Diversity in Design kicks off its mission with a historic gathering of
Today in Detroit, more than 200 high school students will participate in what you might call a job fair like no other. It’s a world-class design event called Conceived by offering 30 round tables led by black designers, on the themes of architecture, fashion design, industrial design, etc. The goal? To introduce young black students to the world of design, and perhaps even convince them to pursue the subject in higher education so that they can make it their profession.
Because despite the countless diversity initiatives taking place within companies, only 5% of designers are black. And the only way to move those numbers significantly is to look at them generationally.
At least that’s the view of Diversity in Design (DID), the organization behind Designed By. First launched and still funded by Miller Knoll (formerly Herman Miller) in 2021 – you can read all the details here – a consortium of companies ranging from Gap to Adobe have committed funds, staff and professional development programs to incubate the next generation of Black design Talent. Since the publication of our first article, DID has not been idle. It now has nearly 50 partner companies, including 3M, Airbnb and Johnson & Johnson. And it also landed its first official director, Todd Palmer.
“Putting black creativity and BIPOC at the center of culture has been the [core] a lot of what I do,” says Palmer. “DID was an opportunity to move from outreach to Black community perspectives…to take a look at the design itself: how can we open this up to create more positions like I have been privileged to hold? “
Palmer is an architect by training, but has spent his career working, directly and indirectly, in equity-focused design education. Early in his career, Palmer was one of only two black people on staff while producing some of the inaugural exhibits at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
“I have first-hand knowledge of what it means to work in a very white profession,” Palmer says. He was also the former associate director and curator of the National Public Housing Museum, as well as the consulting curatorial director of the National Civil Rights Museum and a (current) strategic consultant to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
In 2016, Palmer took over the Chicago Architecture Biennale, the largest architecture event in the world. Palmer was no stranger to controversy during his tenure. He navigated the backlash over BP’s regular sponsorship of the event and the fact that the Biennale, like many events, covered travel for some journalists. But the trend line was clear: Palmer steered the Biennale away from what might have been – a showy celebration of architecture – and towards an event focused on the racial disparities woven into our built urban environment. Although he left in 2020, his momentum continued in 2021, as the Biennale expanded from its original downtown core to facilities in Chicago’s South and West boroughs.
Yet, as Palmer admits, a biennale is just about sharing ideas, and the fundamental drive of his work has always been betting that someone would come along and fund those ideas. “You hope someone will come get them, but you have no control over it,” he says.
Exhausted, Palmer took a sabbatical in 2020 and reflected on his last decade of work in museums and architecture. “There’s nothing not to like about a biennale or a museum,” says Palmer. “But how do you go from ‘teaching’ to doing the job?”
His sabbatical coincided with the pandemic, and the pandemic “turned into a racial calculus,” he says. When the Diversity in Design position opened up, he seemed like the right fit.
“Learning to make our educational system more equitable, [alongside] labor and industry, has not been resolved! Palmer continues. “We may be able to fix it or fix it, one way or another. It is extremely attractive.
“Resolve” is a loaded word to swing around the subject of racial equity, of course. But in this context, the word is a demonstration that DID’s intentions from the start were not to organize more lunches, but to target the specific obstacles in the path of black creatives – ranging from knowledge of the subject of design as a high school student, floating living expenses during this unpaid internship as a student, to building a network as a young professional.
This means that, by nature, DID’s field of action will be extraordinarily broad. It will work with colleges to refine the design curriculum and collaborate with companies to codify meaningful professional development. This first event in Detroit is the pilot program, which addresses only a small part of these issues. After the event, DID will be soliciting feedback to see what worked, like any design thinking exercise (Palmer himself is a big proponent of design thinking). Later this year, he’ll be hosting a second Designed By event in Detroit, hopefully with even more students. Assuming things go well, DID wants to expand this program nationally.
“We are approaching this huge problem knowing that we cannot boil the ocean,” Palmer says, noting that the urgency is important, but he is also trying to ensure that DID is designed to be resilient over the long term. term. “We are thinking about how a senior from this design fair, in a few years, will enter the job market. Maybe they go to an HBCU, maybe they go to Pensole Academy. But how do we [help with] this next step towards higher education? Then we also look at recruitment and retention.