Two staircases on a black background

Equity and access in the world of branding

Before I started working in design, I went to school for Spanish and Global Studies. I planned to be a translator. In a roundabout way, I think I ended up doing similar work. Instead of translating from language to language, branding helps people translate their initial ideas into a visual system.

It’s a bit like learning (or creating) a language, and it immediately interested me, To work on something as all-encompassing, with many different facets and applications, was like solving a puzzle (except you also have to design all of the puzzle pieces). An entire system — logo, typeface, colors, language, photo treatments — must work in harmony to build a strong foundation for a brand. That foundation, and its subsequent system, are incredibly powerful tools.

The branding process is transformative: it helps folks better understand their businesses and pinpoint what they want to say, how they want to say it, and ultimately how that shows up visually. A brand identity can garner attention and build industry connections. However, this transformative level of branding is often only available to organizations that can afford it. Building a brand identity is an expensive, months-long process. The high costs of branding mean that a thoughtful, effective brand identity — and the growth that can come from it — is often inaccessible. Branding has the potential to reach and assist more businesses than it currently does and more equitably. To get there, we need to look at who has access and why. We need to examine the ideals our work reinforces and rethink how we distribute our time and talent.

A clock, a plus sign, and a dollar sign

Necessity or Luxury?

The branding process requires an investment of time and money. For many brands, that investment is out of reach. Because of the correlation between wealth distribution and race, capital is disproportionally available to white-owned businesses. Every business has immediate needs, and in comparison to rent, payroll, and supply costs, branding can feel like an unnecessary luxury.

Take, for example, an upstart tech company supported by a large amount of capital and with a large team. They have more access to branding services than a local community organization that is crowdsourcing the funds needed for its launch. There will always be a disparity in access to branding services between these two organizations. This can affect brand recognition, visibility, and ultimately, the success of each venture. Increasing access to affordable branding services means democratizing who has access to the process and potential profits.

Nike swoosh logo filled with a dollar bill

“Good” Design

Beyond the issue of cost, design is a predominantly white industry. And it gets increasingly white (and male) as you look to its leadership. As long as branding is inaccessible and predominantly led by white people, we perpetuate a single cultural narrative — that of whiteness and its perspective above all else.

“Good” design, like “good” art, is subjective. That isn’t inherently harmful. It creates room for a myriad of different perspectives and opinions — in theory. In reality, many designers, myself included, are fairly used to what “good” design looks like. Or, more realistically, we have been told what it looks like. Whether learned in school or on the internet, we all have preconceived notions of how good design should look and the unforgivable design sins we all should avoid.

What we don’t often consider is who deems certain styles of design worthy of praise. As Simran Jassal describes in “Privilege, Empathy and Diversity in Design,” Western design “has become synonymous with ‘good design.’ We are all trained to admire the same old gradients, layouts, and experiences.” When we see work outside the norm, we often deem it to be of lesser value. Systems of power and influence determine what most consider good. Broadening our definition of good design means divesting from eurocentric, western, and white design ideals.

Design is tied to the economic interests of every brand. The more a company stands out, the more clearly they communicate, the more likely a consumer is to remember their name and engage with them in the future. In this sense, good design keeps a consumer engaged with and supporting a business. Designers are consumers (and human beings) too, and we have our preferences and tendencies. We want to create work similar to the work we admire — work that encourages us to come back to the same brands and designers again and again, with minimal variation. This insular inspiration reinforces the narrative that good design comes from a certain type of person with a certain background. That is fundamentally untrue.

Nobody Said Anything About Easy

Moving towards accessibility and equity in branding is not a one-step process. It’s reimagining a system that, like many, has always prioritized and rewarded whiteness, eurocentrism, and patriarchy. As a community, we need to acknowledge that the design industry is often inaccessible and almost always prioritizes the voices of the majority. We must recognize that most designers are very privileged, and that privilege includes identities such as white/white-passing, cisgender, heterosexual, English speaking, or college-educated (to learn more about intersections of privilege and how they impact design, Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers is a great place to start). We must then actively seek opportunities to divest from well-worn power structures and redistribute our collective energy to make design a more accessible practice.

What does this reimagining look like? It starts with conversation, consideration, and — above all — action. It isn’t enough to come up with theoretical solutions. Lasting change is about consistent work and embracing discomfort.

Greyscale, distorted runners on a track

Start Where You Are

The beginning is the hardest part. Armed with information about racism and inequity, those in positions of privilege often feel guilty and overwhelmed. As a cisgender white woman working in design, I am incredibly privileged. I hold several identities that automatically — and unfairly — put me in a favorable position to participate in the design industry (as well as everyday life). I’m not an expert on any of these topics. I just know that there has to be more discussion around accessibility and equity in the design industry. It has to be a conversation that we all take part in, no matter how uncomfortable.

Accountability is the name of the game here. As white or white-passing people, we are responsible for holding ourselves and each other accountable for our actions. It’s more than one anti-racist book club, and it’s definitely more than a post on Instagram. This is the long game. Focus on tangible goals for yourself or your studio that contribute to a more accessible and equitable practice. Revisit those goals often. Make them loftier as you start to meet them. This is a consistent practice, not a one-off. Listed below are some places to start.

Pro-Bono Work

Let’s talk about pro-bono work or working with a client that would otherwise not have access. Designers and studios in positions of privilege should be offering pro bono work. Pro-bono work is solidarity — not charity — and should be a continuous practice for the design industry. Pro-bono work is not “working for free” or doing spec work. It’s using your privilege to help democratize access to the design process. Doing so can begin to provide more equitable access to resources that have long only been available to the select few.

Collaboration Over Competition

The design industry has many barriers to entry. Sky-high tuition for design programs, unpaid internships, and information gatekeeping reinforce the industry’s existing social order. If you’re an employer: pay a living wage, pay your interns, and share your knowledge and experience widely and without expectation of something in return.

“I’m Flattered, But Have You Considered…?”

You’re not always the right fit for the project. That’s normal and to be expected. You’re probably not going to take on a job if you didn’t have the right skill set or bandwidth. You would likely decline and suggest another designer in your network of connections. Similarly, suppose someone approached you about a project outside your lived experience (e.g., you’re a white, cisgender, heterosexual designer and asked to do design work for a queer BIPOC brand. It’s important to ask yourself, is there a designer who holds these identities that could better speak to this work? If the answer is yes (it is), you should probably have an honest conversation with the client about why you’re not the right fit. Offer to reach out to others in your network (and beyond) to find someone better suited to the work.

You’re Not Always Right

No matter how experienced a designer is, not a single one of us has all the answers. Regardless of what school you went to, your current job, the awards you’ve received, or any published accolades, you have more to learn (which is amazing and exciting). Don’t assume that a less experienced person or someone with a different background has nothing to teach you. See every interaction with other creatives as a chance to broaden your horizons, not push your personal design pedagogy.

Putting Ego Aside

We will always make mistakes; we will always have more to learn. Making the design industry a better place for everyone will inevitably have difficult moments. Those in positions of power will inevitably be corrected and held accountable. Change is not comfortable, and leaning into this discomfort is how we grow. If we, as people in positions of privilege, choose to react negatively to those who call on us to analyze our behaviors, we are doing a disservice to our community. When someone is thoughtful enough to ask you to think about your behavior or practice, don’t make excuses. Listen. Make adjustments. Move forward with intention.

Written by Mackenzie Murray.

Mackenzie is a designer and illustrator.

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