It’s time to catch up: Issues of diversity and representation

5 years ago by

Written by Lana Lopesi

You would think we have a national design template. Looking through back issues of some of our country’s most popular mainstream magazines, there is one cover image which is seemingly repeated over and over again; a very slim, Pākehā model.

There is nothing shocking about this typical cover image. It’s pretty standard. This ‘type’ of woman — slim, fair-skinned, pretty — is the ‘type’ of women we are used to seeing littered not only on (and in) our magazines, but across our television sets, in movies and in advertising. The ideal Western beauty. And, looking through magazine covers on mass, it is clear to see that as a country — which often pitches its diversity as its asset — we have some issues with representation. The problem is not that we have these young, beautiful girls on our covers but, that it is all we seem to have on our covers.

There is a need for a more realistic body shape to be shown on television and in fashion magazines, that is obvious (and not new). But more than that there is a need for diversity as a whole. With the ideal woman, continuously being plastered everywhere we look, she becomes normal and expected, and she is the one that we use to measure ourselves against. She simultaneously ‘others’ everyone else who has different body shape, skin-colour, class, sexual orientation and ability.

The gap between the ideal body shape and reality (ideal body shape between size 6-8 and reality being size 12-14 in New Zealand) is wider than ever and there is no doubt about the damage that media can cause. Mass media has the power to shape the mentalities, attitudes and behaviours of an entire society. 17 years ago, in the year 2000, the British Medical Association published a report linking the use of ‘abnormally thin’ models in media to the rise of girls and women suffering from eating disorders. This very public socialising of women and even children to beauty expectations starts from a very young age, with the report also finding that girls are starting to diet younger and younger. These startling health effects are unlikely to change any time soon as advertising continues to promote these stereotypical, inaccurate, negative and often degrading images of women in order to sell products and services.

There is a very simple design solution to these issues of representation, and that’s a culture of inclusion that spans gender, ethnicity, age, sexual identity, ability/disability and location. However, for a culture of inclusion to be visually present we first must look at the lack of diversity among the design industry itself.

The struggle to reflect the multiplicity of consumers is because the workplace culture simply hasn’t yet caught up. Studies in America have shown that approximately 60% of professional designers are Men and 86% of them are white. For diversity to come through on our magazine covers we first need to see inclusive hiring by (and of) managers, senior designers, agencies and educators. Otherwise designers from underrepresented groups will remain firmly in the minority.

Diversity in design (and of designers) is more than just affirmative action it is also a diversity of design thought (experience, perspective and creativity). A diverse work-force leads to more innovative problem solving, a skill-set which would be an asset to any firm or organisation for practical reasons let alone moral ones.

What is frustrating is that these issues are not new. There seems to be a design default when it comes to designing for the masses the relies on an individual or organisations instincts and intuitions projected onto a consumer. But who really is the consumer? Statistics New Zealand projects that by 2020 our Māori, Pacific Island and Asian communities will make up over 50% of the New Zealand population. This not only changes the potential pool of designers to come through our country’s design schools but also makes these minority groups no longer ignorable as future clients, collaborators and consumers.

As an industry, we need to catch up. Not only because it doesn’t make business sense but because we will also continue to see design that leads to apathy, insensitivity and even discrimination.


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