Dear Design Profession: Stop creating inequitable spaces.

Kia Weatherspoon
Feb 5, 2023
5 min read

We design for people, not demographics.

We design to celebrate the diversity of history, culture, and communities.

Design Equity™ is about design with dignity for all people.

Design that’s not based on socio-economic status or agism.

We’ve spent the last 10 years discussing, perpetuating and stereotyping design outcomes for different demographics. It started out with agism in workplace and hospitality design, with headlines looking something like this: The Boomers can’t work with these Gen X, Y, Z ers or The Alphabet generations are taking over, just look it's on Instagram. However, in housing, the space I’ve spent the last 10 plus years in,  it continually gets worse.

We see people segregated by class, with names such as:

Luxury vs Market Rate

Market Rate vs Affordable

Affordable vs Work-force

Work-Force vs Supportive

Supportive vs Veteran

And so it goes on, but for the sake of keeping the list short, just know the subdivisions become greater with the inclusion of age and familial archetypes.

The problem is we allow industries, agencies, and policies to continually tell us how we need to be divided. These divisions dictate design outcomes that are detrimental to the foundation of our communities and the people we design for. Oftentimes, subdividing people based on socio-economic status leads back to segregations based on race. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law dissects housing development policies that intentionally segregated communities. While the book does not focus on design specifically, it does reference the “abolishment of a policy (never enforced) to ensure minorities received the same public housing of equal quality to their non-minority counterparts. The use of subpar building materials and the lack of quality in low-income communities.”   As designers, this type of history should make us question our roles and responsibilities even more. How has the lack of access to well-designed spaces evolved into a shortage of diversity in design? What can we do about it? (We will touch on this in future articles.)

In Design 101 we all learned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which proved regardless of ethnicity, the needs of all people are equal. However, we must add to Mr. Maslow’s list because it misses some critical elements like beauty, aesthetics, color, light, textures, softness -- and dare I say sparkle!

Yet industries force this narrative of wealth difference and the design profession has played right into it,  creating a greater divide in design outcomes. Outcomes that exist in interior spaces for years to come. If you visit any public housing/ghetto development built pre-1950s, you’ll see how those outcomes set the tone for communities, especially in multi-family housing.

At Determined By Design, we’ve experienced first hand the implicit bias of numerous constituents in the housing development space. We often hear statements like:

“It’s too much for this demographic.”

These people will tear it up.”

“You can’t add design elements to this type of project or it won’t get built.”

“Our funding source won’t give us money if it's too nice.”

“No soft seating in the lobby --  they need services, not amenities.”

“Taxpayers don’t want to see it look too nice.”

“Not in our back yard,”

“Our design professional just did whatever we wanted.”  

I am going to stop now, but know I could go on!

Did you cringe while reading any of those statements?

If you didn’t and thought “that’s just a part of the reality”, you are a part of the problem.

If you did, good! Now let’s do something about it!

What baffles us the most on the abbreviated list of phrases is the latter “our design professional just did whatever we wanted.” WHAT.THE.FUCK!

It’s been popping up more and more. First, we thought “they are just making the Architectural + Design professional the scapegoat”, then we realized, NO it’s true. How’d we figure it out? We looked at their previous work. There was a blatant disconnect between what A&Ds and IDs firm market-rate projects looked like versus their affordable housing projects. I mean blatant!

Or let’s talk about my favorite: not even showing the interiors of their affordable housing work. It’s like saying “Hey, only look at the packaging!”  It would be easy to add photos to this portion of this letter, but the goal isn’t to shame any firm[s]. This is a call to action to go back to the basics, damn it! Design for people, not their circumstances, demographics or income levels.

Now, where do we start? What should we be asking ourselves?

1.       Take stock of your current portfolio of work side by side. Be honest— is the work equitable across all project types? If you can’t be honest with yourselves, ask a peer outside of your firm. If you still find yourself struggling don't worry, we offer Design Equity Strategy Sessions for development, agency and A&D partners.

2.     Does your design team look like the community it was serving? Diversity at its best is a mirror that can either reflect or repeat. If your team doesn’t reflect the community, connect with a minority partner, students, or community members. The latter two can help create exposure to the industry, ensuring the next three decades yield industry professionals that reflect all of our communities.

3.         Go back to design basics. What was your concept for each project? I swear the necessity of design concepts have died with the urgency of cranking out deliverables.  Was your “concept” derived from pictures of other interiors in a charrette with sticky notes and a client? Or did you get caught up in styles like mid-century, modern, transitional and contemporary? Colleagues that’s not the way. Mashing together design elements from precedent photos is not a concept design.

[Need help getting back to basics? Sign-up for our Community-Based Concept Development Class.]

4.     Let’s STOP segregating and hierarchizing ourselves. In order of perceived clout: hospitality, boutique, work-place, commercial, retail, health-care, educational, institutional, and lastly, residential. Can we STOP adding further classiest hierarchies? Adding categories like luxury, market, Class A, mid-scale and several other economics-based identifiers are not serving us.  Or communities.

The beauty of design is if the right elements exist, even if people may not be able to name “it”, they can still feel the integrity of the space. Our job is to make sure those elements exist equally, realizing no space type is more deserving than another.

5.       Buzzwords will keep us complacent. Adopting vernaculars like “resimercial” (Yes, it’s a thing. I literally cringed, shook my head, and thought…How Sway?!) Home, office, hotel, restaurant, dentist office, bank, non-profit, etc…We’ve boxed ourselves in with furniture types for a certain type of space. Our industry is about making all spaces softer, more comfortable, engaging, and inviting. When we do, the person, no matter who or their use of the space, will reap advantageous outcomes. Durability, technical and safety requirements are always at play when we do our jobs with integrity.

6.       You don’t need data to do better. Understanding evidence-based design helps get greater buy-in and reinforces design needs. However, empathy is equally powerful.  You can start there. Ask yourselves first, is this a space I would want for my child, my parents, my siblings, and so on? Then ask your client. If you can’t see yourself in a space, then it's undoubtedly not good enough for someone else. It's your job to ask the same of your clients. So, they/we can stay grounded in creating spaces for people, not just data and demographics.

Our ability to shape and create equitable spaces impact communities for generations to come.

There is no pretty bow to finish this letter. We must be mindful of industry vernacular and our shared power as design professionals. Our ability to shape and create equitable spaces impact communities for generations to come. Collectively acknowledging our shortcomings is how we’ll achieve change.