by Brett McKenzie
The anticipation level was high Wednesday morning, as ADC announced the winners of ADC Young Guns 12, the latest class of our international competition for creative professionals 30 years of age or younger. There were digital high fives and well deserved round of congrats to the 31 winners all over social media; after all, it isn’t easy to win ADC Yoing Guns, and to do so puts one among the ranks of past winners such as Stefan Sagmeister, Jessica Walsh, Rei Inamoto and Kate Moross.
Among the cheers, however, one tweet in particular got the Twitterverse buzzing, drawing attention to both the makeup of the winners list, and to a much larger issue within the creative community. Acclaimed designer and ADC Young Guns 8 winner Jennifer Daniel sent out the following tweet:
Congrats to all the white people who won an @adcyounggun award! pic.twitter.com/bhqoD2YdjM
— Jennifer Daniel (@jenniferdaniel) October 1, 2014
In short order the “favorites” and retweets grew, starting a conversation about the ADC Young Guns judging process and diversity within the greater creative industry. It’s by no means a new conversation, but one that not only needs to be brought up but also acted upon, by professionals, by academic institutions and by industry clubs and organizations, ADC included.
A number of creatives who thoughtfully posted on Jennifer’s initial Twitter thread have agreed to expand on their thoughts and opinions. We at ADC felt they needed to be acknowledged and shared on our platforms in order to begin to not only change, but to hold our industry accountable to change.
Tina Snow Le
The initial responses to Jennifer Daniel’s Tweet were jokes about how perhaps next year, more white people with beards and glasses would win the coveted title of a Young Gun. This was offensive because it validated that the topic of diversity isn’t taken seriously in our industry. I admire Jennifer Daniel for acknowledging that is an this issue, over and over again. I understand it’s a difficult, loaded topic that’s easier to to manage with a sense of humor. However, what we need is to make room for more compassion and understanding, not jokes on how many men with beards are going to win. We need solutions for how to combat this issue as a whole rather than continuing to sweep this under the rug. We’re not here to root for each other to fail, and that’s apparent because our design community is strong and supportive of one another, online and off. However we’re also choosing to look at supporting arguments, rather than examining evidence of why the design is a white, male dominated industry. You may joke and say more white males will win design competitions year after year, and historically, they have. If culture demands it, it will happen.
“However we’re also choosing to look at supporting arguments, rather than examining evidence of why the design is a white, male dominated industry.”
I see a similar pattern in design agencies, conferences, events, awards, and forums. Take a look at a list of attendees of a design conference, how many dimensions of diversity do you see there? What about the list of speakers? Design educators? Design icons? Competition winners? Design authors? The designers you follow online? Your co-workers at the award-winning agency? Barriers of entry prevent people from contributing and participating even though interest is there. Like attracts like; perhaps we don’t have as much patience and compassion as we would care to admit to go out of our way to interact with someone, or an aesthetic outside of our comfort zone. Why?
We are full-time explorers; it is our expertise to go beyond what we know to discover the best method possible. Our industry thrives on innovation, and as Mark Twain says, “When you find yourselves on side of the majority, you should pause and reflect.” We need to constantly be challenging each other to do better, and we can’t do that with a echelon of designers who are in the same circle, with similar backgrounds and points of view. We need to extend that invitation beyond the round table, with an open heart and mind.
I challenge all of us as designers to stop saying that we are colorblind, because the work that we put on the pedestal says that we are. I challenge all of us as designers to look not only for experience, but for potential. Take a chance on design students that you may be uncomfortable with, and push them to be the best that they can be. Take a chance on hiring designers that think differently than you, or look differently than your team because they can provide perspective that will move you closer towards innovation. Create an environment where it is safe to question who or what determines “good taste.” Don’t let the potential become anonymous. Demand global perspective, approach it with compassion and challenge what has been defined as ideal.
Tina Snow Le is a designer and Magic Maker based in Portland, Oregon. She thrives when design fuses with community to ignite change, encourage engagement and promote play. Currently, Tina is working as a designer at an independent digital creative agency called Instrument. Selected clients include Ideo, Nike, Ace Hotel, Dr. Pepper and Photojojo. Tina’s website is sugarrushstudio.org, and she can be found on Instagram and Twitter.
In the wake of last week’s Twitter debate, it’s important to clarify that ADC/Young Guns and its judging process are seen by many as a symptom, not a cause, of the broader structural bias we are trying to address. We have no interest in diminishing the achievements of the Young Guns winners (many of whom are close friends of ours). We should be able to celebrate their great work and have a conversation about the broader context within which the competition unfolds.
But after the dust clears, the knees un-jerk, and pointed fingers are put away, the question remains: how can the actions of a group of broad-minded, well-intentioned professionals, judging under a “blind,” merit-based process, frequently fail to deliver results that reflect the rich race/class/gender/cultural distribution of our creative community? We are asked to receive the carefully-selected winners as the highest achievers among us—the best of their current generation. But when we compare each year’s results to the reality around us, we wonder why there is such a disconnect in representation? Is it blind luck that so many of the winners are white, male and living in New York City? Or is something in the judging process failing to capture the true range of practitioners?
“…how can the actions of a group of broad-minded, well-intentioned professionals, judging under a ‘blind,’ merit-based process, frequently fail to deliver results that reflect the rich race/class/gender/cultural distribution of our creative community?”
Nobody is asking for an artificially-managed system that elevates the mediocre for the sake of perfectly-gradated inclusion. There’s no need to oversteer. But let’s acknowledge that systemic/structural bias is “a thing” that exists in our society. The design community, ADC, and judges are not immune to its effects, even if they are not deliberately trying to exclude anyone.
Let’s examine some of the outside forces that could account for the current discrepancy:
First, the pool of applicants is self-limiting. Most of our industry operates within semi-closed silos that have their own barriers to entry. Access to better clients yields more opportunity for groundbreaking work. Family-provided safety nets and full-time job benefits provide the financial stability for some to afford application fees, while preparing entries in an environment of reduced risk. Others are raised in communities where creative careers are overlooked, because nobody knows anyone who’s taken that path before, “art” classes are considered secondary to core education, and art school scholarships are few and far between. The list goes on, pre-filtering the pool before they bother to apply.
Second, the exclusive use of former winners as judges — while a novel method — can yield an ever-narrowing range of lauded work. Like chooses like. We elevate the familiar over the unfamiliar. And we help our friends get a leg up sometimes. In the absence of a mandate for rigorous reviewing by a diverse group of judges, the process becomes a recursive path toward homogeneneity, monoculture and ultimately short-changes everyone involved.
“…the exclusive use of former winners as judges — while a novel method — can yield an ever-narrowing range of lauded work.”
Third, it’s possible for our criteria for excellence to have bias baked-in. The market favors certain visual styles over others. In the highly subjective realm of aesthetics, what constitutes “good work?” Is it a confident, definitive portfolio that embodies the zeitgeist? Brilliantly executed briefs for a range of excellent clients? The ability to advance the visual conversation and influence others? By what metrics do we judge, beyond objective technical achievement? Does our industry codify visual language in a way that elevates work by certain groups over others? Some have pointed to Philip Meggs’ “History of Graphic Design” as a good example of the exclusionary framing of design history. And certainly the History of Art is littered with superlatives that favor Western beauty “standards” over other cultures (with the exception of a few that become exoticised.) We are all part of this process and part of the problem.
The question remains whether ADC has a moral/ethical obligation to address this subject, and to make an effort to mitigate it. This might include revisions to judging criteria…or might not. It might include ADC taking a leadership role in exploring the subject, through a public initiative that reaches beyond the creative community. It’s not my place to assign a specific solution. It’s up to them to act creatively, in a way that benefits everyone. And it’s up to us to support that effort.
• Let’s stop ignoring what for many working creatives is an obvious, everyday reality.
• Let’s move beyond the denial of dissent and tone policing put forth by some members of our community.
• Let’s stop pretending we have a pristine, merit-only selection process. It may be the best process so far, but it’s highly unlikely that it’s bias-free.
• Let’s use our power as judges to expand the range of superlatives, rather than reduce it.
• Let’s address the broader socioeconomic forces that affect our individual perception of visual language, and the entry points to our creative community.
• Let’s emerge from our insular creative bubble and remember that we are part of society and as good citizens we should start acting more inclusively. This will take effort.
In the end, it would help if we got used to regularly confronting, rather than congratulating ourselves—continually modifying our actions to evolve in parallel with the rest of society. Structural bias is a complex problem that will require a complex and distributed solution. It’s up to each of us—individuals and institutions—to do our best to move things forward.
Jim Datz is an independent illustrator and designer whose career has wandered from the beaches of South Jersey to Philadelphia, Tokyo, London and eventually Brooklyn, where he now spends most days and nights. His easily-recognized work has a light-hearted modern style with midcentury roots, and embodies unburdened optimism and freedom of movement. Jim’s website is jimdatz.com and his Twitter handle is @jimdatz
San Francisco, CA
One evening last midweek, I was travelling home from a few post-work beers and opened up my twitter feed to find what I initially felt was an unfair jab at this year’s Young Guns recipients and ADC’s judging process. I’m normally reluctant to involve myself in potentially evocative matters, especially on a social platform where I know I can be foolish enough to disagree with the majority and be set upon with digital pitchforks, but I was a few beers in and broke my unwritten rule nonetheless.
My first thought was to defend ADC. After all, in a blind judging process, how can there possibly be any blame laid at its door when the majority of recipients are of Anglocentric origins? It seems to be fashionable to bash award bodies but they can only judge what’s put in front of them, right?
“It seems to be fashionable to bash award bodies but they can only judge what’s put in front of them, right?”
The next morning I checked Twitter to find I had been roundly and soundly schooled by various parties, It seemed that virtually no one shared my point of view. Some responders were insightful and made me think, while others cut to the chase and told me I was “part of the problem”. After deliberation I decided that the truth, for me, lay somewhere in the middle. It was good — it made me think a little deeper than I otherwise would have.
The problem, as it seems to me, is not that the judging process is flawed. People enter and the work is judged by reasonable people. Someone wins, someone loses. End of story. That’s the way awards have been handed out for years and that’s fine. It’s idealistic and call me naive, but I see nothing wrong with believing that people are inherently fair.
No, the problem goes deeper in that we’re simply not seeing as many entrants from other backgrounds in the mix. I firmly believe that if the entrants’ backgrounds were more diverse, the winners would be too. I’ve heard various suggestions on how to go about addressing that and most seem plausible and not difficult to implement: lowering entry fees to allow for greater inclusion; not recycling previous winners as judges; promotions aimed at minorities; catering for minorities via events and diverse speakers. These all seem like a good place to start. The glaring lack of diversity in the industry is a grassroots issue and not the fault of ADC, but if they want to take the torch and run with it, that would be one less box to tick on the way to real change.
Based on the original tweet, I’ll stick to my Guns and say that the judging system is fair — if utopian — but there are undoubtedly changes that can be made to the overall system. Hopefully this dialogue, and Jennifer’s original tweet can be the start of something to do just that.
Designer + ADC Young Guns 5 Winner
Last week ADC announced the latest class of Young Guns Winners. I didn’t find out through my email (thanks unroll.me!) I found out through a tweet from the talented and brilliant Jennifer Daniel. Her wry tweet read “Congrats to all the white people who won an @adcyounggun award!” and a screen cap of the winners announcement. At first, I could only pause, confused by the cognitive dissonance caused by the grid of black and white photos surrounding the lone dollop of blue that is the YG12 logo. My brain thought, well, aren’t all these young people, all these faces represented raceless in black and white? Can one really tell the color of these folks? Then my mind went racing. As I looked, my mind clung to the predominance of men in the images. I thought, how smart of Jennifer with her wry, bold critique. I thought, in this post-Obama age what can I say to make this better? I thought, I’m biracial, so I’m both black and white. I started to form some kind of thoughtful response… but then my heart took over. I connected with Jennifer’s emotional response.
I tweeted back: “@jenniferdaniel As a designer of color, past YG winner, I know this to be a symptom of high barriers to entry for designers like me.” Heart pounding, another tweet: “@jenniferdaniel I am an outlier that has more to do with socio-cultural factors than judging bias.” Chest thumping from the inside out: ”@jenniferdaniel BUT I have hope. New models of education and new access to mentorship and tools is shifting this.” Heart in throat and on a drum roll: “@jenniferdaniel AND I honor your use of sarcasm and humor to be a tool to deal with the ANGER I also feel about this symptom of deeper bias.”
Even now in 2014, it’s hard to swallow the pill of disenfranchisement that designers of color face in the “upper echelons” of our practice of the applied creative arts of art direction, design and advertising. Yes, there are many great black and brown designers in practice, but they had to work harder than their peers to get there. There were fewer possibility models, at least that has been my experience. My teachers, as talented as they were didn’t reflect that aspect of my identity. My design history courses didn’t either. The monographs of design greats didn’t either. There are still so many gaps. As the son of dark-skinned woman born in Uganda and light-skinned man born in Minnesota I’ve felt quite disconnected from the “black experience” as most perceive it to be in my beautiful US of A. Why is race dimension even still an issue?
“Even now in 2014, it’s hard to swallow the pill of disenfranchisement that designers of color face in the “upper echelons” of our practice of the applied creative arts of art direction, design and advertising.”
There is likely a chip on my shoulder from never being asked to design an ADC Cube, sit on a Young Guns judging panel, or design a Young Guns logo, but it likely doesn’t actually have to do directly with my skin tone. It more has to do with the fact that I pour my practice into education as much as client work. It has more to do with the fact that I don’t work in the creative epicenter hegemony of New York anymore, and when I did, it was in-house for a social-change agent. It has more to do with the fact that I don’t reach out to the ADC expecting to represented, because I feel like my Young Guns 5 award was more of a fluke. I still live in the self doubt that I’m an exception.
Do I think appointing Fo Wilson, Eddie Opera, Arem Duplessis, Bobby Martin, Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton, Maurice Woods or any of many other great creatives of color to the ADC judges podium will fix all the inequality in our discipline? No, but it wouldn’t hurt. All the color (or gender) in the room can’t undo the disconnect in our field and the wider world. At least not overnight. And 140 characters or 600 words are not enough to undo centuries of bias. But they can help us live less in our minds and more in our hearts.
Silas Munro is a hybrid graphic design practitioner and educator. His mission is to make and teach design that is beautiful and smart with empathy for humanity. He is Faculty Chair for the MFA Program in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Based in Miami, Munro makes award-winning graphic design and branding for varied audiences across media. Past work has been recognized by the ADC Young Guns, AIGA and a SAPPI Ideas that Matter grant. Silas’ writing about design has been published by CalArts Pub, GOOD, SpeakUp and the Walker Design Blog. He has held prestigious positions as Design Director at Housing Works in New York, Designer-In-Residence at NC State and Design Fellowship at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He holds a MFA in Graphic Design from CalArts and a BFA in Graphic Design from RISD. Silas’ Twitter handle is @siborg81
Tags: ADC Young Guns 12