Design for diversity

By Kate and Rukmini
August 19, 2020

Interior designer Rukmini Patel and author Kate Watson-Smyth, explain the thinking behind their idea – the Design for Diversity Pledge

During the outcry that followed the murder of George Floyd, Instagram was blanketed with black squares and promises by everyone to do better; to listen, to learn, to stamp out the systemic racism within their organisations and the unconscious bias in their minds. Then it all went quiet.

We felt there was a deadlock; a sense that the Black community wanted to see a long overdue change and the White community didn’t know where to start.

So the Pledge was born. Three simple statements about increasing diversity on social media and websites, an undertaking to seek out more candidates from all backgrounds for job vacancies (while stopping short of quotas and rejecting tokenism) and a promise to make panels and events more representative.

It was, we felt, something that many companies should have been doing already. But during one conversation with a Black journalist (we consulted widely with people from all ethnicities before launching the idea) we learned that during the 90s she would often apply for jobs only where it was explicitly stated that applications from Black and Ethnic minorities were welcome. In a notoriously white middle class industry, she felt she needed that statement to ensure her application would be taken seriously.

Ten minutes later a White business owner told us: “I’ve never put that line, surely it’s bloody obvious?”

As it turned out, it wasn’t obvious and Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities had hung back from applying for jobs in White dominated sectors (including interior design and architecture) because they didn’t feel welcome.

So, nearly two months after the launch of The Pledge, where are we? Well there have been nearly 150 sign-ups from sole traders to big brands including the paint companies Farrow & Ball and Mylands, as well as the Walker Greenbank Group which includes Sanderson, Zoffany and Morris & Co. Three magazines are on board: Ideal Home, Style at Home and Country Homes & Interiors and one of the first signatories was the iconic British store Heals.

But it’s the small companies where perhaps the biggest changes are taking place: online retail sites like Rockett St George and Dowsing & Reynolds, have written full pages offering extra resources for reading and links to local initiatives. This, in turn, has led to confidence from the Black community that they can spend their money with companies who have taken the pledge to be more representative.

And that’s not all, Born & Bred studio is offering mentoring, Studio Carew is offering feedback on ideas from budding designers and the textile company Blackpop is funding a bursary for a Black student at their local university and will put one of their designs into production next year. Charlotte Raffo, founder of textile company The Monkey Puzzle Tree, said the sticker has finally allowed her to find a Black designer to work with after months of struggling.

It’s an encouraging start. And we recognise it as a start and not as a solution.

We are both proud of our industry for moving forward so decisively on this. At the same time, we are aware that The Pledge will not be for everyone. We have heard concerns from some who worry that brands will simply award themselves the sticker and carry on as before.

But it’s about being publicly accountable. If you put this sticker in a prominent place on your site it’s easy for consumers to see if your channels are diverse and your events are inclusive. We aren’t expecting anyone to fulfil, or enforce quotas – there is much debate around that issue and we don’t pretend to have the answers. But we hope that this will keep the conversation going, make it easier for individuals to approach brands and for brands to reach out to individuals. If taking the Pledge is a first step that companies and individuals can build on, then it is a first small step in the right direction.

You can find out more here madaboutthehouse or rukminipatel