Nonprofit design advocacy organisation, Where are the Black Designers? Recently announced a 12-month partnership with global creative digital product studio, ustwo. Together, the partners aim to create equity through service, and drive tangible change across the global design industry to rectify systemic inequalities.
WATBD? originally launched in the US in 2020 and is now a global community of 10,000 people, of which 60% of members are Black and 40% allies. Co-founded by Mitzi Okou and Garrett Albury, the organization seeks to support, amplify, and make space for Black creativity in all its forms, as well as host a dialogue about change within the design industry.
The partnership comes at a crucial time; according to the 2019 AIGA Design Census, only 3% of its member designers in the U.S. are Black. In the U.K., statistics on Black designers are hard to come by - indicating that action on this issue is still very much in its infancy.
The initiative aligns closely with ustwo’s values and commitment to tangibly improve diversity in design and is in keeping with its B Corp status and employee ownership structure. It is also an acknowledgement that, like many in the industry, there is more that ustwo can do within its business specifically to improve the representation of Black creatives amongst its staff.
A critical component of the partnership is an impact report, which will be delivered by ustwo in 12 months’ time. This report will measure criteria such as the number of permanent Black employees hired or referred by ustwo, the number of Black creatives supported by knowledge sharing activities, and ongoing feedback from the WATBD? community.
The partnership was formally unveiled at a global launch event on the 27th April 2023 at ustwo’s London and New York studios. This acts as the first of many opportunities throughout the partnership for Black designers to network and make media contacts with recruiters and leaders in the industry.
Ensuring that the takeaways are tangible, salary transparency cheat sheets will be available, providing valuable information on salary bandings in both London and NYC, as well as tips for negotiating salaries.
To learn more about the project, we spoke to Marianne Olaleye, Global Content Lead at ustwo.
What was the brief?
Form a partnership between ustwo and Where are the Black Designers? to create equity through service, and drive tangible change across the global design industry to rectify systemic inequalities.
How did the initial pitch/brainstorming phase go?
We connected with Roshannah (Marketing and Partnerships at WATBD) on LinkedIn in September 2022. Because WATBD is originally a US organisation, I knew we had to get ustwo New York involved.
So I created a slack channel with London and NYC ustwobies, and we had a big meeting where we brainstormed and started planning the launch event and what the partnership will entail during the 12 months. We discussed various themes for talks, events and workshops, for example, CV review sessions hosted by our People Team.
WATBD’s values align strongly with ours in terms of ustwo being a B Corp, giving back to local communities we are based in. We’ve also worked with organisations dedicated to underrepresented groups before and have hosted portfolio reviews for underrepresented groups in both London and New York.
In October 2022, I hosted an event in our London studio centred on Black women in tech and design and it was well-received. So, a partnership with WATBD was a perfect way to continue this work and build on it in a more tailored way by devoting our time to Black creatives who often have to jump through larger hoops.
What was the process behind ideating the concept?
I’m a big believer in the notion that to be successful, you must ‘begin with the end in mind’, so we knew the end goal, which is ultimately to get more Black designers placed in great job roles, and to support them on their career journey so they don’t feel so alone. Building community and improving access to information/jobs was critical.
We discussed the messaging for the partnership and settled on honesty, transparency, and a celebratory tone. We didn’t want to beat around the bush. It was important to acknowledge that ustwo, like many others in the industry, also has a long way to go with diversity and inclusion. I worked on drafting the partnership messaging with Roshannah, which then informed the press release.
Next we planned a content calendar leading up to the launch event and a few weeks after, just so we can keep the conversation going. We now have an ‘ideas document’ for the 12-month partnership, as well as an activity calendar which will allow us to track everything we’ve done, so we can accurately produce an impact report.
What was the production process like?
WATBD asked one of their members Tyrell Waiters, a Seattle-based illustrator, to design the partnership branding. We coordinated with Tyrell via Mitzi Okou, co-founder of WATBD. Our main requirements were to include some ustwo brand colours, and our logo, font, and a few of our brand shapes. We wanted the branding to be bold, colourful and to spark joy. It’s hard not to smile when you see it.
We contacted our filmmaker Alex Frois and members of WATBD (Gaebriel Min and Wale Osunla), and invited them to the ustwo London studio, where we filmed the launch video and vox pops on a Thursday evening. The idea behind the launch video was to showcase that too often, black designers are the “only one” in the room. We wanted something impactful.
What was the biggest challenge during production? How did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge was probably coordinating between London and New York due to time zone differences and ongoing work commitments, but this was easily solved because we had strong buy-in from New York colleagues who were equally invested in the partnership.
It’s not easy to organise two separate events, on different continents, on the same day. We had to think about the logistics of getting the same printed banners in New York and London, planning food and drink, finding speakers for both events, and hiring local photographers and videographers.
Two ustwo New York colleagues in particular, Jared Salazar Olmsted and Noah Siegel, were instrumental in keeping things aligned. They were the voice of the New York team and were able to give feedback to the team and drum up interest from NYC ustwobies for the event. I also shared updates about the partnership on our global slack channels and in the global marketing newsletter, which kept the whole company in the loop.
What kit/tools/software were used to create the project?
We communicate regularly on Slack, and we’ve project managed using Google Suite and Miro (for brainstorming initial ideas), and of course Adobe Creative Cloud to create assets.
What is one funny or notable thing that happened during production?
The most notable moment was when tickets for both the New York and London launch events sold out within 24 hours (and we have more than 100 people on the waitlist for both events). Selling out in 24 hours felt surreal! We did not expect such a response so quickly. It just goes to show how many Black designers/creatives are out there, and how much they want to connect with each other.
We’ve had people offer to DJ at the event just to get a ticket, another person offered to take photos at the event, and many more people offered to volunteer just to get in. We joked that the launch event was in such high demand that it could become the Met Gala, but for Designers.
What’s the main message of this project and why does it matter?
Black creatives and designers need access to information and opportunities that will help them progress.
The same systemic inequalities that affect Black people in society also feed into the workplace. Black people often progress at a slower pace than their non-black counterparts. This needs to change. We need allies and senior leaders to be aware of these issues.
More companies need to support Black designers.
More companies in the design industry need to admit that they too have a long way to go with DEI.
No more nepotism, no more gatekeeping.
If we all work together, we can build a truly inclusive design industry.
When companies say they can’t find diverse talent, it’s not entirely true. They just have to find the right networks such as Where are the Black Designers?, but also invest time and commit their resources to the partnership rather than reaching out at the last minute when they need to hire diverse talent.
How long did it take from inception to delivery?
The first LinkedIn DM I sent to Roshannah was in September 2022. We met up at ustwo’s London studio December 2022, and we’ve been working on the partnership since then.
What do you hope it achieves for the brand?
I hope we can get more Black designers hired in great job roles, and help more Black people feel like they belong in the industry.
I hope we can break down communication barriers and nepotism, both of which don’t work in favour of Black designers.
I hope we can encourage young Black people to see design as a viable career path for themselves.
I hope more companies will come on board and take a stance to support Black designers.
I hope more people join Where are the Black Designers? and the community grows even larger. We’re hoping to host events in Lagos, Accra, Tokyo and Copenhagen! It will be a truly global partnership.
I hope we make real change in the industry so that Black people feel safe at work, and feel like they are truly valued and will be fairly rewarded for their contributions.
Credit list for the work?
Partnership branding: Tyrell Waiters
Partnership launch video and vox pops: Alex Frois, FIlmmaker at Large