08.22.18
Laetitia Wolff | Interviews

Antionette Carroll and Albert Shum: Learning through Action



AIGA, the professional association for design, is hosting its first-ever Design for Inclusivity Industry Conference and Summit this week in St. Louis, Missouri. Laetitia Wolff, who coordinated the event, spoke with co-chairs Antionette Carroll, founder of Creative Reaction Lab, and Albert Shum, VP Design at Microsoft Content and Devices about the deep meanings, implications, and potential of designing for inclusivity.

Laetitia Wolff: How did you two meet?

Antionette Carroll: I met Albert last March when I was privileged to come speak at Microsoft. Albert was presenting his continual vision for the growth of his team and asked me to come in and talk about Creative Reaction Lab and how design can be the catalyst for change. We continued to have conversations and discussions about how to work together and how we saw design as an element of change. We’re both very passionate about addressing issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity within the design industry. And then he agreed to be my co-chair.

Albert Shum: I think Antoinette is being very modest. She really inspired the team. She not only talked about design, but her journey. It was so empowering that a lot of folks afterwards asked me how they could shift from just making products—which is important—but really affect lives through the power of design. That first conversation really resonated with me and our team on a personal and a professional level.

LW: In 2018, what is the meaning of inclusive design?

AS: This is an important topic, and it needs the right framing. If it’s misunderstoood, it’s, in some ways, bad design. A lot of the things that we create sometimes create exclusion. We’re trying to flip the formula to understand who the people are that we’re excluding, and then look at those as opportunities to really change the way we create products.
We‘re trying to flip the formula to understand who the people are that we're excluding, and then look at those as opportunities to really change the way we create products.

AC: At Creative Reaction Lab we talk about and its true definition. Although we appreciate IBM’s definition, that “design is the intention behind an outcome,” at our organization design is defined as the intentional and unintentional impact behind an outcome.

Albert just alluded to that: Although we may have the best intentions, sometimes we design exclusively. And so when I think about inclusive and equity design, I think about design that's very conscious, intentional, and understanding of the impact it can make. I think about the role of history, trauma, and healing. I think about the role of power dynamics, our identities, and the biases that we bring to the table. We talk a lot about empathy in the design field but we also need to talk about building our own humility. If we actually are going to build design systems that are inclusive or equitable we have to also understand the role of the power and privilege that is at play.

LW: What is the design for inclusivity summit and why are you doing it now?

AC: The design for inclusivity summit is the beginning spark to create a roadmap. It’s a catalyst, and a commitment to what we’ll do as an industry to build more inclusive practices. We ought to understand the power that we have as designers and understand the access that we provide as design professionals when it relates to different identities.

AS: To reinforce Antoinette's point, the summit is a great starting point. I think there have been a lot of great conversations and activities, but now is a moment where industry and community can come together. Oftentimes, especially in tech, we look at a global scale—how do we change the whole world? We have to remember that even within our local communities, we could do so much more—create access to technology, access to rich careers where creativity and design fuel growth for individuals, and generate new opportunities.

LW: Can you say a little bit about how this field has developed from your respective perspectives, and how did we get here?

AS: I'll give the industry/corporate view. I think design is changing a lot. Design is so broad now; and the impact of design is broad. So equity—ensuring that we do the right thing from all different viewpoints—is our responsibility.

AC: When I think about my field, especially as part of an organization like AIGA that's leading the equity design movement, I sense an overall greater consciousness. I'm happy to hear people talk about design a lot more. That being said, we also have some challenges that we haven't dealt with, having not really understood the context surrounding them. I very much agree with Albert about the idea of responsibility, and I think designers are taking taking that repsonsibility on more frequently because we have more designers with diverse identities that are challenging intentional designs that were there before.

LW: You have both been working in this domain for years but in very different ways. What is the essential domain knowledge for anyone who is interested in doing this kind of work?

AS: Even as a kid going to design school I thought, we can make a difference. I think it starts with empathy; with understanding people and being able to see the challenges. The design process can be very personal, but along the line you realize it's not about you. You’re there to serve. That moment was when I started to understand what design meant and the power of what we can do. A lot of the work we've done with inclusive design involves tapping into empathy, bringing it to the whole team, and making the connection between the designer and the end user.

AC: I think again about building our own humility. Almost every time I do a workshop I ask people if they know how to become empathetic, and almost everyone says no. We hear this term, yet we don't actually have a clear path to become more empathetic individuals. I love design because it’s about learning through action. Design is no longer an individual task. It's centered around collaboration and connection. How do we make sure that we have diverse co-creators at the table that bring values and an expertise that are more than just “technical skills”? Through understanding that design has to be a facilitator of engagement, learning, and exploration, and the designer has a role to play in that.
I love design because it’s about learning through action. Design is no longer an individual task. It's centered around collaboration and connection.

LW: What is Microsoft doing in this area? Can you give a couple of examples?

AS: It starts with our leadership and our calling. Our goal is to empower every organization and individual to achieve more and do their best. And it is really is everyone—billions of people. At that scale it's daunting, but it's also invigorating. When something is designed for a billion people, it's not about making one product for everyone. That's the genesis of inclusive design. It’s important to look at the broad range of abilities—be it physical or cognitive—in order to understand who is being excluded.

A recent example is our Xbox adaptive controller. We stepped back, used inclusive design practices, and worked with subject matter experts to identify their needs. But it’s not just choosing an existing product and making it more accessible. It's understanding the needs of people from the beginning, to ultimately create a product that benefits even more people. When design is done that way, we have the ability to unlock a lot of new opportunities.

LW: Antoinette, what kind of work do you make with Creative Reaction Lab?

AC: At Creative Reaction Lab we’re creating a new type of leader, whom we're calling an equity designer. For example, we directly work with Black and Latinx youth to provide space, access, funding, and community training so they can address the challenges they see within their community. We had high school students participate who had never heard of equity before, and hadn't really heard of design, but by the end they literally were calling themselves equity designers. It was powerful to see that shift in confidence and the acknowledgment that they can design better outcomes.

LW: Antoinette, the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, which made national news in 2014, had a profound effect on your community and your work as a designer. Can you describe how that changed you?

AC: He was just one of many community members of color that we've lost due to the systemic effects of underinvestment, racial discrimination, and racial inequity. In 2014, I had just moved out of the Ferguson community, and at that time I started to see the shift in myself and others in acknowledging the power that design can play in facilitating action-oriented efforts.

There have been groups thinking about design and social impact, but for me, the question is, how do we make sure that community is at the table and that they're the decision-makers when it comes to design? That was the catalyst that showed me that I can play a larger role than being a traditional graphic designer. I had already started to go on that journey, and the unrest in Ferguson became the moment where I decided to amplify that work and effort. Here we are four years later, and it's taken me to a completely different place I never thought I would be. But I'm very happy that I stepped up in that moment.
How do we make sure that community is at the table and that they're the decision-makers when it comes to design? That was the catalyst that showed me that I can play a larger role than being a traditional graphic designer.

LW: What's the hope and expectation of the participants will gather at this summit?

AC I want people to have a personal transformation and understand their role as it relates to diversity and inclusion. There’s also the corporate and community component and how they can create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable field. It's not enough to just talk about inclusivity or to say we need more diversity. I'm looking at how we use this moment to continually rally people to join a task force to make some of these ideas happen, and bring them to life in their own communities through their lens.

AS: I'm on a journey myself. I'm in a position where I have access and I’m asking myself, how do I make sure that I'm doing the right thing, and how do I learn? =I think a lot of companies are working on the same problems slightly differently. How can we come together and share what we're learning to see if we’re facing the same challenges about equity, how we design, and the people that design it?

Let’s make a pact: in three years these are the things we want to accomplish together with the community. Can we get to that level of specificity and commitment? I'm an optimist, so I like to think we can. If we're trying to solve the same problem we can do it better together rather than in isolation.
I think a lot of companies are working on the same problems slightly differently. How can we come together and share what we're learning to see if we’re facing the same challenges?

LW: The upcoming summit Is an invitation-only event. How do you plan to make an impact at scale and how will you measure it?

AC: One of the things we tried to be intentional about is providing access points for people to get involved with the summit. That being said, we understand that there's a privilege to being able to come to St. Louis and take time off of work or pay for yourself to be in a room to have this discussion.

We’ve made sure that we're pulling information from open-source efforts, such as the design census that AIGA has held the last two years, to make sure that the community voice is at the table. This summit is not the only time this will happen, and not the only moment where people are able to provide their insight. It’s a personal commitment to include those that can’t be in the room as we continue on the journey.

LW: What are your hopes for the design industry and for designers?

AS: I am an optimist. I hope we continue feeling that we have an amazing power. Our creativity always amazes me, and sometimes we take it for granted. Together we can create a picture for the future of the whole industry. Again, there are a lot of challenges. But through the power of design and our ability to create a connection and to build humility and empathy, we can create a better version of ourselves and the world that we want.

AC: My hope for the design industry is that we become more open to applying a critical eye to areas of improvement. I honestly believe that designers view what they do in a lens that is too small. Designers have been the leaders of a lot of changes in our society. I hope that designers see that they have the power to design for our industry, and not just for our clients.

LW: Anything else you want to add to this conversation?

AC: Find a way to get involved. We want you to be a part of this journey toward equity and understand that it isn't just the journey of Albert and myself, or Microsoft, Creative Reaction Lab, AIGA, or the people in the room; that the journey is theirs and that every designer has a role to play. Designers have power in this space and they need to be willing to use it. There are tough conversations we need to have. It's not about who's doing right or who's doing wrong. It’s about being open to acknowlidging that there are some things that are not working. Let's be brave and confront the things that we need to work through together.





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