“We change what we design by changing who designs it,” said Gabrielle Bullock, Perkins and Will’s Director of Global Diversity. The setting was her swearing in as President of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) international board, and her powerful words struck a chord in an industry endeavoring to change its narrative around diversity.
These words – and Gabrielle’s leadership to promote greater awareness of this issue – are particularly resonant as we observe Global Diversity Awareness Month. To keep the conversation going, we held a virtual roundtable with some members on our Diversity Council, an industry-first, firmwide cross-section of Perkins and Will staff with varying backgrounds, cultures, and expertise. The Diversity Council is charged with helping Perkins and Will build and sustain a firm culture – and a firm practice – that celebrates human differences. Here they share their observations on important areas of focus, how far we’ve come, and how we can continue to improve our efforts.
How does a design firm in an industry that historically has not been very diverse even begin to have conversations about diversity?
The first step is to acknowledge areas that are lacking diversity. Seek out people in the firm who, even if they are not a part of any particular cause or group, are passionate about inclusion. Begin the discussion with those who have an interest. Then, look to precedents for spreading the word. There are a wealth of examples – events, blog posts, even handbooks – that begin to raise awareness and outline steps for active inclusion.
Finally, start small. If you are part of a large firm without a history of diversity, trying to “solve” all the firm’s issues at once will feel too daunting. Take it one step at a time. Use the real life precedents and the group of interested people around you to start the conversation as it applies to your practice: What can you immediately do? Is it an office-wide seminar or informal discussion? Is it creating a handbook? Or is it bringing in speakers to raise awareness? Perhaps it is even a potluck to celebrate the diversity amongst you. Whatever the step is, the important part is taking the first one forward.
What steps people can take at every level of a firm to embrace, advocate for, and achieve diversity?
Everyone plays a role in creating a more engaged and inclusive workplace community. The most important thing that we all can do is to continuously question what we “know” to be right. Being able to empathize with a condition completely foreign to your own is a huge step towards preventing transgressions. Beyond that, those at the senior level can ensure that inclusive policies are in place and are fully supported. For those in the middle, they can actively seek ways to be conduits between the younger staff and the senior staff. It’s important for this group to be a voice for those who may not feel as comfortable. The junior staff, which is typically the most socially active, can purposely engage their colleagues who may not have the ties across the office or firm.
Larry is a senior interior project designer in the Washington, D.C. studio.
What are signs that a firm or industry is really moving the needle. What is an example of success?
As a firm, we understand that engaging more disparate voices will improve our work, enhance the studio culture, create a more productive workforce, increase profitability, reflect our clients, and help with talent retention. In order to move the needle, we must take five actionable steps: 1) Define/target tangible goals; 2) Create a timeline to evaluate progress; 3) Follow up; 4) Evaluate; and 5) Measure. For example, if our goal is to have more diverse project team, it is important to target staff, offer on-going mentorship, educate, and provide opportunity.
Success is easy to measure when we see that we no longer have a project team composed of colleagues with the same gender, race, and age. Everyone wins.
Brooke is a principal in Perkins and Will’s Boston studio.
What developments have happened in the last 10 years toward diversity in the industry, and how can we keep moving forward?
In the past 10 years, beginning with the great recession, the improving economy has provided greater opportunity in the architecture and design industry. A more diverse pool of talent is now finding jobs in the industry, which is increasing the attractiveness of our profession to potential candidates.
From my perspective, there are more women and minorities represented in our firm than 10 years ago, not only because there is more opportunity, but because of our increased awareness that a more diverse workforce is good for our business. Our outreach to underrepresented schools has improved, although more work is needed to reach talented graduates from diverse backgrounds. In addition, recruiting a multilingual staff is also huge benefit for our clients. In Dallas, we’ve recently started a number of projects in Mexico that wouldn’t have been possible without having client engagement leaders who have made connections there, and who know the local business culture.
As diverse as our client base is, we should continue to diversify our team of designers to serve current and new clients. This is one of the main reasons we have a firmwide Diversity Council – to provide leadership toward this goal for the benefit of our company.
John is an associate principal and senior project manager in Perkins and Will’s Dallas studio.
What’s the most important diversity goal of all? What should the industry be striving for?
The most important goal of diversity is to create an environment where people feel welcome and are encouraged to share their unique perspectives. Within our firm, this safe environment fosters respect between employees, promotes a culture of curiosity, and cultivates empathy. Because each of us sees the world in different ways, diversity enhances our design process by providing valuable opportunities to elevate our designs though dialogue. Outside our firm, we are able to connect with clients in a more meaningful way, listen with more awareness, and connect spaces to the values of the people they serve.
I believe that the most important goal is to create an inclusive work environment that fosters and values the representation and standing of women and diverse populations at all levels of the firm. Firms should intentionally create mentoring and leadership development opportunities to empower under-represented communities.
How can we design for diversity and inclusion in educational spaces, in particular?
Learning spaces need to be diverse because everyone learns differently. An important consideration is quiet versus loud spaces. For example, spaces for learning in collaboration should be separate from spaces designed for quiet concentration. This is particularly important for people with autism who need calming spaces.
Learning spaces should be technologically equipped and have access to daylight and views. When it comes to furniture, flexibility is important but even more important it to think about universal design and provide furniture for all body types and physical abilities, e.g. wide chairs, chairs with arm rests, and tables that accommodate a wheelchair in a comfortable way.
As a design firm, what types of student learning opportunities to promote diversity in the industry are important to invest in?
There are a lot of opportunities to promote learning about diversity. I love how we had diversity and inclusion training* in our own offices. But we need to keep the conversation going. For example, we might hold local workshops or regular meetings to encourage participation in local diversity programs.
I am also a firm believer in outreach programs that target minority students. A February 2017 Curbed article states that African Americans make up 13% of the population, but only 2% of licensed architects are African American. We work with the ACE Mentor Program and see tremendous value in all of these great resources for minority architects.
*Since its inception in 2015, Perkins and Will’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement program has sparked open and honest dialogue among employees all around the firm: questions are asked, feelings are shared, and ideas are exchanged. We also learn about “unconscious bias” how both negative and positive stereotypes that exist in our subconscious minds can affect our behavior toward others. These ongoing workshops and conversations bridge perceived cultural divides, cultivate a sense of empathy, and make our teams more cohesive and collaborative. A natural outcome of all of this is a more rewarding partnership with our clients – and more innovative design solutions.