No Equal Opportunities for All – Influence of the U.S. Education System on Design

For the Whitebook, designer Annette Diefenthaler wrote an insightful essay on design and the U.S. education system. As executive director at IDEO, she is driven by the question of how design can help improve our society.

My own practice as a designer in the context of complex social challenges has given me the confidence that design is, and will continue to be a powerful tool to make change. […]”– Annette Diefenthaler

As a small teaser, here is an excerpt of the essay:

Annette Diefenthaler_RES4718

DESIGN AND THE US-AMERICAN EDUCATION SYSTEM

 

[…] As a designer who has worked with schools and school systems from early learning to higher education, in public, private, and charter schools, I know how challenging it is to make change in education systems under normal circumstances. The pandemic has created a rapid digital transformation of the education sector, which offers an exciting opportunity for dramatically accelerated innovation. So far, however, the racially disparate economic and health impacts of the virus are also further magnifying education gaps. While parents in affluent neighborhoods are forming pods and hire private tutors, students in some of the poorest areas have gone for months without access to the internet or a quiet place to study online. […]

[…] Design as a profession is lacking demographic diversity and a culture of inclusion. 71% of design professionals in the United States identify as white, followed by 9% Asian, according to
the 2019 design census, conducted by AIGA, Google, and Accurat. Black designers make up only 3% of the nearly 10,000 survey respondents, while 13% of Americans are Black —and this percentage has not notably changed over the past 50 years. Latinx designers only represent 8% (vs. 18% of the population), and with 0.2% of respondents, Native American people are hardly represented at all. There are similar disparities for factors such as gender, age, sexual identity, ability/ disability and location.

In other words, power and influence in the design industry and in design education overwhelmingly lies in the hands of white people. The social consequences of solutions that lack an inclusive perspective are more likely to further divides between people, as exemplified by offensive Snapchat filters, racist fashion advertisements, or heart rate monitors that work less well on dark skin, let alone healthcare protocols, or city planning that works for some, but not all people. In fact, design can, and does, perpetuate white supremacy.

When I first came across the idea that design can perpetuate white supremacy, I reacted with defensiveness. When forward-thinking activist Christine Ortiz, founder of Equity Meets Design, pointed out that »racism and inequity are products of design« several years ago, I was convinced that such outcomes could only be the result of a poor application of the design process. From my perspective as a white person, the design community had always appeared to be a mixed group of people from many different backgrounds, driven by the shared intention to make the world a better, or more beautiful place

I had not taken into consideration the shared privilege that had gotten most of us to the place we were in. One key aspect of that privilege is education: A degree from a prestigious design school, or the connections we were able to make through alumni or faculty, were often an important path to professional success.

Here, it is worth taking a look at the larger educational landscape in the United States.

The K-12 education system in the United States offers a complex variety of options, is more
costly than most systems, and produces lower outcomes than other industrialized nations. Its test scores are below the international average in math and have been stagnant in reading and science, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Those results, released in October 2019, also found that U.S. achievement for low-performing students was the same as 30 years ago. While there are excellent public, charter, and private schools all across the country, these options are not equally accessible to everyone. Schools in affluent areas tend to produce higher test scores than schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students, according to the 2018 PISA international rankings (PISA is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s »Programme for International Student Assessment«), and students’ socio-economic background plays a larger role in variations in student achievement than in other industrialized countries. In short – the school system perpetuates inequities that have impacted generations of Americans, and decades of reform efforts aimed at providing equitable opportunities have not yielded the results they promised.

Disparities start in early childhood education, as children in poverty can be 12 months behind their more advantaged peers by the time they enter kindergarten, according to a study by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Poverty, in the U.S., is related to racial disparities, as low-income communities are disproportionately black, brown, and indigenous. This so- called achievement gap continues in the K-12 system and results in children from historically underinvested communities graduating at lower rates, with poorer academic results, and with a significantly smaller proportion of high school graduates continuing on to higher education.

This leads to a first significant selection in who gets access to obtaining a design degree: Only those who graduate with a high school diploma have the opportunity to apply to a degree-issuing program at a design school. And while some undergraduate design programs are open to any student who qualifies for admission to college or university, many of the more prestigious schools require an above-average GPA (grade point average) and recommend Advanced Placement classes to improve chances of getting accepted.

Additionally, portfolios are part of the application process for many leading design schools. Yet again, students who had the opportunity to participate in afterschool programs, summer camps, or portfolio preparation programs – which are often costly – are at an advantage. As former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out, »children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students«, and while art used to be offered in many public schools, many of these programs have been reduced or eliminated in recent years.

Editor’s note: In the remainder of the essay, Annette Diefenthaler outlines other problems she observes in both design and the U.S. education system and suggests solutions such as a more inclusive education system. In doing so, the author always keeps in mind the goal of initiating transformative change and developing equality-oriented design approaches. Reprinted in: “Designing Design Education – Whitebook on the Future of Design Education.