Are you using gendered language in the studio?
Written for Creative Bloq—June 23, 2021
Language has been evolving since the dawn of time, with words going in and out of fashion (or even into extinction) to match the climate. We’re witnessing one of those shifts right now, only it’s conscious. We're moving to a world where gendered language has no place, as we try to create a society more inclusive for the brilliant spectrum of people in it.
Design has always been an industry that can’t afford to fall behind, and it needs to be on the cutting edge of new technology, trends and cultural phenomena to stay relevant. But this is different. The move to gender-neutral lexicon promises to create work environments that support everyone. This is a promise that feels hopeful, as we desperately try to undo the inequity that has plagued our studios for decades.
It’s easy to think "I don’t use gendered language, this doesn’t apply to me" but the truth is, it's so habitual that it flies under the radar. The reason you might not notice it is probably because you don't identify with the group of people who find that kind of language triggering.
There is a lot of rhetoric around how we redress the balance in our industry – with wide ambitions around how we hire, promote and pay. But is it possible that we need to start by taking gender off the studio floor completely? In making those environments more inclusive, will our bigger goals begin to happen naturally, will our projects become more inclusive, too?
It's hard to know how you can be part of that shift when you're not the one signing the cheques. But the truth is, real movements start small. It takes a few people committing to change their daily actions before it affects how the majority behaves. Make inclusive language your standard practice now and you'll be set for the future – when you have a bigger stake in making those changes.
So, what can you do today?
01—Change how you address your team
The easiest place to start – choosing one gendered word and trying to replace it in every situation. The biggest offender is "guys". Once you realise the frequency of its use, it’s shocking to admit how often we address diverse groups with a term that only talks to the men present. Ask your team how they’d like to be spoken to as a group – "Hey team" "Hey folks". By crowdsourcing those responses, it starts the conversation about terms we use in the studio.
It's also a brilliant way to engage awareness of the language you use. Though it's just one word, to begin with, it often snowballs to highlight other words we're using daily without a second thought to who might be uncomfortable.
02—Ask your clients how they’d like to be addressed
It’s becoming standard practice to ask for pronouns, just like we were asked what name we'd like to be known by on the first day of school. They're often found in people's email signatures or Linkedin bios. But it could be embedded into a studio practice even further.
What if it were hard-wired into briefs? You could collect the pronouns of the entire team (both client and design side) so it can be shared and referenced throughout the project. This establishes open communication and ensures everyone is comfortable from the get-go.
03—Use a thesaurus
In strategic thinking especially, gendered language is rife. 'Mankind' 'Chairman' 'Manpower' The list is endless. These words should be challenged when you see them. Suggest alternatives like 'Humankind' or question whether they’re necessary at all. 'Middleman' appears a lot in business descriptions, even if the company has been founded and run entirely by women. There are more compelling ways to talk about being in-between, it's our job to find them.
The same applies to how we talk about work. Turning this new critical ear to a design review can leave you cringing. Describing a typeface as 'feminine' is lazy.
We’re relying on all the stereotypes that come to mind from that word to describe it for us.
What if we used 'romantic, graceful, timeless' instead (if that's what we even mean)? Arguably, using more evocative words will work harder to sell the creative to clients.
04—Don’t assign gender where it isn’t needed
Ideal customers are often labelled 'Jane' or 'Michael'. Characters drawn get assigned a 'him' or 'her'. Illustrations have details like earrings added, so you can tell it's a woman shopping. Think critically about what we're adding to any of these situations by gendering them. As we strive for our work to have the widest reach and empathise with bigger audiences than ever, these narrow-minded decisions could be narrowing our impact too.
05—Look for those already living it
Follow the people in the industry setting brilliant examples. Studio Moross is exactly that. They have been surfacing the team's pronouns for a long time, their Diversity & Inclusion policy is transparent and thorough, and their New Parent policy has been stripped of any non-inclusive language/terminology. This should be the benchmark we're all striving for.
Nikky Lyle is a creative recruiter talking at length about why design and advertising should change how they hire – sharing on her platforms how she works with heteronormative agencies to educate and diversify the talent they recruit. A must-follow for her teachings and a positive view on the future of our industry.
06—With change comes opportunity
There are already creatives applying their problem-solving skills to this ask. A great example is the Proud Pronoun Project. A site that generates virtual meeting backgrounds with your pronouns clear to see. Tools like these are finding quick, easy to implement ways to make any meeting room (virtual or physical) more inclusive.
From the practical to the aspirational. A collaboration born from insight and passion in equal measure, Q is technology's first genderless voice (see video below). Created to end gender bias in AI assistants, "Q is an example of what we hope the future holds; a future of ideas, inclusion, positions and diverse representation in technology."
Are there really rules around gendered language?
Honestly, there aren't any hard or fast rules. The world is evolving faster than our news feeds — open dialogue and minds are more important than ever before.
You are never going to be the authority on how someone else likes to be addressed or spoken to, but we can change our language to be more inclusive. Make everyone we work with feel heard, and create better studio environments in the hope that the industry will follow.
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Mentoring’s for life (not just for uni)
Written for Creative Review—June 14, 2021
It’s important to be humble as a designer. Pretty soon after leaving the security of university, you realise that the learning doesn’t end there. It’s probably what keeps the job so interesting. There will always be a new team, client or technology to learn from.
But there’s an untapped resource of learning in the creative industry that accounts for all the biggest lessons and turning points in my career. And the premise is simple – be a mentor, and be mentored. From now until the day you hang up your Moleskine.
While a good boss is important, it’s naïve to expect to feel supported by them all the time. Particularly in larger teams when you’re competing with others for that energy. When you have a mentor, there’s someone else to back you. That feeling of advocation is powerful. Taking a network approach to your support takes the pressure off finding that elusive perfect boss.
That’s not to say all the benefits fall to the mentee — I’ve learnt much more sat on the opposite side of the table. Mentoring adds an incredibly rich perspective to your work (and life) that often goes under-celebrated.
Where do you find one?
The definition of mentorship is elusive. While they come in many guises, the best interpretation I’ve found is a professional friendship. Not a ‘work bestie’ or a colleague you’re happy to spill the tea with. Someone outside your studio who you can talk candidly to. Whether that’s about what happens during inbox hours or your plans for that career level up.
When looking for a mentor, the simplest answer is right under your nose. When you strip away the old school image of likely candidates (picture a wizened creative director, recently retired and making screenprints from a cabin in the Cotswolds), odds are there’s already someone brilliant in your life. You just need to shake off some of the misconceptions first – starting with the idea you should look inside your own industry.
I cannot stress enough how untrue this is. The world is richer when we cross-pollinate. One of my brilliant mentors was not a designer, or in a creative field — she was someone who managed a team and a roster of clients in tandem. Plenty of common ground for us to launch off. Just as we strive to diversify our teams and work with people who think differently, apply the same approach to your mentor candidates.
Ask anyone whose opinion you value. Whether they’re past colleagues, old lecturers, family or friends … even ask Design Twitter (it’s about time it came in useful). You absolutely can cold email people you admire. Be upfront about your ask, if they don’t have time, you’ve flattered them and made a connection.
Ready to be a mentor? You don’t need to have a Yoda level of wisdom. If you feel like you have something to give back, then the same advice applies. Offer. Offer your help far and wide, whether through your own channels or through the great wealth of schemes trying to make those matches. There are tons out there hunting for diversity on the mentor circuit. You can be specific about your offering too – it could be one skill you wish you saw more regularly on the studio floor or supporting an under-represented group in the industry.
What makes it work?
Experience has taught me that a little bit of housekeeping goes a long way. To keep the friendship professional, you need structure. It’s a work commitment so you should both make time for it in the work day. By meeting during shop hours, it reinforces its role in your professional development. Tell your leadership and put it in your calendar for all the studio to see.
The first session is the most formal of them all. Get straight in with the heavy lifting questions like what are we trying to achieve. Or even better, send these questions over before the session and kick off with the answers. What can we do now, tomorrow and in six months to work towards those goals?
Set expectations and stick to them. To be a mentee and not show up is unforgivable, but when your mentor makes you feel like a burden, the whole relationship unravels. If it’s an hour a month, make that a priority.
How can I be the best mentee/mentor?
The best mentees come prepared. Preparation is one of those boring, underrated power-ups in mentoring. Whether it’s a plan for today’s meeting, an anecdote to get insight on or a list of burning questions scribbled at the back of their notebook.
Don’t just be there, be present. On both sides of the table, distractions should be at zero. You could go as far as banning laptops for note-taking (I also hate eating during meetings but that might just be a personal fear of tandem navigating sourdough and existential questions).
This takes me to the best advice I ever had as a mentor. Always ask yourself, why are you talking? Your job is to listen. “Why do you think that is?” “Now you’ve retold it, do you have any new reflections?” Aim for a 90/10 (mentee/mentor) conversation ratio.
“The role of the mentor is to make you reflect, not to give you advice or answers. Helping you ask the right questions,” says Marten Mickos, CEO of HackerOne.
It’s not our job as mentors to give answers. We deal in options and scenarios. Anecdotes at a push. I asked my mentor if I should move to Australia and quite rightly she gave me a 10-second silence.
You’ve got to keep momentum. Which can be challenging over a year with natural ebbs and flows. Every session should end with action. Set mini-goals that keep your mentee accountable, and helps them prioritise time for self-development every month. Setting small tasks helps build towards bigger time investments like redoing a portfolio or writing a memoir.
Ultimately, you get out what you put in. If ever the mentorship is flailing, look at what you can do to fan the flames.
Why is it so good?
Amongst the countless mentee benefits, there are some compelling hidden ones. Mentoring can help you see the big picture at a stage in your career where the focus is much narrower. Rather than thinking about today’s meetings or the next impending deadline, it shuffles your priorities to make sure you’re top of the list. This is about your aspirations, rather than those of your studio.
And you can address those hairy, audacious ambitions…. Want to move into art curation in NYC? Or join the Disney Imagineers in Shanghai? Mentorships can help you tap into networks that might get you there.
Now the bit that gets me waxing lyrical in the pub. What makes being a mentor so good?!
Practically, all the skills required to be a good mentor are found in great design leadership. Finding more joy in others succeeding than yourself. The ability to truly listen and allow your team to feel heard. Identifying what makes someone tick, then figuring out how they can amplify it, or create an environment that nurtures it.
You can take the most frustrating, painful experiences from your career and turn them into lessons. Flip negatives into positives. You can also take some of the habits or patterns you’ve spotted in the industry and try to change them.
There’s constant inspiration from younger (more) talented people. My mentees are always mentioning new programmes or references I haven’t heard of. It’s the easiest, best way to stay relevant.
In case all that isn’t enough to persuade you, this, from Mickos, sums it up: “To be a mentor makes you a more understanding human being. It keeps your mind young and your skills fresh. Successful people who don’t start to mentor others will over time lose touch with their own excellence. Mentoring someone connects you back to the original you who became so excellent.”
Or as Edith Piaf put it: “You should remember to send the elevator back down.”
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Moving North to South
Written for DesignStudio—December 9, 2020
At the end of 2019, I packed my career and worldly possessions into two checked bags and a saxophone case and moved from Bath, England to Sydney, Australia. I decided that if I was going to take on a new challenge, I should make it count. So I swapped continents, moving from a small established studio into a bigger, younger studio — DesignStudio Sydney. Bringing with it a change in clients, larger projects, different outputs and a shift in my role. All on the opposite side of the globe.
When you relocate to another hemisphere, it's a given that things are going to be different. A year into joining the team at DesignStudio Sydney, it feels like the perfect time to reflect on the differences and similarities when working in the upside-down.
We’re a world apart
Navigating a culture change heightens when your job pivots around empathy. Our role as designers is to step into the shoes of our clients (then test them out, critique the fit, maybe suggest a new pair of laces), and walk a mile in them on behalf of their users. Without the knowledge gained from living in their environment, that understanding becomes more important than ever. And it's something that DesignStudio does so well. By putting a real emphasis on immersion in a project, it gives a chance to get under the skin of the business (and often their problems) meaning we can create our solutions from the inside.
The same consideration applies to cultural signifiers that might take on a different meaning on this side of the world. Understanding key moments in history, colours or symbols that have different connotations, vocabulary that is inherently Western or doesn't transcend language barriers — then using all these learnings help to keep the work appropriate.
Because of DS SYD’s location, almost every project through the studio doors in the past year has been destined for totally different markets. I’ve worked with 5 clients in 5 different countries. Some of these projects have needed a deeper level of empathy and versatility than I’ve ever had to deploy before. Entering the world of Filipino beauty in our recent project for BeautyMnl is an example of how important that cultural affinity is. Market learnings like counterfeit goods being rife in Philippine e-commerce had a direct impact on design decisions to counteract those fears. Understanding the client’s hesitance to feedback honestly as a deep-rooted aversion to being outspoken or forthright. Working to cultivate a relationship which enables those frank conversations. Looking at how beauty has been portrayed historically (and hearing personal experiences from the team) in order to better represent Filipino women today.
Though our approach stays the same, often our quest to find the Meaningful Difference for clients means being flexible in how we find it. Making each design process bespoke, adapted to fit. The lessons I’ve learned by working in this versatile way, with clients from different cultures and new markets, has already given me a broader perspective on all my projects and relationships to date.
There are other elements of cross-continental design that I hadn't anticipated. References made to products, projects and people are often firmly rooted in British soil. I've had to adapt how best to explain ideas to my global team of Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and Europeans, and am constantly adjusting my process to best work with their international experience.
But having a diverse team of approaches and experience works. As we look at the wall of work from multiple viewpoints, we get to the big picture much faster. And my place in that team feels valid and unique. My combination of learnings from inside and outside of the studio is literally a world apart from those I stand shoulder to shoulder with.
I'm also working hard to make my reference pool local. While it's a joy to think and work globally, I don't want to skip over talent and opportunities just outside the studio door. As a visitor in Australia, it's part of my job to integrate and respect the industry that was here before me. Which to me, means getting involved in initiatives and education, learning about all the brilliant agencies shaping the design scene here. Not just jumping headfirst into the lifestyle that pulls so many Brits over to this side of the equator. In turn, I vow to bring cultural staples like Quavers and beans on toast to my Aussie studio mates.
But we’re on the same page
Ideas transcend all borders. It doesn't matter where you cut your teeth, what your first language is, or the address of your studio. It's the common currency in agencies across the land. The daily workings of the studio are not specific to a location, but specific to the values of DesignStudio. Sitting down at my desk in the morning feels like it always has, which was a welcome comfort on my first day.
Working in tandem with other DS teams from our New York and London studio often means a project continues to run overnight. It's the first time I've seen a 24 hour shift in a studio that's effective. It feels like you've gained extra days in the week — and who hasn't asked for that in a project before. Working across multiple time zones means days can be long as we try to take advantage of the overlap. Turning notifications off doesn't always feel like an option. I learnt the hard way to caveat conversations about TV (more specifically the Killing Eve finale) during an evening/morning handover with the London studio.
Looking at the work from all DS studios globally, each project displays cultural nuance, geographical relevance, intelligence and ingenuity. But there is a distinct DS style and standard that runs throughout, making the world appear smaller than ever. A comforting and reassuring thought in 2020 as we all work on a remote global scale from our spare bedrooms.
The baggage I’m keeping
It's a delicate balance of embracing the new without forgetting the old, being ready to expand and adapt without throwing away the framework or lessons that brought you here. Because more often than not, the idiosyncrasies that you've picked up are a large part of what makes you stand out. Helps you bring something distinct to a brilliant, diverse team. And having a different beginning gives you the agency to have a different perspective. Something that's valued by colleagues and clients alike.
So I'm taking comfort in the similarities, welcoming the differences and trying to take each day in my stride. When a little extra encouragement is needed, I remember we're technically working in the future — so I’m already ahead of the game.
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