Abbie Walsh

Design demands diversity – let’s make sure we’re up for the challenge

On 2nd March, I had the privilege of appearing on a panel at an Accenture International Women’s Day (IWD) event. The overall theme for this year’s event was ‘Together at the Vanguard: Changing Business, Changing Lives, Changing the World.’

The opportunity was particularly poignant for me for a few reasons. First of all, I got to represent Fjord at an event that is really inspirational and in a line up of fantastic speakers all with a common goal – to embrace diversity at the highest level.

I was on the panel with my client Louise Smith, Head of Design for Personal and Business Banking at the Royal Bank of Scotland who we’re doing brilliant work with at Fjord London. I’ve also been working with Louise as her mentor over the last few months, which has been a personal delight for me, giving me the opportunity to share my experience with an inspirational client, whilst learning so much from her on the way.

The topic of conversation brought together some of my biggest passions, design, diversity and business change – and with the opportunity for Louise and I to talk about our own experiences as well as how we work together, it was a pretty incredible opportunity.

The panel guests all had different viewpoints, but a single focus in discussing what diversity means in a world where businesses have to change, and disrupt – or be disrupted.

Discussions started with a provocative challenge about the fact that the world believes that we’ll fix diversity before we see robots in the boardroom, whereas the truth is actually the converse. We heard, to pretty much widespread disbelief in the audience that robots indeed are already in the boardroom, whilst diversity is still a long way from being fixed.

I then had my chance to talk about something very close to my heart; design and its ability to positively impact lives and transform businesses. I suggested that – as digital technology and its uptake accelerate, plus design skills are increasingly in demand – design has a role in making digital a byword for diversity. I pointed out that, as an industry, design is by no means perfect, but that as a design leader, I take very seriously the responsibility for driving this. In fact, if you pop into Fjord London anytime, you’ll see that we’re already a very diverse bunch in many different ways and that from a gender perspective, we’re 50/50 split throughout the team, at all levels.

I went on to talk about how design could drive a more diverse workforce in the digital era by saying that I think this opportunity comes down to a few factors, such as:

Customers – Digital puts the power of choice firmly in the hands of customers, their needs and expectations are as diverse as they are. So, in order for businesses to be able to create impactful and relevant digital goods and services, they need to be able to understand and empathise with their customers. This is where design excels! After all, design is by its nature customer-centric and designers are great at getting into the mindset of customers using such skills as design research, ethnography and customer journey mapping.

Design itself – Great Design demands diversity – of thinking, of talents, of background and contexts. It’s up to us to keep driving this, through our internship programmes, through our interview process and by challenging ourselves to embrace people with new and different skills and mindsets all the time.

The host wanted to probe more about the working relationship between Louise and myself. She pointed out that the mentor/mentee arrangement we have is pretty unusual in a client/supplier situation.

Both Louise and I agreed that we felt that the relationship is very natural and Louise tied this back to the fact that supplier relationships in this era need to be much more equal partnerships. There’s so much we have to achieve together in order to be able to meet the diverse needs of people – and drawing on each other’s experience is vital to this.

I was also asked about disruption and its impact, which again gave me a chance to talk about how important design is in this time of change and how it opens the doors to diversity.

I said I believed that design requires a complete mix of ideas  – meaning the quiet voice in the room is heard and given equal value as all the others. This is because designing for a diverse and demanding customer base means being able to empathise with a diverse set of human contexts, needs and cultural references. And design thinking skills help solve ambiguous and non-linear problems prevalent in such a fast-changing environment as we find ourselves in today.

Louise then talked about how important it is to bring other influences into the bank in order to drive new ideas, better collaboration and a fresh influx of talent. She reflected on the fact that the RBS head office in Gogarburn has opened its doors to the start up community, who are now co-habiting this once exec-only space.

I reflected on the onset of the four-generation workforce, saying that this brings with it a conflicting set of expectations around what it means to have a successful career.

In the next 10 years, over 50% of the workforce will be made up of millennials and Gen Z, who bring with them a non-traditional viewpoint about work. These generations are far more interested in having an impact, thinking of each job as a tour of duty, rather than a career step. Employee experience and culture are valued over other benefits, so the design of the employee experience (EX) will become increasingly necessary to attract the best talent.

Louise also talked about the danger of diversity stereotypes and being too narrow in our definitions that make up the nuances of diversity. Saying that as a woman in banking – she probably wasn’t the first image that you conjured up in your mind. She believes that diversity has to start with an intention for collaboration and harnessing different viewpoints, whatever diversity segment we might happen to occupy.

We were asked about both being openly gay women in leadership. I’ve been lucky in my life to have escaped abuse and have been accepted most of the time, however I know that being open and honest about who I am is incredibly important for those who haven’t been so lucky. As a gay mum in a leadership role in design, I’m very much in the minority, but I think design is the discipline that owes it to itself to embracing all sorts of people..

So, a call to arms – it’s International Women’s Day on 8th March – so take this as a time to reflect on how we as designers are at the forefront of so many changes and that achieving true diversity should be another one of these.


Abbie Walsh

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