Paddling Together Through “Rugged Terrain”: Design Assembly Talks Diversity

3 years ago by

Written by Lana Lopesi 

Graphic Matters is a monthly column on issues and ideas related to New Zealand Design Culture

 The question around diversity and design has been tearing up the national design industry this year. The conversation was re-invigorated by Catherine Griffiths who put out her poster series highlighting the gender imbalance of the Black Pin winners at the Designers Institute of New Zealand’s Best Awards. Griffiths then started the website Designers Speak (Up) which is described as “an open and democratic platform for all designers in Aotearoa New Zealand to have a voice.” Subsequently a Directory of Women Designers has also been launched on the site.

This month Design Assembly also sought to tackle some difficult questions through the Spring DA Conversations which asked “Diversity in Aotearoa, New Zealand Design — what does it mean and why does it matter?” Judith Thompson — design advocate, member of AUT University Council and Chair of the University’s Property Committee chaired the conversation in Auckland between Desna Whaanga-Schollum, Chairperson & Founding Member of Ngā Aho Māori Design Professionals and Artspace NZ; Kaan Hiini, Multi-disciplinary Designer at Curative; Raymond McKay, Creative Director and Partner at RUN; Jade Tang-Taylor, associate of the Centre for Social Impact, deputy chair of Auckland Council’s Ethnic People’s Advisory Panel and lecturer at AUT, Anzac Tasker, Design Director at Designworks and Beth O’Brien Group Creative Head at Colenso BBDO.

The fruitful conversation brought up a number of great points and made it clear how much work will need to be done to achieve any goal of diversity. For those who couldn’t make it there here are my top takeaways.

Buckle up, its “rugged terrain” – Anzac Tasker opened the event acknowledging the “rugged terrain” of the evening and the ways in which everyone needs to collectively paddle together to get through which was followed up by Desna when she commented that it’s time to put our rhinoceros skin on. The thing with diversity is that it is implicitly linked with power and the institutional sexism, racism and ableism that controls it. That’s not an easy thing to address as it also involves acknowledging that some people benefit from those forces. It’s also rugged terrain because as we saw on the panel, these conversations often take place in the form of “diverse” people having to justify why their inclusion in a sector is important which at a wider level is asking people why their existence matters.

The “where is everyone” question, is not the right question to ask – Often in conversations of diversity, people ask “where is everyone” or “how do we make people come forward” but that doesn’t seem to right question any more. We can have 100 people knocking on the door but that doesn’t mean too much if the door continues to be closed.

It starts with a conversation between all sides – As we saw on the night, it was a warm room of people who were clearly invested in the conversation, but as Anzac mentioned “there are ears that should be here that aren’t.”

We need to be “multi-diverse” – Many of the early conversations this year were specifically about women and design, but there are other conversations to be had such as Māori and design, Pacific, Asian and other non-white communities and design, LGBTQ+ and design, or as Kaan mentioned we hardly ever talk about the other-abled and design, or working mums and design. It’s important to not lose sight of each other within this wider conversation.

It’s under our noses just spend a little time there – As Desna acutely put it “there are a hell of lot of obvious opportunities which we are not drawing on” because we are “all operating on a few assumptions of what ‘normal’ is”. Design as we are talking about it is based on a neoliberal economy and patriarchal systems. Because of that design is an industry of social and cultural biases and injustices. The question remains, “What does a good relationship look like?”

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