The Power of Black Design

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There are many things that I am proud to be. A sister. A designer. A black woman. It’s February, meaning it is Black History Month. In honor of this month, bootcamp, General Assembly, hosted The Power of Black Design, an empowering and educational panel to open conversations about entry into the design field as a person of color and the opportunities that await.


Albrina Mendes: Local Marketing Front Lines Lead at General Assembly

Ashley Turner: Founder, Chief Officer, Philly Tech Sistas


Natalie Nixon: Creativity Strategist at Figure 8 Thinking

Brenda Matos: Product Design Lead at REEF

Erick Gavin: Former attorney, Senior Program Manager, Center for Black Innovations

David Dylan Thomas: Author, Content Strategist, Think Company

How do you bring your skills from other careers into design?

Gavin and Nixon share their thoughts on the topic. Gavin stated, “You know how to design one thing, you know how to design anything… Design has never left me and it never will.” Nixon shares, “study what you love.”

I hear this question asked often in panels. The reality is, it greatly depends on the skills that an individual has honed throughout their career. For me, empathy is almost a part of my personality trait. It is not a skill that I turn on and off. It is me. This goes for being an organized and competitive individual. Like Gavin, design has become something intrinsic in me. As a child, I was more artistic, but my love of creativity grew with me. Eventually, I began using both my visual and literary creativity more with purpose. Regardless, some elements of design have always been a part of me, it will never leave me.

How has culture identity been brought to work?

Matos shared the ways in which her background from NY had exposed her to people of diverse backgrounds. She stated, “I make sure to bring my own experiences in groups. I did not come from a tech space.” It was not until she connected with another black woman in tech, that Matos changed her career. Matos shared, “don’t assume we all have the same journey and knowledge.”

Turner shared her sentiments in the statement that will always ring true, “Representation does matter.”

Thomas started with both a surprising and not so surprising statement, “I don’t like jargon... Some of it is ‘speaking black.’ I like bringing that into professional spaces because our idea of ‘professional’ is white, European.” In his attempt to deconstruct that, Thomas shares the part of himself that is his blackness which is in his communication.

Where do I start with such powerful words? First, it was a pleasure to listen to Brenda Matos. In my earlier stages of my career, I sought out designers of color to learn about their experiences. I was blessed to have connected with Brenda. In our first conversation together, I immediately felt at ease listening to her slight New York accent that reminded me of my New Jersey community. Our conversation was candid, honest and consisted of a mixture of our career goals and ambitions. Brenda’s openness to share her experiences and the similarities in our backgrounds made the transition into design and tech much less intimidating. Meeting designers of color like Brenda, Erick and others is a true testimony to Turner’s statement that representation matters.

Second, my experiences with my first encounters of design connect with Thomas’ words. His words were surprising because I had spent much of my career honing the skill of code-switching. Between my empathy and exposure to people of different backgrounds, I have learned to gauge how to speak to others in the most relatable way. However, it can be tiring. Sometimes it feels like walking on eggshells. Sometimes it feels like I have accepted for myself that the community that I come from is not enough. I applaud the idea of deconstructing what it means to be professional in order to allow for more genuine conversation.

Erick, what has your journey been as a black designer?

“It’s been beautiful,” Gavin answered, “It has been liberating. I make things now. Being an attorney is in no way a bad profession… It gets a lot of hate.. but that did not influence my journey. When I started off in a bootcamp, I graduated from law school…I passed the bar exam… I just made a conscious decision in technology about three months after the bar exam was over.”

What I found most poignant of this response is the reminder that a career in design is a choice not a last resort. Being a career-changer does not mean that someone has failed in their past careers. It means they have made a decision to influence communities in a new way.

Gavin shared his approach of “what it is that people enjoy?” and “what can I create in my community that helps people build for themselves?” He continued, “It is nothing short of a dream. I was adamant in being a better designer, in the experience part, in the user research part. It was something that I already knew how to do. When you are thinking about transition and change, what can you carry over from what you’ve already been doing? That goes doubly for us as a person of color.”

Thomas also shared, “Oftentimes I hear questions of ‘I don’t know where to start’ and imposter syndrome. It is important to keep going. You don’t have to have the past experience like a graphic designer to get started.”

Nixon also added, “My husband practices that sexy law…What I have learned is in legal training, you learn to understand challenges from various angles… I just want to remind black Americans that there is a very short leap from entrepreneurship to design because we have a legacy of entrepreneurship. This is part of my DNA. In terms of design, design is about seeing possibilities… You’ll see black boys shooting ball with a milk crate, they solved a design problem.”

The image of black boys shooting hoops with a crate is ingrained in my mind. I’ve seen that image in movies and music videos but always as a sign of struggle and destitution. To hear someone talk about that same image as a sign of skill is sadly unique to me. However, it is inspiring. My journey to design has also been beautiful. Part of the beauty is creating designs that allow people’s voices to be heard. Another part of the beauty is the realization of my own strength that is intrinsic to me and is a part of history that extends long before my birth.

Speaking of the black excellence, it is important to talk about unconscious bias. We think of professionalism as Euro-centric. Can you talk to us about what unconscious bias in design is?

Thomas started with, “Your mind is taking a shortcut… If we thought carefully about every decision, we would never get it done. Those shortcuts when they are wrong are biases. In my work, it does not always work to just show them [clients and stakeholders] the facts.” Thomas elaborated with his experience with a client who was adamant on a design that would not be beneficial to users. His successful approach was to “make it seem like it is their idea. We are not going to tell you what the research says, we are going to give you the research and you tell us what they said.”

Thomas emphasized the influence of biases in a case study with Amazon GO, a store where you walk in, pick something up and leave. Because of this structure, these stores don’t have much staff. For black people who have experienced shopping-while-black, they felt this sense of freedom. Amazon Go removed one key design element, the staff, which ended up helping the black experience.

I remember twice, to my knowledge, of being followed around a store. It is primarily when I am dressed-up, when I appear more “professional” that I feel comfortable walking into stores with my purse or bag. However, outside of these instances, I consider myself lucky that these biases are rarely glaring and impedes on my personal successes. My less-traumatic experiences do not negate the reality that these unconscious biases are prevalent and cannot be solved solely through technology.

What are you doing to break down barriers?

Gavin shared, “I am big on apprenticeship. Having that camaraderie with someone in the field works, especially in a craft like design… There may be a step 1,2,3 but there may be an a,b,c that you get to see.”

Turner added, “The black community has not been marketed to to enter design. We often don’t have that experience. Apprenticeship programs would be helpful.”

Like Matos’ thoughts, I believe it starts at high school and with kids and getting them introduced to tech jobs beyond coding. Matos shared, “For me, if someone contacts me on LinkedIn, I will give them my personal time.”

This is true in my own experience. Online resources are great introductory tools into the field because they teach the iterative and non-iterative 1,2,3 steps in design. However, those a,b,c sub-steps can be the defining factors in getting a job in design or in improving a design. In these steps, I needed guidance that I was luck enough to find through both my bootcamp and through other designers.

Natalie, has there ever been a remarkable moment in life that has altered your design process?

Nixon started, “In my book, the creativity leap, I had this sensation that we were starting at the wrong place…Creativity is not a luxury, it is essential…The memory that came to me is not directly related to design, it is more about designing people’s lives.” Nixon shared her remarkable moment that started in her days in college. While Nixon was waiting in line to purchase her college course books, she was wondering how she was going to pay for these books. The top book was an Anthropology book published during the 90s. In the book, the photo of the author was one of a beautiful black women. Nixon shared her feeling of shame that she thought anthropologists were “old white dudes digging in caves”.

“There needs to be more of us, not just people of color, more of us need to be asking what is wrong with this picture [the monolith at conferences],” Nixon shared. “We need to ask ourselves, maybe I can try that, maybe I can be that. …In the design space, we are always talking about empathy, but we are missing the step of curiosity. Before we can empathize, we must be curious. ‘Why do they sit over there and not here?’ ‘Why do they sit this way or that way?’ We need more non-black/brown people to be curious. Use your words! Ask the questions. Stop being afraid to talk about race. We know we’re black. Let’s start having conversations.”

An attendee shared in the event’s chat that we can and should interrogate algorithms and criticize UX/UI. I remember a recent experience in which I attempted multiple times to take a selfie for identity verification on a particular interface. However regardless of my attempts, I received the same message of “not enough lighting”. These frustrations are not uncommon and should be talked about. Racism is not a black person’s issue. It is a concern that negatively impact business and design. It is an issue of ethics and morality. It is an issue that needs both conversation and action.

Matos shared her remarkable moment as the moment she won teacher of the year. “It felt like a popularity contest,” she shared, “It was a moment of ‘what I am doing right now is not what I see myself doing in the future.’”

Thomas did not share a remarkable moment but added insight that resonated with and challenged my understanding of culture fit in a company. He contradicted the common approach to culture fit as “I don’t care what you look like, but when you come in you need to act like us” in an excellent analogy. He shared, “If I have IronMan, I’m not going to hire another IronMan. That is the approach I would like to see other companies take. Culture fit is what causes a lot of black people to leave companies as soon as they come in.”

Why do you think we need more black people in tech?

Thomas shared “Black folks have been surviving a country that has been trying to kill them for over 400 years…We have been creative to stay alive, I’d love to see us do it for profit.”

Nixon added, “It is unintelligent business otherwise. We are part of a global majority,…I can’t possibly ask the same questions that Erick or Brenda will think of. We have different experiences.”

An attendee stated, it is time to #takebacktech, and I could not agree more.

If you can describe one word for the feeling you get after finishing a design?

Matos stated, “I have three: I Did That.”

Humility is important in design, but so is pride and confidence in your work and skills. I have done great things. I have helped people whenever I can. I overcame many fears. I did that.

What advice would you give to new black designer?

Matos started, “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there…In all types of design, I notice that designers are willing to speak on their work and share their knowledge. It seems like it is unattainable, but it is not. The barrier to entry is not that hard.”

Gavin added, “I think it’s really important to be conscious as to why you want to go into design…I think you should reflect on that, and when you get stuck…reach out to people…I don’t think five years out, but I do think one year out.” Not only did Gavin advise to connect with people who look like yourself, but also connect with people who do not look like yourself. Turner had similar suggestions, provided in earlier conversations with Natalie, to go on listening tours to get some new ideas.

These suggestions were like stamps of validations that I am on the right path to success in my career as a designer. I have had the pleasure of connecting with designers who have worked in various industries from start-ups to nonprofits to civic design to large corporations.

Thomas mic-dropped with, “It is important to get good at questioning assumptions that are disempowering.”

What are some questions you face as black designers?

Thomas shared, “I had the advantage of ‘I talk white’… so my authentic self is comforting to white people. I have had the opposite challenge, breaking out of that shell and embracing a part of my shell.”

Nixon shared, “I don’t experience being challenged in showing my authentic self. It is more the challenge of being strategic in when to speak up. Nixon shared her experience with the black tax which entails the constant questioning of, “Did that person say that to me because I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m black woman?” The black tax, as Nixon shared, triggers the fight and flight response. This has affected black people physically in heart disease and other medical problems. Nixon continued, “As a black woman, one of the prickly areas has to do with hair. I remember when I started speaking publicly, do I pull it back, do I let it be?”

This was particularly powerful as I sat at my Mac laptop with my Figma and Google tabs open and my hair wrapped in the scarf I often wear, sometimes with hesitance, for Zoom meetings. Even within the black community, scarves were seen as nightwear and not something to wear in public. For some, they were symbols of oppression. For me, my scarf is a symbol of me, my heritage. The fabric frames my face precisely, and the colors emphasize my skin color. In a way, it is my small contribution to the deconstruction of making Euro-centric professionalism the standard of professionalism.

How did you build confidence to articulate your unique design style?

“You practice,” Gavin stated, “I don’t have the length of experience to say I’ve learned over time. Most of the time in growth has been spent in experimenting. You can only do so much as an entry-level designer. People say, ‘You know you should go up and talk to them [people in higher positions, stakeholders and decision makers in design projects]. But in actuality, how comfortable do you feel challenging the PM? But it is your imperative to build up to that. Do your due diligence so you can speak effectively.”

Turner added, “You don’t design in vacuums, so get others involved.”

Are there unconscious biases within the black/brown community?

Turner started, “Get over the crabs in barrel idea…if I want to reach out to others, I have to overcome the idea that black and brown designers won’t help as much.”

Gavin also shared, “Stop thinking of the black community as a deficit.”

The black and brown community constantly face obstacles towards success. While many are external, institutional racism, biases, prejudices, etc., there are barriers we have placed for ourselves.

This event was more than a kickstarter to Black History Month. It was an empowering opportunity to connect with and relate to designers of color. It was a realization of just how far my community has come and how much change we can continue to accomplish not just for tech but for society at large.

I am a User Experience and User Interface designer with a past life as a pro track and field athlete and author. Read my novel SPRINT DREAMS on Amazon.