Inviting yourself to the table

May 7, 2016

This is a very abbreviated version [largely the insights] of the talk I gave at 99U, Thursday May 5th, 2016.  Please read the footnotes and follow the links in order to gain context when given.

I want to talk to you today about …this idea of inviting yourself to the table.

By show of hands, who here has either had an idea they wanted to execute or wanted to be a part of someone else’s idea and for whatever reason things just work out for you?

Keep your hands up if you’d feel that this has been defining sentiment in your creative work?

Like some of you, I definitely felt like I was destined to always be on the outside looking in. Never having a seat at the table.

As a Black American female designer working in predominantly white male environments, it started to become quite clear to me early on that in order to get a chance at certain opportunities, more importantly to create the level of impact that I know I could, it meant that I had to start butting into places I might never get invited to.

You may be asking yourself, well, what does it mean to invite yourself to the table?

“Inviting yourself to the table” is a decision…

It’s the moment you decide to create opportunities you desire without asking for permission or waiting on an invitation.

It’s the moment where you decide not to sit by and allow opportunities pass by your or even worse let life happen to you.

Throughout my career I’ve found myself sitting at all kinds of tables that were never designed for me to sit at [1]. Places where it was totally unexpected for a black girl like me to show up, but assuredly places where I had something to say, unique to my perspective, and often unbeknownst to those already at the table–that it was something they needed to hear.

I originally spent a lot of time avoiding this idea.

First, there’s something very seductive and alluring about being invited. It’s a form of validation we seek from others. Who doesn’t want to be sought after? And for all the other reasons you might imagine: fear of rejection: Was I competitive enough?, Was I good enough?, Could I survive much less thrive in these spaces? Would I even be accepted?

My perspective is largely shaped by race gender, but self doubt is a universal phenomenon that most thinking, feeling, creative, people can relate to. And we humans are largely shaped by past experiences, and lifetime of messaging told me that I simply didn’t belong at certain tables.

Now I could have continued to believe that, but I decided I wanted to reframe that problem…And the question for me then became “how might I begin to make my own opportunities?”

So I decided to just start inviting myself.

Here are some insights I’ve gained along the way that I’d like to share with you:


Final prompt for residency

November 3, 2015

For context start here.


Our goal is to build a community of design practitioners dedicated to building a future for design that isn’t dictated by hegemony––recognizing, respecting and centering/integrating the sociocultural values and norms of the user not the designer.

Typically, good design begins with understanding who you’re designing for and why. Let’s go a step further and say great design asks us to forge a mindset of designing with–this is participatory design, or co-design.

In this workshop, we’ll do some pre-learning that asks you to wrestle with some heavy concepts such as empathy, populations & power, cultural competency, and even your own identities. These will be critical to our discussion and work.

Additionally, you’ll be introduced to some common methodologies that are used in the conceptualization and design of products and services. We will look at these with a critical eye and examine how might we modify them in order to create our own participatory tools.


Retooling Design: A Provocation

October 8, 2015

This is a part of a larger description for a workshop I will be leading in residency at MICA.

The act of making and releasing an artifact into the public sphere is a dialogue between society and a designer about what he/she believes should exist–thus defining and shaping culture with every facture. Design at its core is a manifestation of cultural values, where an artifact exists as a culmination of commentaries about its makers and his or her tools and processes. Design is not a culturally neutral endeavour–it is literally the codifying of our own norms, socializations, dysfunctions, biases, preferences, and worldviews into the harvest of our labor.

The natural result is that designers play a large role in determining how other people experience and make meaning of their world. The enormity of this ability to influence is amplified when designers are ill-prepared to confront the reality of their own limitations and insufficient tools when designing for people who challenge the definition of normal. The infuriating part is often we aren’t asked to, continuing a traditionally paternalistic approach to problem solving.

The homogenization of personalities and approaches cemented through a relatively standardized design education and undergirded by the steadfast convention of white male practitioners results in an identical landscape of “solutions” optimized for one particular segment of society–normal. Young designers leave academies unaware of the power they hold as society relinquishes the task of envisioning the future–and the consequences that they will build it only for those most like them. Even designers who are members of underrepresented groups must be critical of formal educations whose origin centers around a world view divergent from their own. Meaning we are all tasked with understanding the sociocultural narratives that undergird our work, and our relative distance to normal. Continue…

The problem with “diversity and inclusion” roles

September 8, 2015

The world’s largest tech companies continue to produce dismal results as they try to diversify their ranks–particularly representation of blacks, latinos and indigenous people. This has prompted a new wave of companies bringing on board “diversity and inclusion” officers to tackle this problem, most recently AirBNB and Dropbox.

These roles look like good faith efforts and practical investments by seemingly well-intentioned companies who want to face this issue head on. It makes sense to install someone who is responsible for delivering results.

However, taking a look at Facebook, which has had a Global Head of Diversity since 2013, shows virtually no movement of the needle. Their head count of black employees has increased by 7, while they’ve shown an increase of 695 white employees in the same period. Google, who’s had a diversity program manager since 2011, has shown no significant progress.

This is not an indictment of those currently occupying diversity and inclusion roles. Anyone charged with catalyzing significant change within a culture that is often characterized as less than welcoming has an enormous task at hand.  And, while not completely resigning to the idea that this is a “pipeline” problem, sourcing candidates is a factor.  

This is a nut many companies are trying to crack with less than stellar results. The idea isn’t that we should be at parity but that we should at least see some semblance of progress.

Which leads to a larger question: why, in such a metric driven product building industry, does the approach to diversity initiatives look so different from how products are made–how problems are solved Continue…