting together within the structure.
We then travelled around the country with the concept, doing flag workshops – we called it Brit-ish.
We get hired a lot now because people want our perspective: for example UD music charity in East London, who connects musical talent from deprived areas of London to the music industry. In part of our pitch we talked about how amazingly black skin was filmed in Moonlight – they liked that I could tap into my knowledge. So I think a lot of the projects we work on, we are brought in for our expertise in handling cultural identities.
Katherina: There's a project I worked on related to design – it was a campaign called ‘Rewriting the code’ for global education charity Their World, to promote the rights of women and girls. The design was based around the language of coding as a visual metaphor for the inbuilt injustices of social codes. Part of the project brought skills to young girls all around the world to enable them to learn coding in all kinds of places, giving them opportunities for the future.
Q5: Have you ever been exposed to tokenism, and do you think it can play a role in diversifying our industry?
Katherina: It's a tricky area. I've definitely been asked to do panel discussions, awards, judging, speaking at conferences to gender balance events (at the very least). In one instance, I was CC'd on an email chain that when I scrolled back I literally saw the conversation ‘where are we going to find a female creative director?’ I really struggled with whether I should do the event or not. What I chose to do was to call out the fact that I could see the chain and maybe next year, they might want to pre-plan a little better, cast their net a bit wider and actually do some research to find plenty of people who are not ‘the usual suspects’.
At the moment there's certainly a climate for companies wanting female creative leaders, and if you can demonstrate that you have some other kind of minority status as well, then ‘bonus points’.
50/50 juries are a given now, but a decade ago it was more likely a token woman on a jury of men.
Gender balance has got better in the time I've been working – 50/50 juries are a given now, but a decade ago it was more likely a token woman on a jury of men. I hope the idea of quotas is a short term negative that will eventually reset the balance and will no longer feel forced. It's not something that feels good if you suspect that diversity is the reason you're being asked to do something.
Ravista: I mean, I know, yes, it can be useful. But it makes you feel like you're being undermined for your creative skill and you're not being used for your mind, but for the colour of your skin. It's a tick box.
However, the way that I started looking at it a couple of years ago was ‘You know what, if I’m being let through the door, I might as well go in and keep it open for everybody else, because if I can get a seat at the table, I'm not leaving’.
I'm obviously not going to be perpetuating tokenism, so, when I hire somebody, I know that it will be authentic. Right now tokenism is just an unfortunate reality.
It makes you feel like you’re being undermined for your creative skill and you're not being used for your mind, but for the colour of your skin.
Katherina: I think some white male creative directors are feeling nervous right now. They're worried no one's going to ask them to be judges, or comment in the press, or do talks or conferences. I’m not sure if it’s completely true or just their perception of suddenly feeling like they're not always the only choice.
Pali: I think it needs to be done more authentically, in a non-calculated way. Since George Floyd, there have been a lot of weird reactions from the design community – remember the black social squares on Thursdays, for example? It takes a lot more than promises of hiring people of colour to actually get to the place where we have diversity in the boardroom, where the decisions are made with people who are going to actually make and fund change. That's a really difficult place to penetrate.
Since George Floyd, there have been a lot of weird reactions from the design community – remember the black social squares on Thursdays, for example?
Q6: Finally what advice would you give to students in terms of making our industry more diverse in the future?
Pali: If you're going to work on projects which speak to certain communities, you need to engage with them, and make them a component of the project. They can't just be a soundbite at the end.
My advice to POC designers is to stop waiting for agencies to put you in a position of power and start your own practice. That’s the way to get a seat at the table.
To truly believe in unity, you need to get your hands dirty, and engage with the other side – it’s pointless just sitting in echo chambers.
If you want to see more people like yourself in the industry, seek out the people you can relate to for mentoring and advice
Katherina: If you keep diverse company now, you are likely to naturally bring that with you into work, and your connections and networks will fuel the design industry.
Challenge prejudice or negative behaviour when you encounter it – speak up and call it out or flag it with someone who can make a change on your behalf – don’t stay quiet on things that make you uncomfortable.
If you want to see more people like yourself in the industry, seek out the people you can relate to for mentoring and advice and consider making yourself more visible to encourage others as you progress.
And look beyond the Eurocentric modernist tropes of ‘good design’, ‘good designers’ and the usual white male design heroes.
If we continue to work with people who have the same default systems as ours, then we will never be able to create anything new, or see from a different perspective.
Ravista: Work with different people. If we continue to work with people who have the same default systems as ours, then we will never be able to create anything new, or see from a different perspective. Keep reminding yourself who the audience is, and educating yourself on that.
Understanding one’s own cultural and social limitations is a massive step in opening the doors to other designers from different backgrounds who can help tell the story better!
It's also about understanding that ‘the majority’ is no longer a 40-year old white man. We’re now so diverse, so much more than we would think, right? Not just in terms of race and culture, but in terms of age, gender, sexuality, economic background, disability and neurodiversity.
Thank you to Ravista, Pali and Katherina for giving permission to publish our discussion around diversity in graphic design, and to the BA Graphic Design course at Kingston School of Art for facilitating it.
Header image by Meric Dagli. Second image by Kindel Media. Other images and videos courtesy of Ravista Mehra, Pali Palavathanan, Katherina Tudball, Dharvi Jayaprasat, Charlotte Solly, Matt Berglas, Elise Mower, and Zoë Bather.