Design for Difference. Creative principles for equality.

Since the death of George Floyd the anger, indignation and calls for change that rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement have reached a true tipping point. Protestors are filling the streets of cities inside and outside the US; symbols of slavery and white supremacy are being torn down; individuals, influencers and brands from all backgrounds are taking to social media to show support. Most importantly we consciously pause, reflect, and educate ourselves to make a concrete effort to abolish racism and ensure equality.

From top: (1) Washington paints a giant Black Lives Matter message on the road to the White House. (2) On 2 June 2020, Social Media was filled with black tiles as part of #BlackoutTuesday. (3) A statue of a slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into the river during an anti-racism protest in Bristol.

The recent events and demonstrations have turned a glaring, unignorable and much needed permanent spotlight on the endemic, systemic racism that plagues our society. The creative industry is far from immune.

Design Council.

Let’s be frank. As an agency founded and owned by middle class white males, we fall squarely in that 88% category. We don’t feel particularly qualified or even comfortable speaking about this topic, but we believe that the discomfort is ours to acknowledge, accept and advance on. We feel passionately that it is everyone’s role and responsibility to move the conversation forward by being open, supportive and determined to help make a real difference.

At its true core, diversity is neither a trend nor a way of selling more stuff. It is a necessary part of modern life. As we lead our daily lives in the realm of design, we have found it relevant, insightful and beneficial to use the rules that dictate our craft as a lens to further explore, discuss and understand what can be done.

The five Design Principles – Balance, Unity, Rhythm, Proportion and Emphasis – help creatives imagine and invent designs that work and are appreciated, meaningful and valued (side note: there is ample debate on the exact number and names of the principles, but they all boil down to the same ideas, which we feel are capture by the five above). Each of the sections below uses one of the principles to look at how creatives, agencies and brands navigate and make the necessary changes to create a world that is finally more equal and fair for everyone.

Balance = Equality.

In design, balance has to do with visual stability and equal weight. It is the force that gives good design that sense of satisfying completeness. There is therefore a direct parallel with the idea of equality-driven design: creativity that is by and for all, and that is not skewed towards only one demographic, like white people.

Today, design is far from unbiased. For example, in the world of technology and UX design, we find that even the most advanced of algorithms still struggles to recognise black faces equally, a deficiency that can have fatal consequences: recent tests have revealed that self-driving cars have problems “seeing” black pedestrians, increasing the chances of an accident.

Similarly, many of the products and services that many take for granted – from plasters to underwear – often completely overlook or limit the experience of non-white consumer cohorts. So when a brand like Crayola releases 24 new skin tone shades to enable children of all races to accurately express themselves, the reaction is one of joy but also of disbelief that such an “elementary” thing has taken this long to be addressed. And the same goes for Grindr – the popular LGBTQ+ dating app – announcing that it will remove the ethnicity filter from its interface, helping to reduce discrimination.

From top: (1) Underwear company Third Love takes the concept of inclusivity beyond body shape and size, to include skin tone and a range of nude shades that is more diverse. (2) Crayola’s new Colours of the World range is specially formulated to represent more than 40 global skin tones. (3) Earlier this year, Tesco became the first UK supermarket to launch a range of plasters for diverse skin tones. (4) Grindr has announced it will be removing the ethnicity filter from its app to support Black Lives Matter.

Design and creativity can and must be rooted in balance – but this has to be more than skin-deep and we mean this in the most literal of senses. In the lead up to Black History Month (February 2020 in the US), bookseller Barnes & Noble revealed its plans to release a series of classic novels with new cover art featuring people of colour. The announcement backfired, leading to the cancellation of the initiative. The public was quick to note that – no matter how well-intentioned and inclusive the idea may have appeared to be on the surface – it did little to add diversity to the discourse as, beyond the glossy front covers, the classics were still very much white, from the authors to the characters and their storylines.

Unity = Strength.

Unity is what ties a design together, bringing together all the different elements – from copy to imagery, online graphics to pack materials, brand essence to campaign visuals – and enabling them to work and truly “belong” together. It is unity that generates the single-minded drive that makes something powerful, meaningful and memorable.

Therefore, the link we’d like to make here is a more inward-looking one, which relates to the creative workforce. As mentioned above, our sector falls behind when it comes to workforce diversity. Only 11.4% of industry jobs are filled by black, Asian and minority ethnic people, a problem rooted in inequality of access and perceived opportunities in the sector.

We Are Stripes.

Without diversity and representation, unity is incomplete, our creative potential is compromised, and progress turns stagnant. Teams that include a more diverse mix of culture, race and gender add more solutions, viewpoints, angles and positivity to the table, and are better equipped to deliver results that resonate with our increasingly diverse audiences. Indeed, a study by McKinsey found that ethnically diverse teams are 33% more likely to outperform their competitors.

Fortunately, numerous organisations and companies are working to change this. For example, in July 2019, the UK government’s Creative Industries Council (CIC) launched a designed to drive greater diversity across the country’s creative industries. Undoubtedly, there is more to be done.

Rhythm = Authenticity.

An important element of design is visual rhythm, the repeated use of lines, forms, colours or textures to create a cohesive narrative for the eye and the mind to follow.

The key word here is cohesive. When tragic events like George Floyd’s death or regular occurrences like Black History Month take over the media, many brands choose to show support and solidarity for the cause, be it by posting a black tile on Instagram for #BlackoutTuesday, or producing powerful videos urging people not to turn their back on racism, like Nike’s For Once, Don’t Do It campaign.

However, the speed and ease at which conversations happen and initiatives go viral on the web make it all too easy to ride waves of support and solidarity without actually reflecting on the deeper relationship between the message and the underlying brand.​

56 Black Men.

Before joining the discourse, it is key for a brand to ask itself how the diversity cause fits in its rhythm, its history, its actions and its behaviour beyond the channel of a marketing campaign. Being real and transparent is crucial, as is using the brand’s authentic tone of voice and inherent assets to contribute to the change.

Otherwise, it risks being a jarring note that does not fit, resonate or feel authentic, and will face backlash and criticism, like L’Oréal did when it declared support for Black Lives Matter on Instagram and was immediately called out by model Munroe Bergdorf, who was sacked by them in 2017 for posting about racial violence.

It is using their real voice that enabled Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips to credibly stand up to racist followers on Twitter and genuinely endorse Black Lives Matter (see below). The day after the tweets, thousands had joined the conversation on Social Media, using #SolidariTea to applaud the brands.

From top: The L’Oréal post that sparked Munroe Bergdorf’s. Twitter threads (cited here) where Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips show #SolidariTea and reply to racist comments from followers.

Another brand to get the rhythm right is Google: in honour of Black History Month 2020, the tech giant used its most intrinsic asset – data – to celebrate and pay homage to the most searched iconic African-American figures and movements.

Google.

Proportion = Coherence.

Proportion is when the relationship between elements in a composition is and stays in harmony. The relationship we are thinking of in the context of design and diversity is that between what a brand says to the outside world and how it then behaves internally as an organisation.

Indeed, established brands that came to be at a time when diversity and inclusivity were not so high on the agenda must be extra mindful of their actions. Otherwise, powerful statements like that made in Nike’s For Once, Don’t Do It campaign (mentioned above) risk sounding hollow: it did not take long for critics to dig up a photo of the company’s leadership team and demonstrate that every single member is white.

Emphasis = Permanence.

We’d like to conclude with this fifth principle: emphasis, or the creation of a specific point or moment of focus. It is something that disrupts and even completely interrupts the flow of the composition, drawing attention to itself purposefully and unapologetically.

The passionate reactions to George Floyd’s death over the last few weeks are finally shaking the status quo and represent moments of emphasis. But the pace and the pressure cannot drop now.

WeTransfer, cited here.

Individuals, agencies and brands all need to move beyond solidarity to become true allies and guardians of diversity and inclusivity. For some, it may be more challenging than others: racism – conscious and unconscious – has ingrained itself into our systems and mindsets over an extremely long period of time.

The point is that we cannot rewrite history. What we can do is recognise all of its truths, the good, the bad and the ugly. A bit like Banksy does (ever on point) by suggesting that we fish Colston out of the River Avon, put him back on his plinth, and add new bronze statues that immortalise the act of the protestors who pulled him down. To create more of these tangible moments in time on the way to a better, equal future.

Banksy
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