Design: the ‘d’ is for diversity.

Why diversity is core to meaningful design.

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People ask me why I speak out so often about diversity. “Doesn’t it detract from what you’re trying to do with” To which the only answer is no, diversity is at the heart of what stands for.

To understand why, we must first understand design.

Design in a nutshell

The two core tenets of design may not be immediately obvious:

  1. Design is as much about choosing which problem to solve as it is about actually solving it.
  2. You can best design for yourself.

I don’t think anyone will find the first point controversial but I’m sure that many will have a bone to pick with the second. So, let me explain, starting with the least controversial of the two.

Design is problem choosing

When you think of design, you probably think of problem solving. When I think of design, I think of problem choosing.

Problem choosing involves deciding which problem, out of a potentially endless number, you’re going to solve. This is a subjective choice shaped by the motivations of the person or people doing the choosing. If this demographic is homogeneous and decides to solve its own problems, it will end up choosing from a very narrow sample of problems.

Problem choosing comes with an inherent opportunity cost. Every problem we choose to solve is at the cost of every other problem that we could have solved instead.

So, right here, we see that diversity lies at the core of design. Diverse groups, when choosing to solve their own problems, are actually solving the problems of a diverse audience. Homogeneous groups who choose to solve their own problems end up solving problems that affect a much narrower demographic.

Of course, either group can choose to solve a problem that does not affect them directly. However, I would argue that they can only be successful at this if they aren’t competing with an equally competent group who are solving the same problem for themselves.

This brings us to the second point.

You can best design for yourself

I can almost see every design researcher on the Internet rise out of their seats, lattes a-spilling, in righteous indignation at the above statement. “Nonsense,”, they cry, spewing flakes of freshly-baked artisan pain au chocolat from their mouths, gripped in the heights of passion for craft and paycheck, “designing for others is exactly what we do everyday!”

And they’re right. You definitely can try to understand the needs of demographics other than your own. And you can attempt to design products to meet those needs. But, and here’s the rub, you can never compete with an equally competent design team who are designing for themselves.

Unless you are designing for yourself, you are always designing for The Other.

Solving Rich White Men’s Problems & neo-colonialism in design

Given that we have a major diversity problem in technology, this leaves most of us doing one of two things: either solving Rich White Men’s Problems really well (like how best to send ‘yo’s to one another, because, y’know, why not, right, bro?) or engaging in the neo-colonial practice of Designing for The Other. (Whether that happens to be designing for women or for poor folks in far-flung countries without Internet connections.)

When not designing for ourselves, we face the risk of becoming ‘the white man bringing fire to the savages’.

This is neo-colonialism in design.

So, homogeneous teams are faced with choosing between solving their own, narrow demographic, problems well or engaging in neo-colonial design badly. And while they may be competitive in doing the former, society as a whole suffers as those solutions inevitably end up perpetuating the privilege of that narrow demographic and widening the already gaping equality gap in the world.

The solution is diversity

Diversity is the solution to both of the problems presented above. Namely,

  1. Diverse organisations will choose to solve problems that affect a wider demographic.
  2. Diverse organisations will be more successful at solving these problems because they will be solving their own problems.

Without diversity in our organisations, we will not and cannot tackle the challenges faced by a diverse society. Without diversity, we will continue to choose and solve problems in ways that perpetuate the privilege of a very narrow demographic and widen an already gaping global equality gap.

Diversity, thus, lies at the heart of design.