Photo by Adam Birkett on Unsplash

Too black for Snapchat.

It’s easy to think that bias is embedded in ‘others’ – people like Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson and Today Tonight producers. Truth is we all have unconscious bias and we all unknowingly embed our bias into design.

Think you don’t? That could be worse – the more unconscious the bias, the worse it is…

Without realising it, biases manifest themselves in our client’s briefs and our design decisions. It’s human nature.

Research has shown we do 98% of our thinking in our subconscious mind. This is where we store our implicit or unconscious biases. It’s the result of our brains working automatically – on impulse – to make decisions without thinking. Quick decisions. It’s a leftover survival instinct – in a split second our brain defaults to moments of familiarity.

The problem with unconscious bias is that it exists in many forms – the most obvious ones are race, gender, culture, age and religion, but there are other more subtle biases.

Blind auditions

In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began using blind auditions to counteract a gender bias. At that stage the top five orchestras in America included fewer than 5% women.

They’re called ‘blind’ because candidates sit on a stage behind a screen and play for a jury that cannot see them. In some orchestras, blind auditions are used just for the preliminary selection while others use it all the way to the end, until a hiring decision is made. Either way, they make a difference. By 1980 the total had risen to 10% and by 1997 it was 25%. Today some are into the 30s (still a long way from 50:50).

The increase in the number of  women in orchestras is directly attributed to the blind auditions. The size of a major orchestra is stable (they all have around 100 musicians) and the types of jobs don’t change. For example there are not fewer bassists – traditionally played by men – and more harpists – traditionally played by women.

Once it became clear what was happening, they took the experiment further. Now musicians walk onto the stage in socks so the difference in walk or sound of footwear cannot be detected. It’s human centred design at its most basic.

Using technology badly

Kodak originally designed colour film to work perfectly for people with white skin. It wasn’t until 1995 they introduced film that catered to people of multi-racial skin colours. Fast forward and we’re back to the future. The filters on our mobile cameras have similar biases.

There are several examples of people with dark skin not being recognised. Infact, writing in MIT Technology Review, Y-Vonne Hutchinson described how she couldn’t get Snapchat to work because she was too black! Some designer somewhere had built in a white skin bias.

A similar example is Richard Lee. Richard was trying to renew his passport in New Zealand but being of Chinese heritage proved problematic. His passport photo failed to be recognised because of the ongoing error ‘subject eyes are closed’. His Asian eyes were not recognised by the facial recognition program.

All three are examples of designers with unconscious bias – they’ve not programmed machines to people of diverse background.

Using technology well

There are also some great examples of technology introduced to counteract unconscious bias. Here are just a few:

In the sharing economy.

A Chrome browser plugin, Debias Yourself, gives hosts the power to fight unconscious bias. When a guest contacts a host, Debias Yourself removes information that might cause discrimination. A host can view the guest’s message and past reviews without viewing their face or name. It ensures the host reviews requests on a nondiscriminatory basis, without information that conveys race, gender, or age.

In the job economy

Again, in the US: research showed that women, or people of colour, had stopped applying for some job positions because of the history of ingrained bias. To counteract unconscious bias, mindful employees are using apps such as Textio – an augmented writing program – to ‘check’ job descriptions and identify unconscious bias.

In the not-for-profit arena

Virtual reality is being used to enable empathy among groups that may not easily understand another’s point-of-view. One example I love is a not-for-profit inviting a group of middle-aged white men into a room where they were ‘VR’d’ into a 9-year-old girl living in a refugee camp. She led them through the camp as they were constantly bombarded by air and drone strikes. The men were immersed into her world, making it much easier to have empathy for her life and her challenges.

So, what can we do?

We can move away from our computers and has Steve Blanks says ‘get out of the building’.

We can collaborate with a wide-ranging, diverse group of potential users rather than defaulting to our tribe of family and friends.

We can ensure the products and services we produce are targeted toward varied, global audiences.

Diversity is inherent to how we design, it’s in the people we hire, the clients we work with and the products and services we create. The next time you tackle a design problem make sure you understand your audience, and if you don’t, make a conscious decision to learn about them, validate with them and think from their point of view about what really interests them.

It’s really mindful, human centred design – for all skin colours.

As always, love to hear your views. Please feel free to email me.

Carol Mackay

Want more information like this? Subscribe to get weekly Design Business Review articles, Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers.


Carol’s design expertise is in making the complex simple. Her skill is in packaging complicated content into bite-sized chunks of information to be easily understood and digested. 2018 is a big year for Carol. Thirty-three years after founding Mackay Branson design, she transitioned from client-focused projects to use her skills with the Design Business Council, and The Design Business School.

Carol has just written a new program for the The Design Business School. The Design Studio Management Program is aimed at designers, design graduates and existing design studio managers to help them develop skills to fast track their career path. Contact Carol for more information.

Processing...
Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
ErrorHere