A New Collaborative Aims to Increase Diversity in Design

Herman Miller Group has teamed with dozens of major design companies to launch the Diversity in Design Collaborative, which aims to take meaningful action to increase diversity within the design industry.

The Diversity in Design logo by advisor Forest Young

This past summer, the murder of George Floyd galvanized a long-overdue reckoning with racial injustice that permeated nearly every part of society. Issues of racial representation have long afflicted the design industry—less than five percent of designers identify as Black even though 12 percent of the U.S. labor force identifies as Black. And recent research by the furniture designer Jomo Tariku shows that out of 4,417 branded collections from major furniture brands over the past two years, only 14 were with Black designers. Given how design wields the power to shape the look and feel of just about everything, those numbers feel particularly grim. 

The Diversity in Design (DID) Collaborative, a powerful new collective of nearly two dozen global design companies including Herman Miller, Adobe, Fuseproject, and 2×4, seeks to close that gap. DID originated when Andi Owen, president and CEO of Herman Miller Group, invited the controversially ousted former Cooper Hewitt director Caroline Baumann to work on the company’s own diversity initiative. In doing so, Baumann discovered pent-up interest to address equity in design from companies across the board eager to get involved. “The alarming data about diversity and representation in the industry has served as an urgent call to action for us to do better,” says Owen. “In our early stages of research on how to best address the underrepresentation of Black designers, it was clear that we couldn’t make substantial, lasting change alone.” 

Baumann turned out to be the ideal collaborator for the initiative. During her tenure at Cooper Hewitt, in which the museum opened up to a wider community, she launched an annual job fair during National Design Week to help raise awareness about the profession to high schoolers. “Design is an agent of positive change,” Baumann says. “Good design requires successful collaboration. The members of DID, all companies with design at their core, are dedicated to making the systemic change necessary to transform the industry for good, moving the needle on the stark less than five percent that represents brown and Black people in our industry. We, a collaborative of authentically committed leaders united by design, are coming together to make that change.”  

DID’s initial efforts will focus on addressing the root causes of design’s stark racial disparities. By easing the path of Black designers into the industry, the collective aims to expand the talent pool and help them get a much-needed foot in the door. DID plans to promote design professions widely within high schools while working with historically Black colleges to create new design curricula. (Only ten percent currently offer design courses.) The collective will also establish a set of shared metrics that companies can use to measure success, create an intercompany network for Black designers, and launch a DID Design Fair next year in Detroit—the nation’s largest Black-majority city.

“As a Black designer, I’ve waited three decades to receive Herman Miller’s call proposing the concept of DID,” says advisor D’Wayne Edwards. “The lack of diversity in design is too large an issue for one brand to try to solve itself. To me, DID is about more than purposely creating more diversity in design, it’s about an entire industry creating a more meaningful relationship with a consumer that goes beyond them being a consumer.”

The reasons behind the design industry’s systemic problem of racial homogeneity are complex and manifold. Many design brands are European, design academies tend to prioritize teaching the Western canon, and those same academies often attract few students of color. Taking action to rectify the industry’s staggering diversity problem certainly won’t happen overnight, but illustrating the issue with concrete evidence and coming together to work toward positive change feels like a crucial leap forward. 

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