On Adobe, Diversity, Design and More

Creativity’s Diversity Dilemma

When people ask me why I joined Adobe, my answer is simple: there are things that I get to work on here that I would never get to work on elsewhere. Here’s one of them: Adobe is putting a major new emphasis on positively impacting diversity and inclusion in the creative industry, starting with a significant report that we released just last week. I’m very proud of having worked on this effort from its inception earlier this year. You can read the report below and learn more at this site, and also read an article about it over at AdWeek.

Why are we doing this? Adobe is a tech company but we are in the creativity business, and that means we take as our primary concerns certain things that other companies can’t afford to foreground. There are many businesses for whom creativity in its many forms is important, maybe even critical, but Adobe is the only multibillion dollar company out there who is expressly interested in the core problems that creative professionals like me—designers, illustrators, photographers, filmmakers, artists of all kinds—encounter every day in making our work.

More than just our historical focus on tools though, we think a lot about what makes creative professionals successful. Our company’s unique dichotomy of tech and creativity gives us a different perspective on the issue of who gets to do creative work professionally. To be sure, there are many companies undertaking meaningful initiatives to create more diverse and inclusive workforces, but these efforts almost always tend to be seen through a tech lens.

While there is of course a significant overlap between tech and design, not all designers or design teams can be said to be part of the tech industry. This is even more true for illustrators, photographers, filmmakers and artists. You don’t have to Google very extensively to find research and discussion on diversity in tech (which is a good thing), but there’s not much out there that looks penetratingly at diversity and inclusion in creative fields.

Creative orgs have unique challenges when it comes to diversity. It’s not always the same as tech.Twitter

Adobe is aiming to change that. Creative organizations have unique challenges when it comes to these issues, and as an industry it’s important that we understand the nature of these challenges as part of our own experience, something that we ourselves can impact, and not as something that gets rolled up alongside other disciplines like engineering, product management, sales, etc.

Maybe one of the biggest misconceptions about how the creative industry works is that, because our crafts are in many ways premised on unconventional thinking, we are already a diverse industry. In tech companies, the design team is often the most diverse group in the org. Our study does in fact show that a vast majority of us believe in the benefits of diversity and inclusion, believe that it makes our work and our industry better. I’ve been in this field for a long time and I’d wager that almost everyone I’ve ever met professionally would agree with this. That’s the good news.

On the other hand, over the course of my career I’ve worked with only a small handful of creative directors who were women, and with vanishingly few designers of any level who were of African American, Hispanic, or Native American backgrounds. In my experience at design conferences and events all over the world, the audiences are overwhelmingly white and the speaker roll calls only marginally less so.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that design is already a diverse industry.Twitter

These experiences are reflected in the report that we did. It’s based on a survey of a sample group of seven hundred and fifty creative pros as well as a series of qualitative, in-depth interviews with people like Ian Spalter, head of design at Instagram, Gina Grillo, CEO of the Ad Club, and Jacinda Walker, chair of AIGA’s diversity task force.

What you’ll see is that there are stark numbers among women who feel that the leadership in their design organizations are diverse, and who feel that their gender will hamper their career growth. Creative professionals of color are significantly less likely than their white peers to feel that their contributions are valued, and many fewer minorities than whites graduate from university programs in creative fields. Maybe most tellingly, only half of those surveyed, regardless of gender or ethnicity believe that the industry as a whole has made sufficient progress in becoming more diverse and inclusive over the past half decade.

For my part, this has been a passion project on which I’ve been very fortunate to be able to spend a significant portion of my past nine months at Adobe. Like many of us in the design field, I have in the past been guilty of underestimating our industry’s diversity and inclusion challenges. When I was starting out in design, to some extent this issue felt like it was a solved problem, or one that was just on the edge of resolving itself.

We’ve fought for a seat at the table for ANY designer—without thinking about who gets a chance at that seat.Twitter

As an industry, we’ve spent most of the past two decades arguing for a seat at the table for any designer, without thinking deeply enough about who among us, gender- and ethnicity-wise, gets a chance at that seat. And of course my personal experience is made more complicated by the fact that I’m an immigrant and an Asian American—in the broader sense of American culture I’m a minority but within the design industry there are any number of Asian Americans on teams everywhere. Diversity is a richly complex subject and there are no easy answers.

That’s why I feel so fortunate to be a part of this team at Adobe who are similarly motivated to move the needle on this issue, regardless of its scale and complexity. This report is just the first step—a baby step. Its intent is to raise the volume on this conversation, to put some facts and figures and quotes out there on the specific intersection of professional creativity and diversity and inclusion. Going into 2018, you’ll see Adobe build on this further with commitments both internally, within our company and products, and externally, to the design and creativity communities at large—we’ll be both recalibrating current initiatives for even more emphasis on these issues as well as rolling out new ones. We hope to do some good, and that’s why I work here.

+