Uncomfortable Conversations: 'Was it because I was unqualified or was it because I’m Black?'
This is part of a recurring series of Q&As called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” taking on the sometimes tough, but always necessary, discussions about inclusion in advertising. This series will spotlight the many diverse voices that make up this industry—at all levels and in all disciplines—highlighting their personal experiences to illustrate the importance of inclusion and equity throughout the entire ecosystem.
Today we speak with Brianne Rowe, a designer at creative agency Haddad & Partners. Previously, Rowe spent time at Parigi Group, designing marketing materials for clients like Hartstrings, Kitestrings and KC Parker.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How and why did you get into design?
I initially got into design through a friend early on in high school. She designed and coded her own personal website which I loved. I soon started doing research on how to code and design so I could create my own websites too. Actually getting started with hands-on experience was a bit more difficult as I couldn’t afford Photoshop. This is a roadblock for numerous potential designers. The prices for the industry-standard graphic design programs are often unaffordable for many. I used every free trial and free Photoshop knock-off I could get my hands on, until I was lucky enough to receive a pirated copy of Photoshop from my mom’s co-worker. She had mentioned my interest in design to him and he had offered to give me the program. I dove in headfirst as soon as I got it running.
I quickly found that I enjoyed designing much more than I enjoyed coding. I spent countless hours with that pirated copy of Photoshop throughout high school. I loved the challenge of bringing the idea in my head to reality on screen and being able to combine different graphic elements to create something fun and eye-catching. When it came time to choose a major, I realized that if I enjoyed design so much that I could lose myself in it for hours on end, it was worth pursuing as a career. I’ve been a designer ever since.
What discriminations have you personally faced in your career?
I have been lucky to never have faced outright discrimination. What I have experienced most often are microaggressions or things said and done with good intentions but oblivious to the actual impact these things had on me. One particular instance that stands out is at a past job, where I had a boss who always insisted on talking specifically to me about her family. Her implication being that because she had a Black husband, me and her had a special connection. She frequently mentioned that if her biracial son was older, she would’ve loved for us to date. Or making jokes about how she felt about her son exploring his “Black side.” I humored her as best I could, but the conversations always left me feeling awkward and tokenized. I was one of two Black people at that company, and the only Black woman.
I experienced less overt actions such as being talked over often during meetings, having my ideas dismissed or downplayed and being passed over for promotions or opportunities to lead bigger projects that I was qualified for. These instances are harder to pin down as discrimination, but still caused me to pause and wonder if that was the reason why I was being treated the way I was, or if there were other factors involved. As a Black woman this is a thought that crosses my mind after every missed opportunity. Was it because I was unqualified or was it because I’m Black?
What are you working on now and how do you feel your identity impacts your designs?
I work on projects ranging from tech company social media ads to environmental cause brochures for my design agency. My identity impacts all aspects of my design. Every project I work on is designed through the eyes of a Black woman. Sometimes this has a huge affect on the way the project comes out, other times less so. But ultimately, I feel my identity always makes a difference in my work.
What can Haddad & Partners and your clients do to better support diversity?
Focus on purposely elevating the voices of people of color with their content. Make diverse hiring standards and stick to them. Plan more projects that focus on inclusive content. Make more diverse stock photo selections when the company controls their own library of photos. Take a very deep look at your company and its practices and policies and address the systemic issues that exist. Actively look for ways to support employees of color consistently.
What should the design industry be doing to improve diversity?
There’s not enough people of color in design positions, especially in high-ranking positions. Design can do better with reaching out to and creating initiatives to recruit specifically women and people of color into the industry. STEM and coding have begun to make these pushes and the design industry should be doing the same. Like tech industries, it’s mostly white-male dominated with spots of diversity here and there.
Plus, more focus needs to be put on giving attention and opportunities to lower-income children. A lot of lower-income children don’t have reliable access to computers, let alone computers that are capable of running design software. Even if they are interested in the design world, their options to get real hands-on experience are extremely limited. Computers and Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions should be donated to schools in lower income areas; children should be sponsored to go to design conferences, workshops or camps; and more college scholarships should be offered to kids studying design through higher education.