“I’ve been designing for the Black queer trans person from day one”: A Planned Parenthood designer on identity, career, and craft

4 min read
Liz Steelman,
Soren Hamby
  •  Jun 30, 2020
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Good design conveys the right amount of information in a tailor-made way for a certain user. While we may assume design should always be so good it can’t be ignored, according to Chan Williams, that’s not always the case. Chan is a Portland, Oregon-based creative focusing on making design accessible to all. Through their current work with Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette and They/Them Studios, they’ve come to realize that sometimes centering the underserved doesn’t always mean shining the spotlight upon them. Instead, to create work that really helps those on the margins of society, oftentimes your work needs to blend in, to offer radical information in a safe, discreet manner.

They spoke with Soren Hamby, InVision’s design advocate, and Liz Steelman, editor of Inside Design, about the opportunities design thinking holds for underserved people, how race, class, and gender intersect in the workplace, and the outpouring of creativity from the queer community as a surprising effect from Covid:

Soren Hamby: Okay, starting off with something easy: What projects are you passionate about right now?

Chan Williams: Oh, wow. I’m passionate about all of the random ideas I have in my head that I know I’m never going to execute on cause I’m too busy. But I think in terms of the things I’m actually working on: I work for Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, which serves Portland, and other parts of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Right now, we’re working on awareness around Black Lives Matter, Pride, and the intersection of those two things. I think a lot of organizations are trying to show solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement right now and they’re forgetting it’s Pride (or vice versa) and they’re trying to pick and choose which one to do. We’re working on signage that lets people know both of those things are important to us. They/Them is the studio I run with my partner and right now the work we’re doing are mostly side projects for community members, like websites and logo redesign. We’re also doing some work in public service health care—building awareness and creating educational materials for folks who live in underserved communities and are looking for access to gender-affirming surgeries.

Liz: Hearing you speak on that, I think there’s a disconnect between the opportunities and impact tech has in underserved communities. Could you speak to some of the ways you’re using your tech background and design to help those communities?

Chan: Because I’m a designer, part of me doesn’t even see the job I do as tech. But there are a lot of folks who need websites and digital presence and want to figure out how to make something physical available to the rest of the world, but electronically. When I think about what I do, it feels like traditional art, but I guess I’m using technology to make it. I think a lot of the tech part of what I do is help these underserved communities move from their grassroots organizations in their house or garage and put it out there in the world: And that has to be done through the web. A part of it, too, is changing the message to be more inclusive and widely available for everybody. People can write a great three-panel, fold-up brochure but no one’s going to read that on the internet. So I have to think about how I can take all the things I’ve learned over the years and package that thing so it’s digitally digestible for everybody. Most of the folks we work with are people for whom this might be their second, third, or fourth job. They don’t have time to sit and make a bunch of Instagram stories or even build out a website—even if it’s free. It’s so nice we can provide that for them.

Liz: At InVision, we talk about “design maturity” and how mature an organization is essentially how much they separate visual graphics from design as a business lever. So when I hear you speak about that, I’m also thinking about how the Internet and technology has so much potential for those in underserved communities, but they’re often the ones without the time or access to build these highly-innovative products, and they often don’t even have access to this digital infrastructure in the first place. I’m interested in hearing from people who are trying to bridge that gap between opportunity for good and access, or keep the gap from widening. 

Chan: This is what They/Them really focuses on. As well as teaching people along the way so that there is no gatekeeping of knowledge. Anyone can pump out a webpage and charge a monthly fee to update it. But I think people should know what’s happening behind the curtain and be able to do it for themselves. There’s definitely a digital divide between the rich and the poor. How many startups had decent funding but failed because they were technologically poor? How many businesses have Black and queer people started that would dramatically change the landscape of whatever industry they were in but they didn’t know how to use Facebook ads, build an app, or even a well-designed website?

Technology is moving faster than ever and marginalized folks are being left behind and out of the decisions of how that technology is made and what it is used for. So how can it ever benefit them in the long run?

This question reminds me of the studies about how businesses see significant financial growth and employee satisfaction when they hire more diverse employees. I’m a little biased, ok… a lot biased, but having an office full of different QTBIPOC folks from around the world sounds so dreamy. The food alone would be worth the trip. Because really, when has a room full of people exactly like you ever led to sharing truly new ideas, adventures, or experiences?

“When has a room full of people exactly like you ever led to sharing truly new ideas, adventures, or experiences?”

Chan Williams
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Liz: We talked to Amélie Lamont about balancing working in a corporation while having these activist ideals and wanting to burn everything down. They quickly stopped me and said, “It’s not a binary.” 

Chan: Yeah, it’s not. You can absolutely have those two things at once. Or skew more to one side or the other. I think of people who want to create change from the inside but also of that person who really needs to make ends meet. A lot of on-the-ground activism and organizing doesn’t pay enough to live comfortably, support family, have savings, or pay health insurance premiums. I know people who take corporate jobs they hate for health insurance alone. But they show up in other ways.

I think the beautiful mess of humans is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. The idea of the binary is so baked into white supremacy and capitalism—that something or someone is good or bad. Worthy or unworthy. I’m privileged to be at a larger non-profit, but don’t get me wrong, we’re still scrappy. And healthcare is serious and buttoned-up, but the way we are trying to rethink what that all looks like is when I’m getting to do those things that “burn it down” a tiny bit. And my work with They/Them is when I get to burn it down a lot.

Liz: Whose work would you like to lift up and or advocate for?

Chan: There’s this designer I recently came across and I adore the stuff she’s done: Kim Goulbourne. She does a lot of dev and pop-up event planning. She’s using fun ways to bring communities together, and (prior to Covid) bringing online stuff to physical spaces. It’s all really delightful, diverse, and sometimes has a political vibe.

I’m also into Arlan Hamilton. She runs Backstage Capital, which works with underserved and marginalized communities, and more specifically, Black women founders. I’m listening to her book It’s About Damn Time (she narrates it!), and I’m so excited to read it again, write in the margins, and scream about it.

Liz: What about it makes you want to scream?

Chan: It’s a breath of fresh air. I’ve been reading design books, design theory books, and self-help books around psychology and emotional intelligence since I was young. A lot of those books are supposed to help you be your best self, but they often feel regurgitated, and not based out of someone’s own experience. But I think her book shares her experiences of a black queer woman in a straightforward way. She’s funny and I think she’s real. The advice she gives isn’t necessarily any different than what anyone else is saying, but she says it in a way like your best friend who really wants you to win would. So you keep listening. She’s not screaming, “Hustle, hustle! Don’t sleep ever! Don’t watch Game of Thrones! Just work!” She’s like, “Hey, you’re going to get as much out of this as you put in… but also, don’t forget to drink water and take breaks!!!”

Liz: How has your experience with intersectionality impacted your experience of the design industry?

Chan: As a young designer, when I identified as a Black woman the design industry still wasn’t necessarily easier. I was in San Francisco and it was highly competitive. I think I constantly was overlooked because of being female, but then there was intrigue because I am Black. “You can bring this urban thing or tap into these communities. We can be cool because of that.” I still was never taken seriously though. More often, too, I’d make it to the end of interview processes and ultimately find out the person who got that job was a white dude. That happened over and over and over again. And even when I was there, when I did make it in the door, my opinion wasn’t valued. It felt like, “We want you to sit here and be here… but we don’t need you to talk. You don’t really need to chime in. We just need you to show up.”

But I think things slightly changed when I transitioned and read more male. I would get my foot in the door more often but when it came down to being in the office, people would be like… “Wait, are you male or female? Also… like… this whole queer thing?” It was uncomfortable.

I’ve never not talked about being queer at work. Being trans is something that took more easing into. It’s not anybody’s business. You don’t go to work and be like, “I’m a woman!” or “I’m a man!” But talking about your sexuality is something that ends up happening. And I felt I had more authority because I was male passing, but my ideas were still too radical or aggressive. It became this thing like, “Am I going to get a seat at the table or foot in the door?” And then, oh, still no because of the Black thing. Inherently, because of being Black, my opinions, values, and ideas are always too something. Fill in the blank. I guess I could just say they’re too Black. It’s been difficult.

I think what worked for me, honestly, (and it feels like a no-brainer) is that I stopped trying to work for places that were great based on what the industry said but really just were clubhouses for cis het white men. That’s all good, but it’s not someplace I want to be. I want to be someplace where everyone is openly talking about gender, sexuality, and politics and how much the world sucks and what parts of the world are great. I don’t want to grind and hustle for 28 hours a day, make a bajillion dollars and be miserable. I got to a point where I was like, “This sucks trying to fit into everyone else’s expectations. I’m gonna be who the fuck I am: A Black queer trans person.” As soon as I started going into interviews and being, “As a trans person, X, Y, and Z,” people raised an eyebrow, but it let me know if I was going to be safe in that space and if people wanted me to be around.

“The most freeing thing was to decide I’m going to do me and be who I am”

Chan Williams
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And I want to acknowledge the privilege I’ve had to live in trans and queer-friendly cities. I know this route isn’t possible or common everywhere. But I think the most freeing thing was to decide I’m going to do me and be who I am. And I ended up getting so much more quality work because of it. I got connected to a lot of queer people and organizations who needed help.

Soren: I had a similar experience, as well. I am interested in your perspective on this: I found when I was in those situations where it was under-represented people next to the straight cis-white-het, you’re put on a different trajectory. They get the mentorship, the more visible projects. Even if you do get a foot in the door, or a seat at the table, they have all that extra coaching and help. It puts them on this different trajectory. 

Chan: This morning, I saw an article in Fortune magazine. They interviewed a bunch of Black folks in the workplace and asked, “What is something you’d want your white counterparts to know?” One person said something akin to, “It doesn’t really matter what their position is if they’re not ever invited out for beers. It doesn’t matter if you hire Black, queer, or trans people if you don’t foster those relationships and help them develop as employees. Otherwise, they’re forever in that same position.

It’s not easy to find a mentor. It’s like looking for a therapist: They have to know about Black, trans, and queer stuff. All of my identities and the intersections they bring in. I don’t know if there’s many people who could mentor me in all of the ways. I guess I would need a panel of mentors. Maybe that’s the way to go: have a handful of them.

Soren: I relate to that. It’s hard because you do get a lot of advice from people and they’re like, “Well, why don’t you just do this?” And you’re like, “It just doesn’t work the same way for people in this position.” Because we’re not in the same privileged state and they don’t realize it’s a check they can cash without thinking about it. 

Chan: Like, “Why don’t you just ask your family to help fund your startup?” or “Why don’t you make a video and do a Kickstarter campaign?” And, I could, but think about the time that all takes. There’s some level of privilege in the statement, “Why don’t you just.” The “just” comes from the same pool of words like “obviously” and “simply.” It means you’re not recognizing the place you’re in versus the place somebody else is in. Right now at PPCW, we’re working on using more inclusive language. Take “affordable health care” for example: What does that mean? Affordable for who?

Soren: Absolutely. That’s a big question in accessibility as well. I’ve been working with some people to understand that accessibility isn’t just about physical handicaps. I’m visually impaired and I’ve been trying to get people to understand access has to do with race, socioeconomic levels, and all these different things. What’s one thing you think people could do to help pull more under-represented people into design?

Chan: Gosh, it’s like an octopus—there’s so many legs and which one do you address first? A whole bunch of things need to happen. Because capitalism is the name of the game, and I’m veering out of my lane of knowledge, this might be a bigger question than I can’t answer right now but I’ll give it a shot:

I think people should strive to make spaces safe for Black trans women. The actionable item for people right now is listening and learning. Read all the books that are being recommended right now. Don’t just like the post, buy the book! Buy three and give two away. Read that stuff and then really let it sink in. Companies need to hire BIPOC facilitators who work in DEI. And do an audit to make sure the people you employ are 100% on board with that mission statement you revised earlier this month so they don’t end up on Twitter doing something foolish.

Learning about making inclusive spaces is something that needs to happen and needs to be mandatory.

Besides that, people in decision-making positions need to stop looking for talent in places that are comfortable and predictable.

Liz: That’s a complex answer to a complex question. So as you’re talking, I’m thinking a lot about the opportunities tech affords and the problems it creates. One thing the Internet has done is enabled queer people to community build. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s probably more and more queer people also creating their own spaces and institutions now because of the internet as well. Do you think the queer community is working towards creating their own spaces that can then compete with existing systems and structures in place?

Chan: Absolutely. For example, many well-funded networking and coworking spaces were never made with us in mind. They were so expensive. In response, I’ve seen some places pop up across the country like Ethel’s Club, which is for people of color. Now it’s all digital, but they essentially created a clubhouse for all the people who were never allowed in the old boys’ club. It’s great. It looks amazing. I’ve never been, but it’s definitely a place I would go if I lived in or was visiting New York. But it doesn’t necessarily solve the class thing, right? It’s hard! I don’t think one place is ever going cover all the bases.

Either way, those spaces like the WeWorks of the world, aren’t going to change, so people will create their own spaces and eventually they will evolve to be what the larger old-boys clubs were never going to do. It’s important to create those spaces for people right now, though. I don’t know if they’ll always be needed, but I see the smaller organizations that started off with its users, customers, and clientele in mind first being the ones who really transform.

“I’m in awe of what comes out of people when they have time to nurture their creativity.”

Chan Williams
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Soren: What makes you feel like your work is appreciated?

Chan: Client compliments and verbal validation. I’m currently working on a project that part of me wants to submit for a design contest so I can be like, “I’m an award-winning designer.” I’ve never prioritized entering stuff like that because I don’t think I get my validation from an organization of people I don’t know. It would mean more to be judged by my actual peers and/or people whose morals and values are aligned with mine. But normally, I’m okay with the people who see the work I do saying, “Oh my god, this looks so good!” Their validation and appreciation feels good, and seeing my stuff out in the world.

Liz: All right, last question we have written down (but again, the floor is always open.) And what if anything has changed about how you think about your work in the past couple of weeks and months? I’m thinking particularly about Covid and Black Lives Matter. 

Chan: I don’t know if anything’s ever changed, because I think the person I’ve been trying to design for is the black queer trans person from the jump. I want things to be fun, but serious. That might even be indicative of who I am as a person. I’m serious but I’m fun. I want things to be bold, beautiful, and great. I want them to be organized and intentional. Take the work I’ve done with the Gender Confirmation Center: They feel serious and medical, but also joyous in the way you’re going to become the person you know you are. I think I always want things to be taken seriously because life is serious. But there is joy in everything we do. Even the crappy parts. I think with Black Lives Matter and the protests, some of the stuff that makes me feel the best is seeing signs that not only say “Black lives matter,” but say “Black joy matters.” Some of these kids are writing really funny, witty things. There has to be a balance between the serious stuff and the joyous, happy, ridiculous stuff. Otherwise you’re just mad all the time and I don’t want to be mad all the time.

When we hit June 1, I was like, “Oh, Pride’s already cancelled.” The protests were getting larger, and COVID cases were up. But I wasn’t upset. I realized I’ve been go-go-go for so long and I could finally take a break. I could start designing things and making things that didn’t come from a place or urgency or necessity. I could fall back a little because the rest of the world was finally acknowledging and upset at the state of the U.S. as well. There’s so much creativity pouring out of queer artists right now! I think a lot of us have been holding it in because we haven’t had time to think. But Miss Rona showed up to town and said, “Everybody needs to take a break and dig into themselves.” So much work is being produced. It’s beautiful, it’s chaotic. I’m in awe of what comes out of people when they have time to nurture their creativity.


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