Op-Ed: Designing For Diversity Is A Matter Of Checks And Balances

Here's your playbook.


Courtesy NEW INC.

In 2015, Google’s photo search identified Black men as gorillas. Instead of fixing the algorithms, their solution was to remove images of gorillas. Earlier this year, Snapchat’s stock dropped after pop-singer Rihanna objected to the use of a violent ad that promoted “domestic violence” featuring her and singer Chris Brown, her ex-boyfriend who assaulted her back in 2009. Last March, Heineken apologized for their “Lighter is Better” beer commercial, but millions of people were unable to unsee another media narrative that intentionally (or unintentionally) imprints the message that black is inferior to white. In April, unchecked hate speech and fake news on Facebook, our time's greatest purveyor of information with over 2.19 billion users, escalated a state-sanctioned brutal genocide of Muslims in Myanmar.

Whether we believe these mistakes are intentional or not, here’s what we wonder when these headlines appear on our screens. Who was behind this strategy? What design process did they use? What ethical framework was referenced while they were in the process of building this campaign, service, or product? In our experience working with companies, the answer is simple: They failed to Design for Diversity™.

As tech and media companies become one-and-the-same, there are two big “missing pieces” towards the pursuit of creating inclusive and humane services and products.

The first is a lack of ethics within the tech industry. Abiding by a code of ethics, and using existing frameworks such as this one, would provide a useful framework for mitigating the creation of harmful products. The second is a missing framework that content creators and technologists should use for checks and balances at every human touchpoint, such as Design for Diversity™ (D4D), which safeguards against cultural blind spots and racial biases.

It’s critical that we train D4D teams to increase their capabilities at creating inclusive content that solves problems and provides solutions for a broader and greater number of people.

The two go hand-in-hand: a company’s public declaration that ethics and diversity are important, and the systems, processes, and practices that will allow that declaration to be actualized. As Dave Gest, CEO of Scrum.org says: “While one standardized code of ethics (such as the Hippocratic Oath in the medical profession) could be a solution for the software industry, it is also important to teach delivery teams how to ask the right questions when considering the ramifications for emerging innovations.”

Establishing a universal framework that addresses who/what/how guides the design processes that lead to these blunders, safeguarding companies from having to say things like “oops, that wasn’t our intention." It provides a tool to establish accountability, to partner with leaders in obtusely overlooked markets, and to move forward on business goals with integrity.


Courtesy NEW INC.


While unconscious bias trainings and initiatives around hiring and retaining underrepresented people is critical, what happens afterwards? How do stakeholders actively take this on in a way that builds their capacity so teams are not resorting to business-as-usual?

Let’s go back to the Heineken advertisement we mentioned earlier. If Heineken’s creative team had a diverse and inclusive design process for the previously mentioned “lighter is better” campaign, the copy would have been entirely different, and that particular storyboard would never have been created, let alone financed, produced, and launched in front of millions of viewers.

Or consider the Google example regarding the Gorilla images. According to Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, racial bias against Black people are perpetuated by types of media that lead to consequences like the killings of unarmed Black men by police. When social scientists have collected decades of data to illustrate these correlations, it proves that these “mistakes” are not so benign, after all.


Courtesy NEW INC.

Design for Diversity™ requires inquiry and integrity. The adrenaline reliant, “fail fast and break things” culture of tech doesn’t often allow for a process that will slow things down, or considers situations that require a deep thoughtfulness before decisions are made. And the same goes for media, as well. Too often, we’ve been in rooms where advocating for taking time to thoughtfully think through who you’re reaching and that potential impact is interrupted by deadlines and tunnel vision. Yet the risk of barreling forth can cost millions later on. Asking thoughtful questions now aids in thinking through possible ramifications while you’re in the process, as opposed to later, when it’s too late.  

Think of it like this: Prior to checklists being incorporated as a standard process for surgeons, there was a large margin of error regarding patient infections (some leading to fatalities) as a result of surgeons failing to engage in simple acts, like not washing their hands as part of procedure. You might find that absurdly obvious, but in the absence of checks and balances, there was no accountability to ensure these extra steps. The same negligence can create the difference between an unintentionally discriminatory advertisement, and an effective advertisement that speaks to the actual lived experience of its consumers.

Without a universal standard process that incorporates checks and balances for content creators and technologists, there are no safeguards against cultural blind spots and racial biases, and the consequences can look like many of the aforementioned scenarios. The good news is every team can learn these tools and begin implementing this work right away, creating a culture of accountability and collaboration by having the foresight to ask, “before we move forward, have we Designed for Diversity™?”


Project Inkblot is a NYC-based consultancy that uses Design for Diversity™ (D4D), a powerful design framework to increase team capabilities in creating better services, products, and content that authentically reaches expanded markets.

Author: Project Inkblot

Project Inkblot