Why this Brooklyn-based leader thinks design needs to explore beyond the binary

4 min read
Soren Hamby,
Liz Steelman
  •  Jul 15, 2020
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As many designers may know, humans like when things are unambiguous. From user-friendly flows that minimize any errors to clearly demarcated touchpoints, designers often put in guardrails to guide their users down that happy path. That often means limiting choices to an either/or mode thinking. Outside of products, this binary way of thinking offers no room for nuance or flexibility and can often have an unintended impact—harming marginalized groups.

Amélie Lamont is trying to change that. The principal and founder of creative studio ‘by amelie.’ is on a mission to engage designers in a culturally-aware discourse. Through their social good projects like Good for Poc and People of Craft, they’re helping both designers and non-designers understand the work’s impact on society. They spoke with Soren Hamby, InVision’s design advocate, and Liz Steelman, editor of Inside Design, about setting boundaries in your work, how user personas can complicate inclusion, and the importance of recognizing your forms of resistance.

Soren Hamby: What projects are you really passionate about right now?

Amélie Lamont: I’m passionate about People of Craft. I’m also passionate about “The Guide to Allyship,” a project that helps people start the journey to become better allies. I made the guide in 2016 after I had an experience with a white acquaintance. We went to a restaurant in New York City and my acquaintance was able to get in, but I and some friends weren’t. I was arguing with the waitress, saying, “Let me in! My friend is over there!”. Then the acquaintance ducked and covered their face, like they didn’t know us. I was angry about the experience and started writing what they could have done better. I bought the domain and put it up.

I obviously couldn’t have foreseen this current moment, and people have reached out to me lately asking for additional education or clarifications. People have also asked for the guide to expand on different identities like race. I’ve had to push back, because the guide is supposed to be general. If I add a section about race, then I have to add other sections. And how do I even begin to talk about how those identities intersect? It’s not my place to use the guide as the source of truth for all of these identities and intersections. There are people who have literally dedicated their life’s work to this and can speak to those complexities better than I can. I recently updated language in the guide to better explain that it’s a starting place. If you want to learn more, you have to do the work and research to further your education .

Liz Steelman: I saw your list of resources on how you’ve built your own mindset and work strategy. Do you feel like your limits and boundaries of your work are things you’ve picked up in your design work? Or some of your readings?

Amélie: I’d say a good chunk of it comes from design work, the rest from personal experience. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I can’t be everything to everyone one, nor can I see everything.

I’m getting comfortable with that level of personal awareness and understanding how it affects my design work.

If I’m not getting what I want out of something I’m engaging with—be it a product, tool, or experience—I try to step back and see why that is and how my world views play into that. If I realize that something is not made for me, then I try to redirect my energy towards something else. Either uncovering the ways in which people like me have been left out or finding ways to create for myself and my community. That thinking is cyclical—learnings from my design practice channeled into personal experience channeled back into my design practice.

Soren: Whose work would you like to lift up?

AmélieRebecca Brooker, a Trinidadian designer and one half of Queer Design Club, which is a community for queer designers. It’s been amazing to see how she’s created a needed space for voices often ignored in design.

Agyei Archer is another person I’d like to highlight. He’s one of a few highly-visible Black typeface designers in the industry and his work is out of this world . I’m hoping that more Black typeface designers can make themselves known, too.

“If I realize that something is not made for me, then I try to redirect my energy towards something else.”

Amélie Lamont
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Soren: How has your experience with intersectionality influenced your experience with design?

Amélie: When I had a full-time job, I struggled with being a black queer designer who often had to use their experiences to remind my teams to consider how we can make inclusive products. I’d always ask, “How could this affect other people in the community who look like me or people who have less privilege than I do?” and “How can we take those answers and put them into the product we’re building?”

These days, as a business owner, the choice has become: “Do I want to work with a company that refuses to consider these questions and the impact of their actions?” I have to navigate capitalism because I have bills to pay, and I also want to be true to my values. It’s tough, but I think it’s possible to do, even in the smallest of ways.

Liz: Soren and I were talking about this yesterday a bit. I feel like there’s always two competing ideas: “Blowing up the system” because it’s never going to be able to serve, recognize, or even validate certain people’s existence or needs, and then working within the system. I’d love to hear your thoughts about both sides.

Amélie: One thing that I’m very firm about is that I don’t like binaries. Binaries are ridiculous and don’t leave space for enough nuance. Binaries exist so that we as human beings can make sense of complex ideas. But I think that when we fall into the trap of binaries—either/or thinking—we get into a space where there’s no room for flexibility and understanding.

With that said, there’s value in working on the inside. There’s value in “blowing things up.” And there’s value in being subversive and working between both on some sort of gradient. When I think about destroying a system, I try to do so with intention. Sometimes “blowing up” a system can cause more harm to the very people I say I want to help or protect.

When working from the inside, I have to ask myself, “Why am I here, and what type of change am I hoping to facilitate?” I also ask myself, “Do I have the emotional bandwidth to do this type of work? And, at what point do I walk away?”. Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, organizations are resistant to change. Without the skills to navigate politics and bureaucracy, working on the inside can be far more difficult and you instead become a casualty.

“It’s important to think about what we’re putting out in the world and how it could be used for harm, for good, and everything in between.”

Amélie Lamont
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Liz: I think that’s a really good reminder to just constantly be thinking beyond the binary— just in all of the ways.

Amélie: It’s natural to fall into either/or thinking. The challenge is to constantly question and check-in with yourself, and then step back. Try to find that middle ground, that nuance.

Liz: Do you feel like having that viewpoint helps you be a better designer?

Amélie: Definitely. That nuance allows me to consider experiences and people I may not think of while designing. It also helps me use design as a collaborative, participatory tool. Rather than designers in a room dictating to end users what they should do, I can work directly with communities and people having their input shape the work from start to finish.

It’s important to think about what we’re putting out in the world and how it could be used for harm, for good, and everything in between.

Soren: What are some of the first questions you ask yourself when thinking critically about a feature or project you’re starting on?

Amélie: “Why am I doing this? What am I hoping to get out of this? Does this align with my values? How does this help my community?” My studio’s vision is to create high-quality resources that empower, educate, and liberate people. Even though I’m the only employee, I still took the time to write down a set of values: transparency, thoughtfulness, diligence, intention, community and liberation. At the end of the day, if a personal or professional project doesn’t align with that vision and those values, I can’t engage with it.

Liz: I’m gonna try to tie this in with what you said before about the difference between intent and impact: How do you battle perfectionism when the impacts of your product are out of control?

Amélie: The way I think about intent versus impact is that intent lives in your head. While intent is invisible, impact visibly affects someone be it physically or emotionally. We can generally agree that if I were to step on someone’s toe and said, “I didn’t mean to step on your toe, why should I apologize?,” that would be insensitive. Apologizing shows that I care that I’ve caused harm and it’s a first step to making things right between us.

Thinking about how that relates to designed products, I encourage people to divorce themselves from intent (their own, their team’s or the organization’s). People have trouble doing this because if their intent is ignored, it somehow means they’re “bad.” But they are not bad, their behavior is or the impact of behavior is. Good intent and harmful impact are two truths that can coexist. What has to happen next is directly addressing the impact. For products I’ve worked on or created with the best of intentions, I try to own their impact.

If designers start pushing themselves to think in that way—especially if they work for large corporations—people might slow down before putting products into the world solely for profit. Profit cannot be had if the target market doesn’t exist because they’ve been harmed in some way. An organization is a very well-oiled machine of hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. The burden of harm can’t be all on one person—it’s collective.

“There are always small ways to express yourself in a way that is true to you.”

Amélie Lamont
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Soren: How do you juggle having a human-centered job and value system in a corporate performance-based setting?

Amélie: In terms of balancing your ideals, it’s not either/or, right? I’ll never fault someone from an underinvested community for working at a large corporation. It’s not my place to judge, because, at the end of the day you have to eat. I also recognize the internal moral quandary that comes with working at a company if you have a strong desire to commit to social good and justice.

Ultimately, it comes down to choosing your battles. If you try to oppose everything that clashes with your values in a corporate environment, you’ll be on the fast track to Burnout City. So you slow down. You know you need the role to survive, but what are small things you can do to bring your values into the workplace? For example, if a core value for me is community, maybe I can start a monthly lunch and learn with my team. Maybe it’s speaking up when someone in a meeting cuts off a teammate who rarely feels comfortable speaking up.

Actions within a corporation don’t need to be grandiose to align with your values. There are always small ways to express yourself in a way that is true to you, while navigating a system you may not want to be part of. That’s key to understanding how you can make a positive impact, no matter where you are.


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