By Bettina d'Ávila
On 25 May, 2017
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What design has to do with racism?

We should talk about the social responsibility as designers towards racism and prejudice. And I am not referring to explicit acts of violence but little attitudes that reinforce a status quo – specially when you work with social and visual communication.

Something has happened to me once with a customer which made me think (even more) of my social responsibility as designer.

A prototype was handed over to the stakeholder which contained a picture of a black man as a persona. Of course, this was an intentional provocation on my side because I noticed that the client has been using only pictures of white and blond people for the use cases of their product. Despite the disturbance this could cause (and I has hoping this would happen), I was expecting that the prototype would be assessed based on other aspects, such as technical constraints, layout, icons. Moreover, I expect that companies in the design and tech industries are willing to promote their corporate identities as “cool” and inclusive institutions. Spoiler alert: this did not happen.

A few minutes later after I submitted the prototypes, I received a short feedback on the material. Among aspects of resolution and typography, the stakeholder noted that the picture of a black man is not quite representative of their audience and they would prefer to see a “perfect arian girl” instead.

Surely, this was not the best choice of words. However, what matters here is that these words represent a point-of-view disguised as public segmentation, business strategy, marketing demand. Why would you consider a black man insufficient to represent a target audience for a product that has no relation to skin-color or ethnic groups in order to be used? Why would a black persona be unsatisfactory to represent a product that can be used by black people?

I know that the answer could easily justify the market share or the size of black population within the targeted customers. Notwithstanding, everything we do is a political act – specially in the Trump Era and other political regimes we are currently facing. In a process of decision making, what matters the most is the attitude and the position you take as an individual, a citizen, a professional. As a Designer, I hold the important social role of communication and therefore the political impact of my work is even greater. I should take responsibilities for my productions, even though I do not agree with them.

Curiously enough, by the time this all happened, I was reading a text called “The Ethnic Media: A Case-Study” by Ather Mirza, where the author stresses about the representation of minorities and ethnic groups in the media. In a specific paragraph about the representation of black people on British newspapers, Mirza quotes Harriet Quick, a journalist from The Guardian (March 22nd, 1995), on the following: “The most common explanation for the infrequent use of black models in fashion is that they are bad for business. The argument goes that because black families have lower household incomes than their white counterparts, it does not make sense to promote products using black models” (Note that this quote is from 1995, when the struggle for black representation was even greater. Unfortunately, it still sounds familiar and contemporary). Although this quote is referring to fashion industry, the overall context was the representation of black communities in the mainstream media. Therefore I don’t think this is a coincidence. I could cite here several other reports on structural racism and discrimination, however I believe this is not necessary. We all know that racism is not an isolated issue or an accident. Racism is an historical matter and it still survives to this day – as we clearly see.

As a professional Designer, all of these leave me thinking: to what extent can we regard a client’s opinion as merely a business strategy?

If you are working with personas and scenarios to develop a solution for your client, to what extent diversity should be a matter of concern? If the client or any stakeholder hold strategies based on exclusion, would you still be willing to work with them? Could you hold on to your values and reject opportunities, even if your are someone else’s employee?

I leave these questions here for reflexion because I do not have a clear answer for them. I hope other fellow designers are willing to ask similar questions whenever they can and wherever they are.

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About me

I have 6 plus years of experience in Web Design, specializing in User Experience and User Interface. I have worked on a variety of projects including websites, web softwares and mobile apps for iOS and Android.

With a professional background in Graphic Design and a personal background in music and cultural project development, I enjoy exploring a range of professional opportunities involving new technologies and innovation for cultural and social empowerment.