Four mindsets that help ensure you’re designing for diverse audiences

4 min read
Laura Bolt
  •  Jul 25, 2019
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It’s easy to pay lip service to the ideal of inclusive design, but what happens when designers actually sit down to create, how can we work better, smarter, and more empathetically when it comes to diversity? Especially in a world where one digital product can quickly be seen by millions?

To design great products, inclusivity has to be in the foundation of your work—not an afterthought. We checked in with some firms to see how they approach one of the industry’s most pressing issues on the ground and have come up with four key points:

1. Seek talent in nontraditional places

For most design firms, the first step in creating more diverse work is hiring a more diverse team. There is an invaluable power in simply hosting more experiences and perspectives. While the design industry becoming more diverse—estimates from an 2017 AIGA/Google Design census say that 60% of graphic designers are white, a decrease from a whopping 93% in 1991—entrenched attitudes towards hiring practices take time to change.

Jacinda Walker, founder of educational foundation designExplorr, told Fast Company last year that to increase diversity, firms should prioritize recruiting talent from different places, hire diverse interns, and support minority businesses.

Steve Fisher, founder and Principal Designer at Republic of Quality, takes a cue from entertainment powerhouse Shonda Rhimes, who, he notes, fills her writing teams with a diverse staff to “reflect the world she sees around her.” And the results speak for themselves: after creating hit after hit on ABC, Rhimes signed a $100 million deal with Netflix in 2017.

And diversity extends beyond demographics. The InVision Hiring Survey found that product designers with diverse working backgrounds are more successful and sought after by people managers.

The best designers don’t always come from design backgrounds.

2. User test for uncommon use cases

Of course, as they say in the comics, with great power comes great responsibility. “The way people interact with digital design varies much more greatly than with print design, with the distinct challenge of being flexible enough to technically serve and include broader more diverse audiences and experiences,” says President Obama’s former White House Creative Director Ashleigh Axios.

She points out that it is relatively easy to create inclusive designs for print, because designers often know exactly who their audience is and how they will be using the work. The breadth of use and application of digital design products, however, makes the medium more difficult to imagine the work in practice.

“Digital design generally has a much higher standard of inclusion to meet because it supports an increasingly global, connected, and diverse economy,” says Axios.

Axios created a set of digital best practices that not only include functional suggestions like:

  • Provide cost-accessible options of your designs
  • Help your audiences inform your design
  • Consider nuanced experience. (“No individual or group is a spokesperson for an entire community.”)

Axios also suggests researching your design partners past clients, current clients, and prospective clients, to get a full view of the people who will be using your design.

3. Use diversity to supercharge your creativity

Last year, Grey design firm took on the challenge of designing a new identity for New York City Pride Week, including an original typeface and digital campaign. To tackle the project and design in a way that was “abstract and not literal,” Creative Director Han Lin considered both the historical struggles and sense of celebration the event represents.

“We wanted the typeface to be a quirky celebration of diversity and the differences between people,” says Lin. Knowing they only had 26 letters of the alphabet, the team created hundreds of glyphs to create a sense of dynamic energy and difference no matter what letters were put together. “We tried to give each character a sense of personality, and different kind of human characteristics that fed into a larger pool of emotion that we wanted to capture.”

When creating the campaign, the team also considered design that would lend itself to animations and social media campaigns, reaching people on a variety of platforms in a short amount of time. With the typeface utilized in everything from posters to social media filters, the dynamic design created a sense of community that was unified yet diverse, a perfect complement to the events (and needs) of the week.

A compilation of designs created for Pride

Lin also advises designers to take advantage of the medium, embracing motion and animation to create a design that captures your audience’s attention. For example, analytics can tell you where, when, and for how long users and interacting with your work. “In a digital space, we have the ability to really deliver specific messages to specific people, places, and time. There’s a power to that,” he says. “We have the ability to change someone’s mind at the perfect moment, you know?”

4. Get your customers in the room

As the US Partnerships manager at Shift design, Hali Dardar’s work focuses on “digital documentation and the effect on organised cultural participation.” Beyond simply hoping to represent her audience, Dardar and her colleagues at Shift go one step further into inclusive design by actively involving them.

“When we get the message that we need to include people, then the question becomes what processes excluded these people in the first place,” she says. “Then we go back and fix that through the design process.”

Shift, which specializes in social issues like childhood obesity and mental health, is the firm behind Historypin Storybox, an interactive storytelling campaign that encourages members of local communities to share and organize oral histories. The project also has an open-source geotagging platform for sharing multimedia content. Dardar says that her team approaches every step of the design process as temporary, which helps imbue their work with a sense of flexibility and open-mindedness.

Darder gauges responses and creates story prompts and questions to create a sense of cohesion and connection amongst users, who can range anywhere from librarians and members of historical societies, to high school students. After initial prototyping, the team decided to create a simple interface reminiscent of early Facebook, creating a sense of familiarity and a low barrier of entry for those less technologically inclined, as well as fostering a sense of connection.

You’ll notice something scanning the above headlines: the advice for designing for diverse audiences is good advice for design in general.

Digital design has a unique opportunity to champion diversity in creativity, putting digital designers and firms at the forefront of an important and timely conversation.

Because the nature of digital design is interactive, users can provide immediate feedback. Rather than the static design of the past century where the product simply existed and set the trend, diversity in design is more of a conversation—a symbiotic relationship between creatives and consumers where both sides are constantly striving to be inspired and informed.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard