Diversity is Punk Rock

June 23, 2017

I used to think “diversity” meant the need for the representation of a particular set of perspectives or cultures, i.e., “there are lot of men in this room, therefore we need women.” This idea prevented me from participating in the discourse in the past because I’ve never felt like I identify with any single community.

I’ve lived in four countries and feel as part of any of them as I feel part of none of them. My skin color doesn’t immediately scream where I’m from and my accent prompts more questions than answers. I don’t sport any flags nor do I take pride in the land I happen to stand on at any given time. Growing up as an immigrant, I’ve temporarily borrowed customs along the way but always from an observer’s point of view, rarely as a participant — like The Imposter Syndrome without the syndrome. So, the idea of representing a culture makes me very uncomfortable.

However, I’ve learned that the need for “diversity” is often short hand for the need to fight against homogeneous thinking — that I can speak to!

Different backgrounds lead to different perspectives, and if more voices are in the room it will impact all the decisions you make. Inviting new voices affects the problems we wish our products could solve as it dictates the itches we’d like to scratch. It affects office culture, from the pronouns we use for one another to the references we carelessly spout as we walk down the hall. It even affects the examples we use to gauge success for our products and the smiling faces we imagine on the other side.

Some people might have an idea of what being a designer looks like; perhaps they act or look a certain way. But, in fact, by choosing to be a designer (whatever that means to you), you bring along a set of biases that get in the way of finding the best solution to a problem. This is intrinsically problematic as we define our self worth; it implies that everything that informs our perspective — our background, upbringing, and sensibilities, the very same things that makes us valuable in a room— is only a subset of what the group needs. The idea that there’s an archetype we can follow to achieve the fullest expression of ourselves is flawed in its very premise and it’s in fact the unpredictable chaos that comes from the group that can push the group forward.

Embracing diversity is not an easy pill to swallow for organizations that see their role as finding the fastest way to deliver a solution to a problem. It requires a mindset of learning over teaching, it welcomes conflict in service of constructivism, and it begs us to move a little slower by adding friction through our own understanding of the previously unknown unknowns. Naturally, business rejects the notion of moving slowly in the short term when faced against the pressures of profitability. This requires a paradigm shift — a course correction in an industry that looks inwardly at their successes, instead of outwardly at its potential.

This process is long and painful and it involves challenging bedrock concepts like gender roles and race dynamics that have been cemented for centuries. It asks us to declare discontent with the status quo and demand a new way.

There is a moral imperative that people deserve the chance to pursue the disciplines they want, but there’s also an argument to be made that the discussion —and thus the product , profit, and everything that leads to success— will actually benefit over the long term from differing opinions in the room.

Like Punk Rock in the late seventies, this is a movement gaining unstoppable momentum. The question is: who will be our Sex Pistols and what will be our leather jackets? The good news is that there are already a ton of garage bands incubating the next Ramones; they just need a stage to break their guitars on.

Vectors

Earlier this year, I met with Julio Martinez to discuss, essentially, how we could use our positions of privilege to help others. Julio does a lot of work in the trenches: helping students at San Jose University and AIGA SF members use design to solve problems —the world’s and their own — so, he naturally gravitated to working directly with underprivileged folks to expose them to the knowledge we have been exposed to. I thought, “what if we could serve as the radio for The Clash of this movement?”

In the context of design, that meant creating an event that put diversity —different perspectives from under-represented communities— as the raison d’être for gathering people in a room. The idea was ambitiously ridiculous; neither of us had put up an event of this magnitude before but for some reason that was more exciting than terrifying at the time.

Forming the band

Even though Julio and I belonged to a “diverse cohort”, we just didn’t have access to enough perspectives that would do justice to the cause. So, I reached out to my colleague and conference organizer extraordinaire, Michelle Morrison, to help with the event.

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As a trio, we separated our responsibilities: Julio volunteered to work with his students to develop the branding and collateral for the event, Michelle wrangled the logistics of the venue and most sponsors, and I organized the speaker lineup and narrative of the event. This helped us retain our sanity and move faster towards the seemingly unattainable goal at the time.

When forming the speaker lineup for Vectors, I had one simple goal: bring the spotlight to the voices that usually don’t get it. This meant no white dudes, which was rather inconvenient for me since they form most of my social circle. Fortunately for them, we already have many outlets to hear about people growing up on Neopets and learning to code through Myspace themes. Instead, I was interested in showing a different side of the design community with the hope that showcasing those stories on a stage could shorten the gap between them and the audience.

Admitting my own bias played a key role in the formation of the speaker lineup. This became obvious as I reached out to the people I happen to identify with: cis males. Luckily, they were courageous enough to point out my bias and recommend alternatives.

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Similarly, Michelle introduced a female perspective that was simply foreign to me. Others like Maurice Cherry were instrumental in reaching out to a community of black designers, filled with knowledge and valuable perspectives. Accessing these perspectives was imperative in organizing an event that was bigger than me, or anything I alone could’ve conceived.

Developing the brand

As is the case with many start-ups and surging movements, the name was developed quickly and without any laborious process. We knew we didn’t want “Diversity” to be an explicit part of any name. Despite that being our goal at the outset, we also wanted to create an event that felt open and inclusive and didn’t feel like “just another Diversity panel” — the Diversity notion would always come across in the program & speaker lineup. The name itself would need to be something that we could mold over time. It had to be memorable, short, and flexible.

Over one weekend, Julio and a collaborator sat down and riffed on a few options, and then we talked them over as a group. We looked at things evocative of the distances travelled by these speakers but without getting too specific. We looked at Pathways, Roads, Vistas, Tracks, Passports, etc., but they seemed too narrow. A strong contender was Voyagers, as it had intriguing aspirational qualities, but felt somewhat bloated the more we looked at it.

In that set of options we also had Pixels & Vectors, which resonated with us immediately. However, as we discussed further, it felt too much like a design workshop, so we trimmed it to just Vectors, which worked well for the double meaning of the word — both as a term in the field of design but also in general, as a “quantity that has magnitude and direction.”

While this was happening, we had also started to develop the look & feel of the event. A call was sent out to a few of SJSU BFA Graphic Design students that were doing particularly well in a senior portfolio course. Several students responded, even though we gave them only about a week initially for some rough studies. After narrowing down the field, the work of one student in particular stood out. Her work seemed to be in line with what we wanted — strong, crisp visuals that hinted at different backgrounds and pathways without getting overly specific. After a couple of rounds of revision, we got to a good place with color and type. At last, we had a name, and we had a visual language.

Strength in numbers

A lot of under-represented communities already gather in small groups, so we thought there was inherent value in bringing different communities together to share the spotlight under a large stage. In order to achieve that, it was imperative to get the support of not only individuals but also organizations and respected institutions in the design community. This sends a message that there is a desire to course-correct the issue systematically.

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We learned that, with event sponsorships, there are typically three reasons a company will support your cause.

  1. Reach — They want to send a message to your audience. Think recruiting or product marketing.
  2. Reputation — Companies want to show alignment with your work and message.
  3. Belief — Companies who believe in what you are doing and want to help bring your work to come to life.

In our case, we were fortunate enough to share common values with each of our sponsors which made each sponsorship feel just right. These shared values helped us overcome the fear of reaching out to others for help with the event, it felt like we were in service of a movement and asking if others wanted to join the ride.

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We wanted every detail of this event to reflect our values of diversity and inclusion. So we chose to partner with Beer Hall, an Asian-American family operated beer shop, SocialImprints, a local print shop that gives job opportunities to at-risk adults, and Helena Price, who has dedicated her career to telling the stories of unheard voices in tech.

Gather the crowd

So, now we have a bunch of speakers excited about sharing their stories, sponsors committed to the cause, and vendors ready to go, but how do you get people into that room to actually hear their stories? Our primary goal was to make the event as inclusive as possible and accessible to anybody that was interested in the subject.

So we partnered with Google Design to livestream the event for anyone who wasn’t able to make it in person. For those who were able to attend, we intended for the tickets to be free. However, we realized the space available in the venue would be limited to only 300 people. So, in order to get a firm commitment from folks interested, we decided to add a $20 cover charge to the event and donate all proceeds to Inneract Project. This helped us plan for reliable attendance and allowed Vectors to have an impact beyond the event.

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