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UW Student Group Looks to Diversify Design

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In the spring semester of Hayley Pendergast’s fourth year as a UW-Madison student in interior architecture, she founded an organization built to expose more people of color to the design industry at an earlier age, as an opportunity to help diversify the field.

Pendergast, a fifth-year senior and the president of Diverse Thinking in Design, started getting the first inklings of the organization after realizing that she was one of five people of color — out of 30 — in her design program at UW. Two of those left, and those that stayed were all Asian. 

“In our design classes, I noticed that there were not many people of color, specifically black and brown people,” she said. “I was not okay with that. If we’re designing for everyone, then we should have accurate representation for who we’re designing for.”

Diverse Thinking in Design partners with local organizations and high schools with marginalized communities to offer access into the design industry. They do this by bringing in professionals — in fields such as architecture, interior design, fashion — to give lectures, provide workshops and teach students the basics of design software. They also prepare a gallery night to showcase previous work to students. Since the organization is still new, they are partnering with programs like the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County to find schools to visit.

“We have quite a few people of color in our org itself,” said Jocelyn Huey, DTID secretary. “So students can get a sense of the designs we’ve made and what it looks like to be a person of color in design. They can see representation and what we are able to do.”

“All we heard about, coming into college, was STEM or business,” Pendergast said. “So we didn’t even know that the design profession was even available or accessible to us. And within the field of design itself, it impacts so many communities, but then the people who are actually making the designs are not representative of the communities they’re serving.”

Pendergast started preparing and researching what the organization would look like the fall right before it launched. She didn’t do it alone. Diverse Thinking in Design started with six members and it was hard to get it off the ground at first. They had to figure out how to engage and connect with students and which programs would be plausible.

“It was a lot of work,” Pendergast said. “That was the most difficult issue to tackle, because we have all these ideas, but we had to narrow it down to give a specific message to them.”

As Diverse Thinking in Design started to gain ground, the members saw support from other people in their major, including professors and advisors.

“We got support from our faculty, especially from our professor Lesley Sager,” Huey said. “She, and some of our other professors, stopped by for a few of our meetings. They come in, listen and contribute from their own professional experiences, which is really helpful. A lot of our professors are people of color and international, and so it’s been really awesome to see them be so supportive of us.”

Since their founding, Diverse Thinking in Design has grown considerably in size. They now have 18 active members, and have only been growing as more students show interest. The organization meets internally once a month internally and as for now, the schedules for school meetings have not been set.

“It feels extremely satisfying,” Pendergast said. “We still have to go out and work with schools so we’re not done, but we’re extremely excited. What we’re doing right now is scratching the surface of needing to change an entire institution and system, which is a lot to tackle for a student org. But we can at least help a bit.”

While there are 18 members, Pendergast noted that still, there is a disproportionate number of people of color in the organization.

“I think that more people need to actively care about these issues,” she said. “Oftentimes, when diversity is brought up in our industry, everyone says ‘yes, it’s so important.’ Everyone loves to mention diversity in their projects. We love the diversity buzzword, the inclusive buzzword, but who’s here actively on the fields, trying to increase diversity in their own field? Who here is actively doing that? Not as many as I would like.” 

Bringing more diversity into the design industry, which is generally white, is essential to the organization.

“UW is promoting the Wisconsin Idea and its global impact but when you walk on campus you don’t see diversity,” Huey said. “Even though its stated, their actions don’t follow that. This organization is implementing and acting on our promises.”

“We believe in equity, not only equality,” Pendergast said. “Equity is so important in giving the marginalized folks a chance to excel compared to their white counterparts. For anyone who is either a design major at UW, a professional or a young person looking to go into design, their experiences are valid. We should all try to actively make a change within our own communities and outside our communities. We should also be trying to design for the future and making sure that we include everyone in the conversation.”