Black Designers Matter at Celebration of Cultural Excellence

by Beverly Aarons

In late February, days before Seattle came to a near standstill due to the novel Coronavirus, a group of Seattle Black Designers gathered in Pioneer Square to celebrate Black History Month.

Artefact, a design company, hosted the event organized by the Seattle Black Designers Community. Bekah Marcum, the founder and organizer of Seattle Black Designers Community and a product designer at Zillow, was grateful for the support the group has received from designers over the past year, and she’s glad to provide a place for Black designers to network.

Marcum founded the Seattle Black Designers Community in 2019 after realizing Black designers here didn’t know each other because there are so few of them. It can be difficult for such a small community to connect organically.

When she started her group, Marcum suspected that many Black designers were eager to meet others who shared the experience of being the “only one” in the room.

“Our first meeting was a whooping 24 people and everyone knew maybe one other black designer before that time,” Marcum said.

After the initial gathering of designers, Marcum got to work organizing bigger events that would offer Black designers an opportunity to connect to each other and become more visible to the wider design community. The first big event was at the Amazon Spheres where they held the “Designing For Diversity” gathering.

“For companies who want to hire for diversity, these types of events help them discover what diverse candidates are in the field,” Marcum said.

Black Designers of Seattle founder Bekah Marcum. (Photo: Beverly Aarons)

Nicole Cooper, a Seattle native and principal designer at Artefact, is committed to increasing diverse representation in the design field. She got involved with the Black History Month Design Celebration event because she wants to ensure that Black designers have an opportunity to connect with each other and feel supported.

“It is important to me as a Black woman in design to create spaces for community and bring people together,” Cooper said. “I’ve been designing for 20 years and I think I’ve designed with like three other Black designers.”

Seattle Black Designers Community is the second organization that Artefact has co-organized an event with, the first one was WOCinTech, a design and social justice organization. And this is just the beginning of collaborations aimed at increasing diversity and representation in the design industry. Dave Miller, the Director of Community and Talent at Artefact, made it clear that Artifact wants to continue engagement with diverse communities so that they can create design solutions that address the needs of everyone.

“If you’re going to create products for groups of people and society at large, it’s important that you look at diverse perspectives,” Miller said. “You can’t have the same people in the same room who think the same thing designing for a problem that affects large swaths of the community and people. So it takes diversity to solve those challenges.”

The Panelists

The Black History Month Design Celebration brought together a panel of some of the most important Black designers in Seattle. The panel included Jessica Rycheal a Senior Art Designer at Alexa Shopping-Amazon, Tim Allen, VP of Design at Airbnb, and Joi Roberts a Senior Experience Design Manager at Zillow.

According to the panelists, Black designers are critical, not just to the health of the design industry but to the success of solutions designers create. When Black designers, people of color, and women are missing from the design team, design solutions often miss the mark, inconveniencing the public and hurting the bottom-line of businesses.

“There are many examples in the design world where our absence has caused the ‘tech solutions’ to miss the mark,” Roberts said.

When design teams are diverse, that diversity challenges the status quo and forces everyone on the team to broaden their perspective.  And this is why panelists insisted on the importance of authenticity in the design room. Black designers bring a unique experience that will impact how they envision design solutions—they shouldn’t shy away from that even when it feels scary.

“I bring a very Black perspective to the office and I’m not ashamed of that,” Rycheal said.

Jessica Rycheal was raised in East Macon, GA. She never took an art class. She never knew design was a career option. At one point she considered joining the military until a teacher paid her college application fee and suggested she major in marketing.

“Black kids have these skills but don’t know what career to match them to,” Rycheal said.

Rycheal said that she hopes that making Black designers more visible will inspire Black youth to consider design as a vocation. Tim Allen agreed that representation is important but he also encouraged new Black designers to cultivate a culture of excellence –“be the best in the room” but don’t forget to build community.

“For a decade I didn’t see other designers who looked like me,” Allen said. “But when I did get access to a community it was transformational. It was validating and freeing.”